September 3, 2013

A modern-day Benaud?

Steven Smith has the talent to become a Test-standard bowling allrounder, the best of his type since Richie Benaud

Richie Benaud and Steven Smith are a generation or two apart, but both legspinning allrounders share early careers that are uncannily similar.

Smith has the talent, work ethic and belief to become modern cricket's Benaud. And he, like Benaud of yore, obviously believes that success at the very top can only be achieved by the sensible application of mind and body.

When he began with New South Wales, Smith was primarily seen as a developing legbreak bowler with an attacking brand of batting as an extra string to his bow. As time passed, Smith's bowling fell away and it was his batting that blossomed. However, his brilliant displays with the bat against England must have given him renewed confidence in his bowling, for at times Smith's tweakers worried England's most effective batsman, Ian Bell, more than any other Australian bowler apart from the lion-hearted Ryan Harris.

Smith has the talent to become a Test-standard bowling allrounder, the best of his type since Benaud. Due to a combination of factors his bowling has been largely underrated of late. He didn't bowl much in the Sheffield Shield in the Australian summer, and though he snared the wicket of Bell twice in one Test, Michael Clarke didn't use him nearly enough.

Any young cricketer would benefit greatly from learning about Benaud's rise in cricket: his work ethic, persistence and belief were an inspiration to a generation of youngsters. And the story inspires even today.

In the early days Benaud had to juggle his work as a journalist in Sydney with his ambitions as an allrounder. His working life began at the Sydney Sun, where he was initially given the task of handling reporters' expense accounts. Then he was guided into the hectic world of a tabloid daily by a couple of tough old hands at the paper. His experience embraced police rounds, sporting previews and results, and covering parliament - in fact everything that is the lot of a general reporter.

Benaud's journalistic day started early and ended a couple of hours before his cricketing colleagues knocked off, but he never wasted that time. Before every club or state training there would be the lone figure of a young legspinner wheeling away in the nets. His target was a handkerchief that lay on a good length, and all those lonely hours honed his accuracy and proved a huge boost to his self-belief.

Possessed of a high, fluent action, Benaud generated adequate spin, just enough to grab the edge, but his main weapon was the steepling bounce he extracted from all but the deadest of subcontinental pitches. Benaud believed totally in what he was doing and what he wanted to achieve, yet in his first 12 Test matches he scored just 280 runs (at an average of 14) and took a modest 22 wickets at 36, with a highest score of 45 and best bowling figures of 4 for 120. In contrast, Smith's 12 Test matches have produced 765 runs at 34.77, and in his limited bowling opportunities he has taken eight wickets at 48.62 with a bowling best of 3 for 18.

While these figures do not suggest a direct pathway to future greatness, Smith's brilliant unconquered 138 at The Oval was his coming of age in Test cricket. The 24-year-old Benaud's hurricane 78-minute century against West Indies in the fifth Test at Sabina Park in June, 1955 - against an attack that included Garry Sobers - was the turning point for him. In that series Benaud's bowling also began to come on nicely. Against the might of the West Indies batting - which included the three Ws, Collie Smith, Jeff Stollmeyer and Sobers - Benaud took 18 wickets for 485, at an average of 26.94. He also averaged 41 with the bat and even the doubters joined in in calling Benaud a future champion.

Smith is an athletic and versatile fielder who can field anywhere, even in the gully where Benaud excelled, but it is in his bowling that I think his priorities should lie

Benaud was lucky to have rubbed shoulders with team-mates such as Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, and Alan Davidson - all truly great players - just as Smith is fortunate to have played alongside Ricky Ponting, Mike Hussey, Clarke and the indefatigable Harris. The greats always inspire those making their way in the team.

Smith showed glimpses of Benaud's flair in lofting Jonathan Trott over his head for six to get to his maiden Test century. Among the others who would have taken such a risk, I can think of Rohan Kanhai, Viv Richards and Adam Gilchrist.

There is an excitement about Smith's cricket that goes way beyond the rapid improvement in his batting. He is an athletic and versatile fielder who can field anywhere, even in the gully, where Benaud excelled, but it is in his bowling that I think his priorities should lie.

There is a slight technical hitch with Smith. His lead arm splays to the left too early and that opens him up at the point of delivery. Australia is crying out for a genuine bowling allrounder. Mitchell Starc shows glimpses of turning into one, so too Ashton Agar, although his bowling is at this moment a long way short of the standard expected at Test level.

The Australian team currently has its fielding coach, Steve Rixon, a former Test wicketkeeper, looking after the spinners. "Stumper" is a good man with a terrific work ethic, but having a wicketkeeper mentor the spinners - in any grade of cricket - is ludicrous. I read Rixon had said that he had kept to a lot of good spinners, and so he must know a lot about the art. Well, I bowled to a lot of excellent wicketkeepers, including Barry Jarman and Rodney Marsh, but I don't think I am in any position to mentor emerging wicketkeepers.

