Steven Smith strays down leg
Popular perception would have it that Steven Smith has been batting like a dream all summer. Earlier this week a Sydney newspaper published a breathless piece about how he was averaging close to 93 across Test and ODI formats this season, with comparisons made to Sir Donald Bradman. Yet struggles to maintain rhythm and bat swing are never far away.
Paradoxically, the sense of being in the best of form can actually sow the seeds of losing it as confidence leads corners to be cut and adjustments no longer made. So it was for Smith during the ODIs that followed the India Tests: his trigger movement across the stump began to look more exaggerated than usual, exposing the leg stump.
It was struck by Umesh Yadav in a World Cup warm-up match against India, and there were to be other low scores against England at the MCG and New Zealand at Eden Park. But the combination of time in the nets - no tournament affords a batsman more chances to work on his technique between games than this bulbous World Cup format - and a move up to No. 3 in the batting order helped Smith to find valuable clarity.
The self-analysis brought a solution that has worked nicely in ensuing matches, as Smith has compiled three successive half centuries at first-drop. It is also a solution that has brought slightly puzzled looks from his team-mates: Smith is now taking guard not on leg stump, but outside it.
"I have moved my guard a little bit to leg so I am not moving quite as far as across and I feel I am back to where I want to be," Smith said. "I ask for leg stump and then I just pull it this way a little bit, so there is a mark in the middle of nowhere out there. It has fooled a few people, Pup [Michael Clarke] came out against Sri Lanka and said 'what's going on out there?'
"I watched a little bit of footage of my batting in the summer in the Tests and I was actually starting to go a little further outside leg and for some reason I forgot about it and I went back to leg stump and started moving across a little bit too far. I've got it back to where I want it now and it really feels good.
"I didn't feel out of form. I just felt like I was out of sync a little bit with a few of my movements. But that's back, my swing's back where I want it to be, so hopefully I can continue crunching India around the park. I picked that up myself - I watched a bit of footage and saw where I was and got it back to where I want it."
Smith's clear ownership of his game has been one of the features of his emergence as Australia's most bankable batsman. The ability to self-correct is vital in an age of constant travel and multiple teams, not least because as he was figuring a way to resume the scoring of earlier in the summer, the selectors and the captain Michael Clarke were sizing him up for No. 3.
"I have always said I enjoy batting at three and with Pup at four we just like to take our time and knock the ball around," Smith said. "That will work well against India with their spinners bowling quite a few overs in the middle, we can knock them around and give our power hitters the last 15 overs, ideally, to come in and do what they did against Sri Lanka, I think that is our blueprint to ideally perform."
One thing Smith's newfound position has done is push him towards the sharpest of mindsets, given that at No. 3 a batsman can find himself at the crease anywhere from the first over to the 30th. He admitted that as runs began to pile up this season it was easy to lapse into a mindset that every new innings is simply the resumption of the previous one, a sense of comfort aiding strokeplay but also allowing bowlers more of a chance.
"I think when you're on those sorts of runs you just need to think as little as possible and just try and go out and do the same thing over and over again," Smith said. "Each time you go out there, I think, when you're hitting the ball well you can kind of get stuck thinking you're out there on 30 or whatever before you've started. For me it's about starting my innings again the way I've started every time and trying to build an innings. After you get through the first 20 balls, things get a lot easier from there."
How easy they will get against India remains to be seen, and Smith acknowledged Australia will be facing a different combination to the one that could not beat them once - nor get especially close to doing so - in six encounters across the Test and limited-overs series. Nonetheless, he thinks there will still be some residue from those defeats, just as his own blistering form will count for something.
"I think we'll have a little edge over them with a few scars from the matches throughout the summer, they didn't beat us once," he said. "So I think that's going to be playing on their mind a little bit. They've been here for a long time now, they've been able to get accustomed to the conditions, the bounce we've got here compared to back in India.
"They have played some really good cricket throughout this World Cup, for us we have to be at the top of our game if we are going to beat them. They have got some good performers, some guys who are playing really well, but for us as a batting group if we can bat deep and get a big total batting first or second we will get over the line."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig