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