Two things were frequently said and written about Steven Smith‘s batting style when he started playing Test cricket for Australia:
One, that he walked too far across, and his bat came down from somewhere around gully. The combination of the two made him susceptible to incoming deliveries and an lbw candidate.
Two, with so much reliance on hand-eye coordination, he was bound to fail on seaming and turning pitches.
To be fair, these observations were spot-on, given Smith’s unique technique.
Teams across the globe worked out their plans against him based on these perceived weaknesses. They tried to bowl full and straight in the hope of breaching his defence and claiming his wicket via lbw.
Of course, it didn’t bear fruit, as we now know. Smith has been dismissed lbw to pace only a handful of times in his Test career. Batsmen with supposedly more organised techniques, like Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Cheteshwar Pujara are dismissed that way more often. That led to the first theory being junked.
In fact, observers then began to talk about how he was actually quite stable at the time of release, and how his front foot was always rooted on leg stump, which ensured that he was never falling over. As far as the bat was concerned, it did make a loop at the top of his backlift but was in perfect position in his stance (pointing to between keeper and first slip) and so came down fairly straight.
Seaming pitches in England and turners in the subcontinent were expected to vindicate the second observation, for Smith does throw his hands at a lot of deliveries. He sometimes even jabs at them while defending against spin. But that line of attack didn’t yield much by way of results in the bowlers’ favour either.
Like all great batsmen, Smith found ways to succeed in trying circumstances. His method of scoring runs also tells us that technique is just a means to an end and not the be-all and end-all of batting. His mental strength helps him channel his positive intent ball after ball, superseding any shortcomings of his batting style. He might not be the most pleasing batsman to the eye but he is a modern batting genius nevertheless. His methods are unique but they almost always work.
So how does one plan to dismiss Smith?
No matter how successful a batsman is, there must always be a plan to counter him, and Smith is no different. In fact, the greater the batsman, the more plans you need: one plan might work for a lesser mortal but not against a Smith or a Kohli.
Firstly, I strongly feel that the Indian bowlers should realise that all of Smith’s movements before the ball is bowled are insignificant. If anything, all that exaggerated movement only lures you into his trap – that is, make you bowl straight, looking for an lbw. It’s not easy to ignore but it must be done. It’s important to bowl the fifth-stump line and a length that’s asking him to come forward all the time. If you are to err, you must err towards bowling fuller rather than shorter.
Since the first Test is a day-night match, played with a pink ball, I’m assuming there will be a little more grass on the surface than usual. That must be used to your advantage as a bowler. The likes of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah have the ability to move the ball sideways after pitching and that’s most effective when batsmen have to negotiate it off the front foot. It’s not that Smith can never be dismissed leg-before but it’s important to not actively bowl looking for that form of dismissal. By that I mean bowl the line and length that are ideal for producing edges, and if the odd ball comes in and hits the pads, well and good.
The former Australian fast bowler and coach talks about the importance of getting your line and length right and plugging away
Considering Smith’s history against the short ball, you would want to bowl bouncers every now and then, but be mindful of not overdoing it. For players like Smith, an important part of their game is their ability to bide their time and see through a tough spell. The knowledge that it’s impossible for bowlers to maintain the same intensity and quality spell after spell empowers them. For India, considering that Ishant Sharma is not around this time to keep things tight, it’s even more important to resist the temptation of going overboard with bouncers – at least, as a primary plan.
It’s a given that Smith will get set at some stage and then India’s plans must change. At that point they might want to do to Smith what Australia have looked to do to Kohli – bowl a sixth- or seventh-stump line with six or seven fielders on the off side. You need to have total belief when adopting this plan, because sticking with it for long periods will have a large role in determining its effectiveness.
Once the Kookaburra ball gets old and the batsman is set, there’s a lot of merit in playing boring cricket. Test cricket has many phases and faces, and not all of them are pretty. The key to succeed in Australia as a bowling unit is to keep the game in your control for as long as possible. If you get too adventurous at the wrong time, there will be no coming back.
Last but not least, if the ball starts reverse-swinging, the leg-side trap is a viable option too. Though playing through the leg side is a strength of Smith’s, sometimes your strengths can trigger your downfall too. The leg-side trap is fairly tough to execute, for the ball must start from slightly outside off (say, fourth stump) and finish within the stumps, without actually drifting down leg. The success of this move is heavily dependent on the condition of the ball, for it’s nearly impossible to pull this off successfully if the ball isn’t reverse-swinging.
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