Decoding Steven Smith
For all his eccentric movements and mannerisms, when the Australian star actually plays the ball, he's in a good position to execute his choice of shot.
Whenever you witness a Steven Smith innings of consequence - which is most of his visits to the crease - the prevailing thought is; "How the hell does he do that?"
Smith amasses big scores in a variety of ways but most often his innings will involve seeing off a concerted period of good bowling then flaying the attack via an exotic range of strokes.
It's not uncommon for Smith to deposit a delivery pitched outside off to the deep backward square-leg boundary. Unlike some, he doesn't restrict his eccentric shot making to just the short forms of the game. In a recent Ashes Test, he smeared a delivery past cover point to the boundary while falling to his knees outside off-stump.
Hence the thought; "How the hell does he do that?"
How the hell does he consistently succeed, operating in a manner so different to everyone else it's as though he's playing another game?
For instance, when you watch Virat Kohli, Smith's challenger for the number notch on the batting totem pole, it's obvious why he succeeds. Kohli utilises a traditional technique to amass mountains of runs. So traditional that he eschews modern shots like the reverse sweep and the ramp in the short forms because he doesn't want them infiltrating his Test match batting.
Kohli, a role model
Kohli is a great role model for young players searching for a way to build their game for international success. He's also a headache for coaches who theorise on modern methods and disparage traditional approaches as being "old time cricket".
Smith and Kohli are adequate proof that batting is very much an individual exercise and whatever works for you is the correct method. And therein lies the success to Smith's batting; he's fashioned a method that works for him and he's been mentally strong enough to resist all attempts to alter his style. For all his eccentric movements and mannerisms, when Smith actually plays the ball he's in good position to execute his choice of shot. All times that is, apart from when he's in the process of falling to his knees and smearing the ball to the boundary.
When asked the other day, after yet another blistering knock, if he deliberately tries to drive bowlers nuts, he smiled and replied; "Isn't that the idea of batting?"
Smith has certainly achieved that aim and gone a step further. During the Ashes series it was patently clear that the England skipper Joe Root had no clue how to dismiss Smith. Even flooring him with a bouncer and putting him out of the third Test didn't work; he returned just as prolific and annoying as he was before the blow to the head.
And it wasn't just the England bowlers and skipper who were flummoxed by Smith's success. The guard at the St Johns Wood station made an announcement as fans alighted for the Lord's Test; "Anyone who knows how to dismiss Steve Smith please report to the England dressing room."
That frustration was caused by Smith destroying all England's plans to either restrict or dismiss him. Smith's exaggerated movement from leg to off before the ball is delivered, plus an exceedingly strong bottom hand grip appear to leave him vulnerable to an lbw dismissal.
One step ahead
Despite appearances, Smith is rarely dismissed in that manner and relishes a ball on the stumps, a delivery he regularly manoeuvres through the on-side field. However, stack the on-side field to restrict his scoring and, despite his grip, he can carve the ball through the off-side with the best. It's as though Smith is one step ahead of the bowlers and the opposing captain; he's already thought of that plan and he's armed with the perfect antidote.
That could well be the case as his teammates swear they often hear the tap of a bat on the bedroom floor coming from Smith's hotel room late at night. I'll bet the opposing bowlers aren't sleeping either but their bouts of insomnia aren't anywhere near as productive as Smith's.
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