'When Smithy is batting you just let him be'

Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson, Peter Siddle and Adam Voges on Steven Smith's genius

Interviews by Alex Malcolm and Andrew McGlashan
Steven Smith is a modern marvel and often referred to as the best since Bradman. Of the 17 players with more than 9000 Test runs, he has the highest average of 59.56. On the eve of his 100th Test match, ESPNcricinfo spoke to four players - Usman Khawaja, Shane Watson, Adam Voges and Peter Siddle - who have batted alongside him at various stages of his career, and occasionally been in the opposition, to find out what makes him so good.

What is Smith like to bat with?

Usman Khawaja (10 century stands with Smith, partnership average 60.51): He doesn't really say much and I know what he's like. I don't really speak to him much. 'How are you going?' 'Good', 'Anything?' That's as deep as our conversations get unless something really sticks out. Smithy really locks in, he zones in, I know he does so I just let it be. We've batted pretty well together, had a lot of partnerships since I've been playing for Australia. I understand when Smithy is batting you just let him be.
Shane Watson (Two century stands, partnership average 62.37): Steve is just so assured of his game that whatever anyone threw at him, he knew he had the skill to combat it. He was always very, very assured of what he needed to do, what the conditions were, and how they were trying to bowl to him. That confidence was always there. A quiet confidence.
You just knew that the bowlers are going to have to do something pretty special to get him out. It wasn't an over-the-top energy, or arrogance, or anything like that. You can tell he had it and was ready to just go out and take them on.
Adam Voges (Three century stands, partnership average 60.33): The main thing that stood out was just his ability to understand what the opposition were trying to do to him and be able to combat it. You always felt that he had things under control when you were batting with him. That was the general sense that I got with him. And when you feel like your partner is in that space it probably helps you as well.
Peter Siddle (Three half-century stands, partnership average 37.25): Batting with him at Edgbaston [in 2019] and just seeing first hand the frame of mind that he gets into and the space that he's in when he's out in the middle, it's different. It just becomes all about batting.
He just gets so focused that even the chats between overs were very limited. It was usually me doing the chatting and I think he just gets into a different place. Obviously, he feels comfortable in the way that he knows how to make runs, and it does feel like he's in a different place than all of us when he's out there batting. It just felt like he was at a different level in terms of his ability to understand how the game was being played and how he could go about it, and the rest of us just went on for the ride.

What makes Smith so special?

Watson: The thing that probably stands out to me the most is just his ability to be able to adapt his game to how bowlers are bowling to him.
For example, if a bowler starts bowling a little bit more to middle and leg stump then he'll just shuffle across to the offside a bit more and just keep working into the legside. If they start to bowl a bit shorter then he'll just make his adjustment to be able to either get inside of the line or just make little adjustments in his setup, so he's got access to the ball.
Most other batters will just continue to bat the same way, react and trust their instincts and trust that that will be good enough to be able to get through different plans of attack from the opposition bowlers. So that's the thing that has always stood out to me, is just how adaptable his game is depending on the conditions or how the bowlers are trying to bowl to him … it's a freakish skill and it's a reason why he has been able to find ways to get through different situations of games and come out on top a lot of the time.
Voges: Contact points. He is able to hit the ball under his eyes from a technical point of view. He gets himself into a position where he is able to then manipulate the ball where he wants it to go. And that's the art of scoring. Being able to hit the ball where the fielders aren't, and that's his great strength, his ability with his movement patterns, with his hands, with where he hits the ball, that just gives him that unbelievable ability to hit good balls and be able to score off them.
Khawaja: Consistency, averaging 60 after 100 games. And his average hasn't dropped, other than the start where he was batting lower. He's been unbelievably consistent. For me that's why, in my personal opinion, he's the best Test batter in my era. It's hunger, work ethic, understanding the game, understanding your skills. He's got a very good cricket brain, especially when it comes to batting, understanding bowlers and what they are trying to do. He's also got a skillset to back that up. He's just got that something extra which a lot of players don't have, hence why players don't average 60 throughout their careers.
Watson: He just hits a lot of balls. He has an insatiable appetite for hitting balls. I didn't play the Test match, but he got 215 at Lord's in 2015 and before the second innings of the Test match, he still had an hour's net of throw-downs, which blew me away considering he had batted for a long period of time and batted incredibly well to get 215. He wasn't saying 'I'm going to freshen up' or 'I'm good, I'm hitting the ball nicely.' He still wanted to do what he needed to do in the lead-up to that second innings in the morning. It's obviously one of the reasons why he's able to bat for long periods of time. And he's unrelenting with it.

What's it like watching opposition bowlers try to get him out?

Siddle: It's quite phenomenal to see how the game changes when he's out there. The confidence in the opposition definitely drops a lot when he's in, especially once he's been in probably for 20 balls. Initially, they probably think they're a chance but once he's locked in and that first little period is done the confidence in the whole group drops.
They go to plan B, plan C and they just kept changing. He just goes about his business and I think that's probably the thing that makes him so great, is when the opposition change plans and try different things it does tend to draw out different shots and make you play in a different way. But Steve has that ability to continually play his way and it sort of draws teams into bowling in the end how he wants them to bowl, which I guess is why he's been so successful.
Khawaja: I've only been on the opposition a few times. He scored a hundred in one of them. It's funny, Smithy just makes the game look very easy at times. Even watching him at the World Test Championship, he scored a hundred first innings and he batted beautifully. In the second innings I batted for an hour and thought it was a bit of a grind, but he just made that wicket look so easy and it wasn't. It was going up and down a bit. India have good fast bowlers but he made them look like club cricketers for about an hour and a half. We looked up and he was 30 off 30 balls. That's Steve Smith, when fast bowlers are bowling he makes them look so slow. It's a skill to have.
Siddle: He is weird to play against. It's hard to keep your consistency as a bowler. He's just so patient. And he waits for you to make mistakes. The way he bats tends to make you make more mistakes as well. He's getting into positions where you think you can search a little bit more and get him out a certain way. And then next minute he's hit a couple of boundaries off you, you've leaked and he's away and the partnership is away. It's very frustrating.
Voges: You can understand why [bowlers try and bowl straight to him] because if he does miss it, he's out. But he just never misses. So the temptation is always there. And it's clever from a tactical point of view. Bowl there if you dare to, knowing that it was a genuine strength. He always puts the temptation there in front of the bowler to go straight and he doesn't miss.