India v Australia, 3rd Test, Ranchi, 1st day March 16, 2017

Smith's runs trump aesthetics

Steven Smith is a classic example of the essentials of batting at the crease and the fact that some may find his game seemingly unaesthetic takes nothing away from its effectiveness
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Steven Smith is the first Australia captain to score two centuries in a single series in India © Associated Press

He moves across the stumps and tempts the bowlers to target his pads but the moment bowlers take the bait, he whips them for runs. Steven Smith is a classic example of how batsmanship is essentially about getting bat to ball, keeping the good balls away and punishing the loose deliveries. The fact that it looks ungainly or unaesthetic counts for precious little in the real world. Smith is the only Australia captain to score two Test centuries in a series in India and, perhaps, has already played one of the finest knocks by a visiting captain.

Trigger movement
Smith has an exaggerated back-and-across trigger movement that takes his back leg and his head outside the off stump, too. In theory such a movement should lead to the front foot falling across, and therefore the front leg blocking the path of the bat on the downswing. To complicate it further, Smith's back-lift also comes down from gully instead of coming down from second-third slip. While everything in conventional technique is stacked in favor of leg-before dismissals, Smith has made changes to rule out that option. Even when his back leg takes him on the off stump, he keeps his front foot firmly rooted on the leg stump, and therefore it never falls across. When bowlers see him covering the stumps, they see only his back leg and it's almost impossible to hit the back leg regularly. The most incredible and unconventional bit about his batting is that in spite of bringing the bat down from gully, he rarely misses the line of the ball. In 96 Test innings, he has only been dismissed lbw by a pace bowler five times.

Playing close to the body
With the head on top of off stump and the front leg on leg stump, there's a likelihood of staying too far away from deliveries outside off and, therefore, going only with the arms. Smith is exceptional in either leaving or allowing the ball to come close to him whenever the ball is full. He goes hard with his hands only to deliveries that are short and wide. Still, bowling a sixth-stump line while dragging him forward is the best form of attack for right-arm fast bowlers in the early part of Smith's innings.

Steven Smith uses the acute angle created by bringing the bat down from gully to find the gaps © AFP

Handling spin in different scenarios
In this series, Smith has shown his full range of responses against spin on two radically different surfaces. The pitch in Pune dictated an aggressive and adventurous tactic, and he came out striking from the outset. He started by using his feet to push the ball in the long-on region and the moment R Ashwin tried to cut that single by bringing the fielder to mid-on, he started sweeping and didn't mind playing the reverse-sweep, too. Like most aspects of his batting, his forward defensive stroke is also very unorthodox, for his front leg doesn't bend at the knee. He has managed this aspect by putting the bat in front of the pad and by going deep inside the crease at the first possible opportunity. Smith has also been exceptional in finding gaps off the back foot. Against Jadeja, he kept playing inside the line that allowed the straighter deliveries to hit his bat and the ones that turn kept missing the outside edge regularly.

Since the pitch in Ranchi was relatively flatter, he employed a very orthodox method to counter Ashwin and Jadeja. Whenever he played against the spin, he used his feet to get really close to the pitch of the ball. Not once did he play the sweep or the reverse-sweep, shots he played often in Pune. He did add the on-the-rise square drives against spin in the third Test.

Angles
By moving across in the crease and bringing the bat down at an angle, Smith manages to create really acute angles to find the gaps. He not only manages to drag the balls from outside off but also puts them on the right of the fielder at midwicket. Similarly, he walks down and across to spinners to place the ball on the left of the midwicket fielder. Unlike most batsmen, he manages to present the full face of the bat while playing it through the on side. And whenever it hits the inside edge of the bat, it invariably goes really fine, once again making it difficult for bowlers to set the field. He holds the bat with the bottom hand moved inside, which makes him a bottom hand-dominated player. But, for someone with that grip, he still manages to drive through the off side.

We are conditioned to appreciate the aesthetics of batting and therefore, we use it as an important guideline to judge greatness. This should not stop us from acknowledging Smith as a modern great, as his numbers clearly state.

Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • thebatsmansHoldingthebowlersWilley on March 17, 2017, 12:41 GMT

    As an Englishman it pains me to say it but Smith is a machine. He looked completely out of his depth when he first played Test cricket, so it really is a remarkable achievement to have improved so much that he's now the #1 Test batsman. I'm a huge Joe Root fan but Smith has the edge because he rarely fails to convert a 50 into a 100, rarely gifts his wicket when well-set. Smith is unorthodox and sometimes does look ungainly, but just like Bradman he has opens up the legside and has the knack of hitting gaps. In this innings the Indians made the mistake of bowling full length reverse swing to get LBW or bowled - as this article points out Smith rarely gets out LBW. They should have been bowling 5th 6th stump and drying to get away movement. Jeez it's an easy game from my desk :)

  • Drew12 on March 17, 2017, 8:53 GMT

    SARANGSRK is giving Smith the greatest of compliments. He is holding him up to the highest of standards which is why his criticisms of Smith are of just the very slightest of things, trivial really. This is pretty much the nicest thing SARANGSRK has ever said regarding any Australian. I hold his comments to a different standard also.

