Ben Jones analyses the latest epic in the Australian’s canon.
And so, he rolls on, increasingly seeming like nothing can stop him. Ban him, he returns. Hit him, he comes back. Yesterday, England all but dismissed him, before the reprieve from Leach’s no-ball. Even when they get him out, Steve Smith keeps batting.
For England, it was a grim day, but not an unexpected one. From the moment that Steve Smith walked out – and the equivalent moment in every other Test he plays – an air of inevitability draped itself over proceedings. He was never going to do anything other than pile up runs, he never looks like doing anything other than dominating.
One potential reason for this is that, above all, Smith doesn’t make mistakes. Other batsmen batter the opposition attacks more mercilessly, or demonstrate a wider range of technical skill, but few are able to occupy the crease for so long while giving so few chances away. This double century was no different. Just 9.3% of Smith’s shots in this Test were edges or misses, the lowest percentage he’s recorded for any of his six centuries in England. It is a flat deck, and you would expect most players to be batting with reduced risk, but the point stands. He batted with less risk than we’ve ever seen him do in this country.
Going deeper, the reason for this security appears to be a clarity of mind, a complete understanding of how he wants to score his runs. The cliché of Smith leaving balls outside off stump only to then nurdle the straighter ball away is accurate, and demonstrates this clarity. Don’t do one thing, so that you can do something else. Simple.
We can see this self-denial elsewhere. As is often the case, at Old Trafford Smith didn’t score through the ‘V’. He doesn’t play straight, he doesn’t need to. His scoring areas are mid-wicket and square leg, and through the covers, 154 runs of his runs came through those zones; he knows what he wants to do, so clearly, and is willing to let everything else go in order to play in that way. His two main shots are that high handed drive, executed almost entirely with his arms rather than his wrists, and the nudge off his pads. Two shots, fired from a gun with a seemingly endless supply of bullets.
That clarity of thought is equally evident in his shot selection. Against England’s battery of right-arm seamers, he was completely in control of when he wanted to attack – essentially, only if they erred away from a good length. Almost none of his attacking intent was against length balls, keen to either rotate or leave the ball in that zone, admit defeat and let the bowler win that battle. He was always going to win the war.
The pattern was different against the spinners, but the clarity was the same. Against Leach, Denly and Root, he would attempt the odd forceful stroke off a length, but the vast majority were when the spinners drifted too full, and Smith could attack with little to no risk.
His clarity of thought contrasts strongly with the confusion he creates in the minds of the opposition. England weren’t particularly good at approaching the task of bowling to him in this match, but Smith does funny things to you. Just 29% of the deliveries they sent down to him were on a good length, the sort of deliveries you’d normally want as your staple; he has never faced a lower proportion of good length balls in a Test match. Smith makes bowling teams treat him differently, deviating from the plans which are deemed the default, moving to short ball tactics, leg theory, hiding the ball. He convinces people not to bowl in good areas.
Smith will likely make at least two more centuries before the end of this series, such is his current level of output. He has achieved a level of batting control and execution that few thought possible in the modern era, and he has done it through calm, assured, single-minded focus on playing in one particular way.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.