The return of Steve ‘The Invincible’ Smith to Australia’s Test squad has been nothing short of a blessing in disguise for an Australian side that was gradually slipping into an abyss. He single-handedly batted Australia to an Ashes-leveling campaign on English soil, the first non-losing Ashes series result for Australia in England in nearly two decades.
His herculean efforts with the willow in that series were Bradmanesque from every angle, probably even better at times and his performances put him in a league of his own. 774 runs, fifth highest in Ashes history, in 4 Tests (7 innings) at an average of 110.57 including a double hundred, 2 more hundreds and 3 fifties – these are mind boggling numbers achieved in any era. But to achieve them in an era dominated by the instant stardom of T20 cricket and mushrooming leagues and faulty techniques and deteriorating temperaments in red-ball cricket in what is still the most coveted series in history – makes this achievement of Smith even more special.
The right-handed freak accumulated more than 35% of the total runs scored by Australian batsmen in the series barring the 2nd Test in which Smith was benched due to a delayed concussion. He marked his return to the national side in a domineering fashion. The sight of seeing Steve Smith getting dismissed became a rare sight as English bowlers struggled day in day out to send him packing back for the dressing room.
If that suggests anything that could be an indication of upcoming torrid times for a Pakistani bowling attack visiting Australian shores for a two-Test series. Steve Smith is impeccable in the red-ball format and he is nothing short of a gargantuan obstacle for any team touring Down Under. But even in the best in the business can be downed through some pre-planned tactics that are wholly executed.
Smith has an immensely unorthodox batting technique that is not found in any of the coaching manuals trotting around the globe. The former part of his batting stance involves Smith literally having his front foot way outside leg stump with a somewhat open stature. Just at the time of the ball being delivered, he shuffles across to a more usual position and twirls his front shoulder to maneuver the ball to both off and on sides. Interestingly, his bat makes nearly 90-degree angle with his legs when he first takes his guard and positions himself to face the ball. Because he moves his back foot across to off-stump, he can line up balls just around that area and milk them into the leg-side for runs.
The excessive shuffling across the stumps has lured several bowlers over the years to bowl dead straight to Smith and pin him in front of the stumps. Pacers usually get carried away seeing him walking across and try to spear it into his pads. Smith feeds there all day long and rarely misses a ball targeted onto his pads. He has accomplished complete mastery of the flicks, the jabs through mid-on and even the late leg glances behind deep fine leg.
A better ploy against a batsman like Smith would be to drag the ball wide outside off and lure him into driving away from his body. Smith might come across as someone who is not that fluent through the offside but you would be mistaken to believe this without seeing his awe-inspiring off-side strokeplay. He may not be pleasing to the eye but he gets boundaries from ridiculously tight angles and hardly misses out on anything in his scoring zone. Therefore, if you are marginally outside off and hoping to nick him off, you’re just making a fool out of yourself.
Over time, captains have employed the short-ball barrage as a go-to strategy against him first up. We saw Jofra Archer getting a piece of Smith in the recent Ashes with some fiery short-pitched stuff. Despite the excessive belligerence from the bowlers, Smith has developed innumerable resistant plans to see these bowlers off without losing his wicket in the process.
Pakistani bowlers could also try positioning some catchers in the onside and try bowling a straight line to Smith. That can play on his mind as he might think of reducing his movements with the risk of getting caught in that region. Once again, though, this could be our one of the many assumptions. In actuality, he is a class act and he is in the form of his life and could cause some serious headaches to Azhar Ali and his bowling battalion.