The transformation of Steven Smith
"I haven't changed too much, I've just learnt to be patient and trust my own game."
This is what Steven Smith has expressed on numerous occasions at press conferences and interviews around the world over the last year or so. It is difficult to comprehend. How can a batsman whose unorthodox technique was a laughing stock with fans, commentators and even coaches rise to the top of world Test rankings without altering his technique?
Trent Woodhill has a few explanations. He has seen Smith since he was 15. Woodhill was the coach at Sutherland Cricket Club in south Sydney where Smith emerged. He thinks what Smith says is not as clichéd as it might sound; he has indeed only made small alterations to the game that made him a prodigy in Sydney club cricket.
"From the start, Smith has always had a strong bottom-hand grip," Woodhill says. "When people with a strong bottom hand lift their bat up, it goes to about fourth slip. It is like how Indian batsmen's feet movement is minimal. For these players, if you bowl on fourth stump or off stump, that is leg side. These were the fundamentals for Smith growing up."
However, as Smith moved up through the ranks, he was encouraged to alter this method to get it closer to the coaching manuals. "Smith was fighting a technical battle with youth coaches from Cricket Australia, who kept saying, 'No, no that is playing across the line,'" Woodhill says.
This created doubts in Smith's mind, and all of a sudden he was more concerned about correcting himself instead of focusing solely on the ball. "If you are in the middle thinking where is my bat coming down from, is it coming down straight, you are already in big trouble," Woodhill says. He feels this is what happened during the 2010-11 Ashes at home. Smith was fighting his technique, and he was trying to play in a manner he was unaccustomed to.
The still images of Smith driving during the 2010-11 Ashes series and then during his golden patch in the last 12 months show lots of differences. Four years ago Smith kept leaving his bat hanging out to dry, and it resulted in edges behind the wicket. It was also evident that during that torrid time his bat would come down in an arc instead of straight, inside the line of the right shoulder as opposed to over it. That would open him up, which meant only part of the bat face was presented to the ball.
"The bat coming around will cause you to be slightly front on and also straighten your leg," Woodhill says. "If you are stiff, straight-legged, you can't move quick enough and it looks like you are beaten for pace or always trying to catch up with the ball." It was a period when Smith looked horribly out of form, and as Woodhill says, he was trying to change his basics.
"When you are unsure of your technique, you want to get out of the blocks early, react early, which results in getting out in front of the ball," Woodhill says. "This means you have lost all your power and your bat just hangs there. That is a perfect example of people getting out of form."
One aspect of Smith's batting that is obvious now is how straight the bat is in the last 10-20% of the downswing. It ensures he always meets the ball with the full face of the bat.
"In 2011, the last phase [of the batting action], where his bat is so straight in the last 10% of the downswing, would still have been there but it would have been moving a lot earlier, meaning he was already there but the ball was yet to arrive, so that meant all his body would have come around it," says Woodhill. "He was catching up to the ball, while now the right shoulder, right hip and right thumb are in synchrony. His body is thus coiled and ready to release momentum towards the ball.
"When I began my coaching association with Steven, it was about helping him understand what his strengths were in his own game. The unorthodox technique would have meant he was encouraged to alter it through the CA coaching processes, but at around 22, he would have gone, 'I'm sticking by what I have', and that has made a huge difference."
This is where Woodhill has the highest praise for the current head coach, Darren Lehmann, and batting coach Michael Di Venuto, who he thinks have got it spot on when it comes to coaching elite players.
"Diva [Di Venuto] and Boof [Lehmann] have done a splendid job with Smith and the others. They don't get in Steven's way. They have let him be with his own technique rather than change him, which has quickened the learning process in Test cricket.
"Now Smith would have been thinking about just feeling good at the crease, not thinking about his bat swing or anything like that. He has forgotten about technique and worried more about competing. That way he has improved his decision-making, he knows what his capabilities are."
That doesn't mean there haven't been alterations. Smith is playing the ball later than he used to but is getting in position earlier than he did. One minor adjustment, Woodhill points out, is the bend in his knees when he is waiting to face the ball, which allows him to get into a "power position" as the bowler releases the ball.
"Bent knees mean that he was in more of a powerful position to move," Woodhill says. "If you're standing up and look to push to off with a straight leg, it is harder than if you flex your knees slightly. It's about being stable at the crease, in that boxer position, wrists cocked."
While all these adjustments are perceived as technical changes, Woodhill feels they are minuscule and the very illustration of Smith's statement of not having changed much, just learning to be patient and backing his technique.
Woodhill recalls a conversation between him and Smith before the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 2013, where he made his maiden Test century. "He was asking about his bat swing and if it needed any alteration," Woodhill says, "and I just told him his bat swing seemed fine. The reason why he thought about it was that someone was trying to make him change it or commented on it."
Since then, though Smith has grown surer of his game, and Woodhill knows him to be a smart enough player. "He would have figured out that leg brace by himself," Woodhill says. "The more I speak to Steven as an adult the more I can sense he has an even stronger grip of his own game."
Watching Smith closely over the past year, the strong bottom hand still exists, the bat still comes down from fourth slip, the guard is on off stump, and while we can't see or hear it, the mind is clear. This is how the raw talent from south Sydney burst on to the scene, and it is the same principles that have made him the best batsman in the world.
"The great batsmen don't see the ball any quicker from release, but importantly they don't commit to a shot until the very end, so the body is not tangled and it is easy to move," Woodhill says. "They play the ball late, and their technique is shaped through repetition, over and over the same way. Importantly, it is about taking your time and holding your shape. Shape is about having maximum impact through the ball and playing as late as possible. Each player has his own unique way. Basically Steven Smith is doing that as good as anyone in the game currently."
Gaurav Joshi is a cricket writer based in Sydney