  •   Saikat Kar on March 17, 2017, 7:50 GMT

    @SARANGSRK If the bowlers of today can't target Smith's weakness, it's not his fault. And I like how you just brushed through saying that Kohli has minor flaws in his technique while Smith has some huge problem. So far Smith hasn't looked vulnerable to anything. Kohli however is more prone to get out the outside off stump delivery that you wanted Smith to face. Kohli too has scored a vast majority of runs on flat pitches. Australian bowlers have decimated the opposition on those flat pitches. No point trying to discredit anyone, all of them play well. And clearly Smith is way ahead of his competition at the moment. I see a ugly looking stance, but no flaws whatsoever.

  •   Saikat Kar on March 17, 2017, 6:54 GMT

    I would gladly bat ugly for 2 days than hit a glorious Cover drive and get out the next ball. Smith is unorthodox, not exactly ugly. He certainly doesn't have a faulty technique. Otherwise, he wouldn't have scored this many runs. And to those who say he scored them on flat Australian pitches? Kohli scored seven of his hundreds there, yet his fans use it as a humongous weapon to say he can score in foreign conditions. Now, Smith has scored runs in India, what would you say?

  • sarangsrk on March 17, 2017, 6:03 GMT

    @CHRIS_P, acknowledge that he gets runs, that he leaves and plays balls very judiciously. No one is denying that. To call him a great/legend, well, that's a grave insult to the actual greats and legends of the game whom I have seen over last 30 years. It is not his fault that the pitches or bowlers can't target at the faults (every batsman has some) in his technique. However, if the bowlers can get that right and if he is targeted in those weak zones, I don't see how he will cope up because the basics of his footwork are wrong as per the textbook. Others (like Kohli) have minor faults or more mental adjustments to make which is easier because the fundamental batting technique is still close to textbook. With due respect to your knowledge, I have seen and played cricket enough myself to be dragged down calling him a genius/great/legend. He is a freak at the best. If you still believe you are wasting your time, probably time to get off high horse. Cheers mate.

  • dr_pcvm on March 17, 2017, 5:49 GMT

    @DUNGER.BOB Completely agree with you!

  • Chris_P on March 17, 2017, 5:17 GMT

    @SARANGSRK Every batsman, form test level down to park cricketer has form dips be it one innings or several. I have even followed a duck with a century myself. The simple fact is that he has outscored every other player he's played with or against on the same grounds, same conditions, & yet he outscored them by a fair margin & you still think he is not good enough? Chopra said that was an option to bowl to him but all through his article he praised him with such terms such as 'finest knocks by a visiting captain" , " he rarely misses the line of the ball.", "Smith is exceptional in either leaving or allowing the ball to come close to him" & many more. Now if a former test player & noted commentator, who does know something about the game can acknowledge it & you can't, what does that say about you then? I have some good posts with many of your fellow countrymen who actually understand the game, so not sure why I am wasting my time with you. Cheers lad.

  • sarangsrk on March 17, 2017, 4:21 GMT

    Looks like I ruffled lot of Australian feathers. Well, @CHRIS_P, he didn't have dip in form like Kohli did because Kohli didn't score much even on the flattest wicket in Nottingham when even tailenders from both sides scored 50. That is drop in form. Smith conveniently scored runs when the pitch was flat and English bowlers could not open him up like they did him in that 60 all out. Even Akash chopra points out "bowling a sixth-stump line while dragging him forward is the best form of attack for right-arm fast bowlers" or in other words, getting him to cover drive. He is not the best cover driver as you think, He just chooses correctly which balls he can drive. On flat wickets, he can easily do that. This is what pacers are lacking to force him to do. Also, trying to attack his stumps without significant late movement of the ball will not work because he is used to being attacked on that line. Hence, I miss the likes of Akhtar who could reverse at that pace to knock over leg stump.

  • Shaggy076 on March 17, 2017, 4:09 GMT

    I dont know what is ugly about it, all his shots are done with immense timing. There is nothing blunt about his batting and he is an absolutely joy to watch. I dont understand why certain people only enjoy watching batsman that conform to their idea of technique.

  • chandrasekhar on March 17, 2017, 3:49 GMT

    Aesthetics is nothing compared to effectiveness in any game , more so in Cricket. Smith is an extraordinary talent, no questions about that. Kohli is extremely talented batsman and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Effectiveness wise probably Smith is ahead at the moment. Only time will tell if both these greats have a long careers and retire after two decades who is statistically greater! I say that even though Muralidharan was way ahead of Warne I number of wickets , people still believe that Warne is the greatest! Patriotism, personality traits , nationality all have their roles in that kind of bias!!

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