Ben Jones analyses the Steve Smith method.
Brisbane, November 24th, 2017. Steve Smith raises his bat to his teammates on the balcony, arms aloft, bandana dripping with sweat. He screams in celebration of another century as if he hasn’t got room for the emotions inside him. He looks full of anger, of drive, of passion and assuredness in what he was trying to achieve, almost overflowing with it.
Birmingham, August 1st, 2019. Helmet off and facing the balcony once more, he looks empty. Drained, exhausted, relieved – and understandably so. This was an innings which lasted 493 days, not the 219 deliveries it says on the scorecard. This was a knock that was long in the making, and Smith had nothing left.
There was a clear difference between the man raising his bat at the Gabba, and the one at Birmingham today. The person underneath all that protective gear, the person who exists 24/7 away from a cricket field, has no doubt changed beyond measure since that fateful third Test in South Africa. It would be inhuman to not be affected, to never quite be the same.
And yet, from a purely cricketing perspective, this version of Steve Smith the batsman was the exact same version who batted in Cape Town all those months ago. The quirks, the ticks, the mountains of runs. When you get a big comeback, you want to hear the hits.
Generally, we talk about bowlers laying traps, but that’s exactly what Smith does. He lures the bowlers into doing exactly what he wants to do. He props up an upturned cardboard box with his bat, leaving his stumps underneath as ever more enticing bait; the seamer rushes in, knocks the bat, and the box falls. You’ve been Smithed.
It’s a distinctive approach, and iconic one. For the first time in a Test, today Steve Smith had a number 49 on his back. We know why we have these numbers, introduced to help identify players, for fans and commentators to pick players out from the mob. But really, Steve Smith doesn’t need a number on his back. You’d know it was him from his silhouette alone.
England know this, and they weren’t able to stop him. They tried to play on that “weakness”, the area just outside off stump where he “only” averages 50.53. They kept putting the ball in that area. A staggering 45% of their deliveries to him before lunch were on a good line and length, testament to their control and patience. They kept waiting.
Then he’d shuffle over, leave the ball with a flourish, start fiddling with his kit and walk away to re-focus his mind. It happened over and over again, until England began to bowl straighter, denying him the right to leave it by targeting his pads and stumps. Of the first 50 balls they bowled to him, 10% would have hit the stumps; of the next 50, 29% would have.
And of course, then it gets whipped through square leg. Whenever England actually bowled at Smith’s stumps, he attacked them, and punished them.
Everything went squarer than you’d expect, or expect for any other player. Everything was played with softer hands than you can imagine. Until he unleashed at the end of the day, Smith didn’t so much hit the ball as encourage it to go in a broad, general direction. Only one of his Test centuries has seen more runs made through the legside.
Those soft hands were allowing the ball to come to Smith. Today, he made contact with the ball on average 1.68m from the stumps, 24cm later than the rest of his team. David Warner had begun the day batting so far out of his crease that the umpires warned him, his own method clear in his mind. Not for the first time, Smith went another way.
But of course he did, because that’s what Steve Smith does. He takes a different path to success, and it invariably gets him to where he wants to go. Smith averages 112.85 on Day One of Test matches; time and time again, all over the world, he sets games up with aplomb. He is the backbone of Australia’s side, hence why they’ve slumped in his absence.
There were a few ugly hoiks towards the end of the day, but they were necessary in the circumstances. When he was allowed to play normally, he barely made an error. An attempted slog against Moeen was the first time he played and missed when attacking today, that came at about 5 o’clock. He was cautious for the first 150 balls he faced, then went off. Before reaching his century, he attacked 21% of the balls bowled to him. After that, 53% – he barely attacks that much in T20.
Almost a year to the day, Virat Kohli played a very similar knock; refused to play outside off stump, waited for the bowlers to come to him, punished them whenever they erred too straight. When partners became scarce, he went through the gears and drove India up to what could easily have been a match-winning score. It was a captain’s knock. Or rather, it was a leader’s knock.
Captaincy is a bit of a cloth around your bicep, a scratch of ink on a scorecard. Leadership, is what Steve Smith showed today. To come back and mark out your guard as if nothing has changed, and produce one of the great Test centuries, is showing your team the way in the best manner possible.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.