Smith finds form with show of force
Rajasthan got what they wanted from this game. The team has spoken about the need for consistency in the batting; Graeme Smith, who averaged 13 before this game, got among the runs today and his new opening partner Naman Ojha looked pretty solid too. Smith had not been himself for a while; he had a quiet last three games against Australia in the ODI series and flopped in the first seven here in the IPL. Today, he announced his return to form - good news for South Africa as much as Rajasthan - in typically ebullient manner.
Watching Smith bat is not the most joyful act. There is nothing graceful about his batsmanship but it almost mirrors his steely mind that is so evident and celebrated in his captaincy. A tough and hard captain doesn't usually conjure up visuals of lyrical batting; as Allan Border grew into his captaincy, he seemed to get more crab-like in the crease. It was almost a fight within himself. Smith can be a power hitter but he is not your flowing Yuvraj or Gilchrist. Everything about him suggests force; muscle over wrist, batsman over bowler, mind over matter.
It begins with his stance, and how he tries to bring the bat down - a deliberate, almost very conscious, move to get it straight down, as if he is almost willing himself to get it right. It doesn't seem to be a natural movement. More often than not, the straight drive goes to mid-on. He has a mean flick shot but even there he has turned that graceful movement to something hauled off the assembly line. Young boys are not going to fall in love with the game after seeing him bat but his peers will admire his guts and want to play as tough as him.
Today offered more evidence of his tough and calculating mind. He was about to take first strike but once he saw it was the offspinner Ramesh Powar who had the ball, he asked Naman Ojha, the right hander, to do so and go after the bowler. With Ojha getting off to a flier, Smith didn't have to worry about runs or preserving his wicket. He was not in great form when he started off, the ball meeting the edge more than the middle, but he fought on.
The field setting for him was perfect, Mahela Jayawardene stationed at short mid-on to catch the error from the bottom-hand powered drive down the ground. And it almost worked: Smith hit one hard and Jayawardene almost pulled off a blinder to his right. Once let off, though, Smith broke away. He hit four fours in the next eight balls, which included his favourite flick and a slap past point, and charged along to unfurl powerful sweeps and carved drives before he holed out to long-on. The pitch helped him; it was faster, the ball came on nicely to the bat and he prospered.
Later, Jeremy Snape and Darren Berry spoke about how delighted they were with Smith and Ojha's partnership. "They played proper cricketing shots. Smith has been very professional in his preparation and it was just matter of time before the runs came. This was the strip on which he played the Test against Australia and was feeling good ahead of the game." The strong-willed Smith is back and, if he is consistent, Rajasthan are bound for the final four.
Karna S is a freelance cricket writer