If the Australian team wants an "in-house" spin-bowling mentor then it should be someone who knows a good deal about spin bowling and has bowled consistently well on the Test stage. Shane Warne and/or Stuart MacGill need to be working with the likes of Smith, Queensland's Cameron Boyce and Co.

Benaud gained inspiration from one of the great legspinners, Clarrie Grimmett. A ten-year-old Richie sat with his father Lou on a bench at the SCG in 1940 and watched in awe as Grimmett weaved a web of deceit about the NSW batsmen. He also noted the delivery Grimmett called his mystery ball, the one Bruce Dooland would years later show Benaud. It was, of course, the "flipper", which Warne went on to make famous. Richie must also have gained inspiration from Lou himself, who once took all 20 wickets in a senior cricket match in NSW.

Every Australian boy who grows up inevitably playing backyard "Tests" dreams of wearing the coveted baggy green cap one day. As a kid I, along with thousands of other Australian kids, had that dream. My mum and dad didn't leave me anything in material goods, but they did give me something far more valuable: an unfettered belief in myself.

Smith must have strong self-belief. While his batting is nearing the top shelf, he needs to work assiduously in the nets on his bowling. He would do well to work closely with Warney and MacGilla and seek the counsel of Benaud. Those who know their cricket envisage that Smith, with hard work and belief, will become the splendid Test bowling allrounder we all know is capable of turning into. Quite apart from the runs he scores, we all hope to be singing his praises when he starts bowling Australia to Test victories.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Android on October 1, 2013, 0:37 GMT

    Michael clarke isn't bowling Steve Smith enough so they can't say he's not getting any wickets and plus remember when they did bowl him in the ashes he got 3/18 which is really good

  • John on September 5, 2013, 12:06 GMT

    Please play Steve Smith in all 5 tests and please please bowl him as much as possible, thanks

  • Justin on September 5, 2013, 8:32 GMT

    Steve Smith = No runs = Everyone says to give up bowling and focus on batting

    Steve Smith = Getting Runs = Everyone says hes not bowling enough

  • Jack-Worrall on September 4, 2013, 23:35 GMT

    After Mallett's disgraceful comments on Nathan Lyon, on Ashton Agar's debut, he has lost any little credibility he ever had.

    Why is he still employed ?

  • Gordon on September 4, 2013, 17:06 GMT

    I agree with Ashely Mallet that Smith has great potential to become a test standard leg spin bowler BUT for this to happen he has to start bowling more in test matches. All the practice in the world will not replicate the pressure of bowling to quality batsmen willing to punish any bad deliveries. At the moment whenever Smith bowls a sustained spell (witness 2nd innings at Lords) the long hops and full tosses start to prevail and he becomes too much a liability. The way round this would be to use him for frequent short spells say like 2-3 overs a time but in virtually every session Australia are the field. That would give him the in-match development, enable him to be a shock weapon and not cost the team too much should there be an inaccuracy.

  • jaya on September 4, 2013, 16:27 GMT

    I have followed the author A.malett's career ,he was a great spinner of his era.We are lucky to learn from him about many facts about R.Benaud.Benaud is the greatest alrounder Australia produced.He could win a test for his side by his bowling skills and when the team's top order fail,he had the tenacity to defy and score big.And what a great captain he was for Australia(i rate him ahead of K.Miller). In addition he is most admired commentrator.A unique alrounder of the game.As a senior cricketer and a great spinner himself the author wants to encourage S.Smith, orelse everyone knows,he cannot be compared to the GREAT R. Benaud.

  • david on September 4, 2013, 15:11 GMT

    hes just another Cameron White whose bowling well hes not even bowling now. his batting has improved but cannot be considered a 3/4/5 batting position. the aussies are selecting T20 /odi players and pitting them into test cricket, with the hope that they by picking all rounders they are going to improve in one of the skills.

  • Dummy4 on September 4, 2013, 11:37 GMT

    A great read. Hope he reads it and takes the advice. Have said the same thing about his left arm as well.

  • Dummy4 on September 4, 2013, 11:23 GMT

    I would like to add Virender Sehwag's name to the list of players who are capable of taking such risks to reach three figures.

  • Phil on September 4, 2013, 9:40 GMT

    Love your work EdwardAnderson, like you i also predict a big showing from Smith, Warner and Khawaja in the home ashes, I have my tickets for the MCG and Adelaide test already, thinking of going to Sydney as well espeically on day 3 when its jane mcgrath day.