Two things were often said and written about Steven Smith’s batting style when he started playing Test Cricket for Australia:
One that he walked too far, and his bat came down from somewhere around a ravine. The combination of the two made him sensitive to incoming deliveries and a lot of a candidate.
Two, with so much reliance on hand-eye coordination, he will probably fail to sew together and turn pitches.
To be fair, these observations were remarkable, given Smith’s unique technique.
Teams around the world have worked out their plans against him based on these perceived weaknesses. They tried to perform straight and hope to break his defense and claim his wicket with lbw.
Of course it did not bear fruit, as we now know. Smith was fired lbw for stepping only a few times in his Test career. Batters with supposedly more organized techniques, such as Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Cheteshwar Pujara are fired more often. This caused the first theory to be discarded.
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 legs, which ensured he would never fall. As for the bat, it made a loop at the top of its back lift but was in a perfect position in its stance (pointing between guard and first slip) and so went down quite straight.
Sewing pitches in England and turners in the subcontinent were expected to justify the second observation, as Smith does throw his hands to many deliveries. He sometimes even stings at them defending against a spine. But even that attack did not yield much in favor of the bowlers.
Like all great batsmen, Smith found ways to succeed in trying circumstances. His method of winning races also tells us that technique is only a means to an end and not the whole and end of beating. His mental strength helps him channel his positive intention ball after ball, replacing any shortcomings of his batting style. He may not be the most pleasing batsman, but he is nevertheless a modern batting genius. 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 must always be a plan to counter him, and Smith is no different. In fact, the bigger the batsman, the more plans you need: one plan might work for a smaller mortal but not against Smith or Kohli.
First, I strongly feel that the Indian bowlers need to realize that all of Smith’s movements before the ball is bowling are meaningless. If anything, that exaggerated movement just lures you into his trap – that is, make you straighten a bowl, looking for lbw. It’s not easy to ignore, but it needs to be done. It’s important to push the fifth-stump line and length that asks him to move forward all the time. If you make a mistake, you must make the mistake of bowling fuller than shorter.
Since the first Test is a day-night match, played with a pink ball, I guess there will be a little more grass on the surface than usual. That should be used to your advantage as a bowler. Fans of Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah have the ability to move the ball sideways after throwing and this is most effective when batsmen have to negotiate it with the front foot. It’s not that Smith can never be fired, but it’s important not to actively seek that form of dismissal. By that I mean to push the line and length ideal for producing edges, and if the strange ball comes in and hits the pads, fine.
Jason Gillespie: ‘You have to be ruthless with your discipline when you bowling to Steven Smith’
Considering Smith’s story against the short ball, you’d like to bully goalkeepers from time to time, but be careful not to exaggerate it. For players like Smith, an important part of their game is their ability to wait their time and see through a difficult spell. The knowledge that it is impossible for bowlers to maintain the same intensity and quality spell after spell entitles them. For India, given that Ishant Sharma is not around this time to tighten things up, it is even more important to resist the temptation to cross overboard with goalkeepers – at least as a main plan.
It is assumed that Smith will stand at some stage and then India’s plans need to change. At the time they might want to do to Smith what Australia was looking to do to Kohli – push a sixth or seventh stump line with six or seven players on the outside. You need to have full faith when you adopt this plan, because staying with it for long periods of time will play a big role in determining its effectiveness.
Once the Kookaburra ball ages and the batsman is placed, there is a lot of merit in playing boring cricket. Test cricket has many phases and faces, and not all of them are beautiful. The key to succeeding in Australia as a bowling unit is to keep the game in your control for as long as possible. If you are too adventurous at the wrong time, don’t come back.
Last but not least, if the ball starts to reverse-swing, the leg-side trap is also a viable option. Although playing through the leg side is Smith’s strength, sometimes your strengths can also cause your fall. The leg-side trap is quite difficult to implement, as the ball has to start from a little outside (e.g. a fourth stump) and end inside the stumps, without actually drifting down a leg. The success of this movement depends a lot on the state of the ball, because it is almost impossible to achieve this if the ball is not inverted.
Former Indian opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Intern: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash