February 28, 2013

Deconstructing Graeme Smith

How has South Africa's captain lasted so long with a technique that shouldn't work in Test cricket?

When at 22, Graeme Smith was charged with leading South African cricket following the Cronje storm and Shaun Pollock's matter-of-fact captaincy, not many envisaged this unorthodox, upfront, untested player would bring back to their cricket its lost loyalty and pilot the team in a whopping 100 Tests.

That is an epic stat, and Smith is the first in the history of the game to acquire it. So much so that his batting successes, which have been tremendous, look a bit pale in comparison.

Going only by his style of batting - a strong bottom hand, stiff foot movements, and an unhealthy affinity for the on side - no one would have handed him a lot of Tests. But Smith has, first with his bat and then with his astute mind, rewritten the rules of consistency.

It's an extraordinary feat to not only survive but also thrive in Test cricket without having changed a technique that is considered un-Test like. In fact, Smith's skill has made quality bowlers look completely clueless at times, for their good balls to other batsmen are run-scoring opportunities to Smith.

Is it his captaincy that builds the batsman in him, or is it the player in him that leads by example? That's a tough one to answer. From a technical vantage point, though, this is how he does it.

Few have mastered the art of decoding the angles bowlers bowl better than Smith. He has a reasonable back-and-across movement to all fast bowlers, which allows him to get inside the line of the ball. Since he covers all three stumps even before the ball is bowled, most bowlers get lured into attempting to hit his pads, because he will be trapped in front if he misses. But Smith seldom misses balls pitched within the stumps.

To complement their lines of operation within the stumps, bowlers crowd the on-side field, but even that doesn't work on Smith, because he has the ability to create unbelievable angles with his bat. While most batsmen turn their wrist at the point of impact, Smith brings the bat down with the blade facing the on side. At times the leading edge of his bat is facing the bowler even before the point of impact. Conventional field placements simply don't work with Smith, for his method isn't conventional. Even the most astute bowlers have been sucked into this trap and have bowled to his strengths - on the legs.

He also knows how to deal with changes in angles when bowlers switch sides. Whenever a right-hand bowler goes around the stumps, Smith goes further across and works even the balls pitched outside off through leg. By doing this, he makes sure that if he's hit on the pads, it's always outside the off stump.

Whenever a right-hand bowler goes around the stumps, Smith goes further across and works even the balls pitched outside off through leg. By doing this, he makes sure that if he's hit on the pads, it's always outside the off stump

For an opener who doesn't cover-drive, it's an achievement to last over 100 Test matches, especially when you play most of your cricket on seamer-friendly pitches. The most common mode of operation for new-ball bowlers is to bowl in the corridor outside the off stump to induce edges off the front foot. But since the cover drive isn't Smith's most preferred shot (because his dominating bottom hand and limited front-foot movement make him susceptible to nicking), he exercises immense self-control to avoid playing it. But while he rarely attempts to cover-drive balls that aren't full, he's always quick to latch on to anything that's short and wide. He's a ferocious cutter of the ball, and that, somewhat makes up for his lack of fluency on the front foot through the off side.

Where to bowl to him?
It's imperative that the bowler guards against the lure of trying to hit Smith's pads. Instead, focus on the channel outside off, with the length on the fuller side. If you err in line, you must err towards off and if you err in length, it must be fuller. While Smith is at his best against right-arm bowlers operating from over or around the stumps, he finds it difficult when a left-armer bowls to him from over the stumps, because that bowler has the option of coming close to the stumps and bowling straight on the off-stump line, which doesn't give Smith the angles he likes to work with. That's why Zaheer Khan has enjoyed an upper hand in their duels.

No matter how close a right-arm fast bowler gets to the stumps while bowling over the wicket, it's nearly impossible to bowl a straight ball that pitches on off and finishes on off, because the straight ball tends to go through to the slips. Similarly, it's impossible to come close enough to the stumps while bowling around the stumps; and bowling from the edge of the crease creates an angle that Smith is happy to work with.

It's relatively easier to contain Smith if you have a good left-arm fast bowler in your team, but if you don't enjoy that luxury, it's prudent to devise an off-side strategy and stick to it for as long as possible. If you can't get Smith out, try not to fall into his leg-side trap.

Playing 100 Tests is a huge milestone. Smith has not only played but captained in as many. He'll be remembered for both, and that is rare.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Corne on February 28, 2013, 19:47 GMT

    Hussain, Smith averaged 39.5 with 2 centuries and 5 fifties in his last season of 18 innings.

    The previous season he averaged 48.75 with 2 centuries and 3 fifties from 15 innings.

    The season before that he averaged 47.00 with 2 centuries and 3 fifties from 14 innings.

    For the last 3 seasons his averaged 44.4 with 6 centuries and 11 fifties in 27 tests (47 innings). Scroing 1954 runs.

    If you want to make bold statements about a player, at least research your facts before criticising a man who just captained his country for 101 test matches.

  • Nadeem on February 28, 2013, 18:56 GMT

    Chanderpal is another example of unorthodox batsman with long test playing record. It does not matter how good or bad your technique is as long as you provide the result as batsman or bowler or as captain. Smith has done great job as captain as whole. Great job Smith. I salute you for making #1 test team in the world.

  • Dummy4 on February 28, 2013, 18:07 GMT

    "It's an extraordinary feat to not only survive but also thrive in Test cricket without having changed a technique that is considered un-Test like."

    I would love to know what Smith would have to say if he writes an article on Akash Chopra. I would accept suggestions and points from some one like Dravid who has tons of runs himself but not from Chopra who has not scored too many runs at test level himself.

    Its a disgrace for some one like Smith who has scored so many runs and i feel sorry about this.

  • Dummy4 on February 28, 2013, 15:45 GMT

    Smith has averaged less than 40 for the last 3 years, and about 36 for the last 2 years. he has only scored 4 hundreds in nearly 2 years. thats about 30 innings. the way averages is calculated is misleading, a rolling or moving average should be used. He has benefitted by scoring big at times, while being in bad form for long periods. but because he is captain, he can stay on. a average of 36 for 2 years is bad, he should be dropped.

  • Dummy4 on February 28, 2013, 14:53 GMT

    I just find it very hard to believe for some one to even doubt Smith's technique or say it should not have worked? if it worked, then that is the right technique.... Smith has been successfully around for years as one of the best test openers. Technique is over hyped, look at Sehwag, Dhoni, Gayle, Gilchrist, all of them are not technicians but are highly effective when it comes to scoring runs which is all that matters in cricket.

  • Lwandile on February 28, 2013, 14:14 GMT

    @Rygwyn..you are completely wrong on that one. Smiths winning mentallity will see him go on well into his late 30's. Its because of the fact that he knows what shots not play that will see him keep up his standards for another 6 or 7 years.

    Before he retires from ODI cricket in the next two years you can expect him to do a "Mathew Hayden" and focus on bullying the attack in his later years.

  • Tim on February 28, 2013, 13:31 GMT

    In it's simplest form, batting is about being able to make good connection with the ball. Other factors pale against this one point. So what if he is ugly, it clearly works. As a Proteas fan I reckon one of our failings has been that we are too textbook, too orthodox. The oppostion can see us coming from a mile off and we find it difficult to counter something a bit different. But since Graeme has come to the helm this has changed and SA cricket has become a lot more rounded. I hope he can get his average up to 50 before he retires.

  • Adam on February 28, 2013, 11:15 GMT

    I think it goes to show that being a successful batsman is less about achieving classical technical perfection and more about understanding your own game and your own technical limitations. Smith's technique is only effective because he knows what shots he can play and what shots he can't, and he sticks absolutely rigidly to this method. Its a lesson for all cricketers whether they're 11 years old or on the verge of Test selection: study your own game, base your game plan around maximising your strengths and minimising your weaknesses, and once you have formulated a method that works, stick to it like glue.

  • Taushulu on February 28, 2013, 10:17 GMT

    Like Rafael Nadal, Roy Keane and others, Smith's sheer will to win and determination makes him an exemplary ambassador for his sport. a fine, fine player.

  • Simon on February 28, 2013, 10:12 GMT

    Smith is a great player who, in an age of Ponting, Tendulkar and Lara has often been underrated. I mean, even in his own team he is up against Kallis and Amla! But he has performed consistently, and it goes to show that just because you have an unconventional technique doesn't mean you cannot make it at test level. Back in the day, they believed Bradman to have an unorthodox technique! However, what he lacks in orthodoxy with his batting, he sure makes up for it with his textbook captaincy!