Two things were commonly said and written about Steven Smith’s batting style when he first started playing Test Cricket for Australia:
For one thing, he went too far over and his bat came down from somewhere near the gutter. The combination of the two left him vulnerable to inbound deliveries and an lbw candidate.
Second, because he relied so heavily on hand-eye coordination, he had to fail at sewing and turning pitches.
To be fair, given Smith’s unique technique, these observations were spot on.
Teams around the world worked out their plans against him based on these perceived weaknesses. They tried to roll full and straight in hopes of breaking his defenses and claiming his wicket over lbw.
Of course it has not borne fruit as we now know. Smith was fired LBW for just pacing up and down a few times in his testing career. Batsmen with supposedly more organized techniques like Virat Kohli, Joe Root, and Cheteshwar Pujara are more likely to be fired this way. As a result, the first theory was rejected.
In fact, watchers then began to talk about how stable he was at the time of his release and how his forefoot was always rooted on a stump, which made sure he never fell over. As for the bat, it looped at the top of its back lift but was in the perfect position in its stance (pointing between the goalkeeper and the first slip) so it fell off pretty straight.
Sewing shops in England and lathe operators on the subcontinent were expected to confirm the second observation as Smith throws his hands at many deliveries. Sometimes he even nudges them while defending against spin. But that line of scrimmage didn’t do much to favor the bowlers either.
Like all great batsmen, Smith found ways to succeed in difficult circumstances. His method of scoring points also shows us that technique is just a means to an end and not the be-all and end-all of hitting. His mental strength helps him channel his positive intention ball by ball and remove any shortcomings in his striking style. He may not be the most pleasing hitter on the eye, but he’s still a modern hitter. His methods are unique, but they almost always work.
So how do you plan to fire Smith?
No matter how successful a batsman is, there always has to be a plan to counter it, and Smith is no different. The bigger the batsman, the more plans you’ll need: a plan might work for a lesser mortal, but not against a Smith or a Kohli.
Firstly, I strongly believe that Indian bowlers should realize that all of Smith’s movements before the ball is thrown are insignificant. If anything, all this exaggerated movement will only lure you into its trap – that is, you have to roll straight and look for a pound. It is not easy to ignore, but it has to be done. It’s important to roll the fifth stump line and a length that tells him to come forward all the time. If you want to be wrong, you have to be mistaken about bowling rather than shorter.
Since the first test is a day-night game played with a pink ball, I’ll assume there is a little more grass on the surface than usual. That must be used to your advantage as a bowler. Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah have the ability to move the ball sideways after pitching. This is most effective when batsmen have to negotiate it from the forefoot. It’s not that Smith can never be fired, but it is important not to actively seek this form of firing. By that I mean the line and length that are ideal for making edges, and if one or the other ball comes in and hits the pads, well and good.
Jason Gillespie: “You must be ruthless with your discipline when you bowl in front of Steven Smith.”
Given Smith’s history against the short ball, you’ll want to throw bouncers every now and then, but make sure not to overdo it. For players like Smith, an important part of their game is the ability to take your time and weather a tough spell. Knowing that it is impossible for bowlers to maintain the same intensity and quality from spell to spell strengthens them. It is all the more important for India to resist the temptation to go overboard with bouncers – at least as a primary plan.
It goes without saying that Smith will eventually be hired and then India’s plans will have to change. At this point, you might want to do to Smith what Australia did to Kohli – throw a sixth or seventh stump line with six or seven outfielders offside. In adopting this plan, you must have a full belief that sticking to this plan will play a huge role in determining its effectiveness.
Once the kookaburra ball is old and the batsman is set, there is a lot of merit from playing boring cricket. Test cricket has many phases and faces, and not all are pretty. The key to success in Australia as a bowling unit is to keep the game under control for as long as possible. If you get too adventurous at the wrong time, there is no going back.
Last but not least, the side leg trap is also a viable option when the ball is swinging backwards. While playing through the side of the leg is one of Smith’s strengths, sometimes your strengths can also trigger your downfall. The two-sided trap is quite difficult to perform as the ball has to start from the outside (e.g. fourth stump) and end inside the stumps without actually drifting down the leg. The success of this move depends heavily on the condition of the ball, as it is almost impossible to do it successfully if the ball does not swing backwards.
Former Indian opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The insider: deciphering the craft of cricket. @ Cricketaakash