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News Analysis

Back to the future: the remaking of Steven Smith

His recent changes have shown his hunger to get better even though he was still scoring consistently

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Steven Smith pulls, 1st Test, Perth, 1st Day, November 30, 2022

Steven Smith's position against the short ball has been key to his batting  •  Getty Images for Cricket Australia

"I'm back, baby!" That was Steven Smith's declaration after one cover drive during his unbeaten 80 in the first ODI against England in Adelaide a fortnight ago.
He's back alright. Back in a big way as he helped himself to an unbeaten double century against a hapless West Indies attack.
"I think from the first one-dayer against England, where I sort of implemented the work that I've been doing, it felt really good straightaway," Smith said following his 200 not out in Perth. "I was able to obviously spend a bit of time in the middle in those games and I've just taken that same form or same feeling into this Test match."
This was far from his greatest innings given the standard of bowling he was facing. It is his second in as many Test matches after breaking an 18-month drought in Galle in July. But it was one of his smoothest and most fluent and his first since he's been able to bed down the changes he started making in Sri Lanka. He himself has proclaimed he is batting the best he has for six years, which has raised some eyebrows among his team-mates given the near-unparalleled heights that he hit in the 2019 Ashes.
"He averaged 110 in a series in 2019 where I think the conditions were tough, it was nipping around and he made batting look ridiculously easy," Marnus Labuschagne said on Wednesday night. "From an onlooker that's the best I've seen him bat. But in terms of feel, he would say that looked ugly. That's just the open stance, playing the nipping ball, being a bit more front-on, that's what he felt was right for that time. But he averaged 110 or something for the series, so I don't really think it matters how Steve Smith bats, he's going to find a way to score runs."
In terms of look and feel, this was anything but ugly. It's significant that perhaps his most dominant innings since that 2019 Ashes would come in Perth. It was here in late 2019 that New Zealand, mainly through Neil Wagner, found a method to negate Smith's Bradman-esque run of scoring.
"I probably didn't notice it straight away," Smith said of Wagner's tactics becoming his kryptonite. "I've only noticed it in the last probably six to 12 months. But I wanted to get back to how I was probably batting in 2013-14. I was a lot more side on there.
Whilst I was still contributing to the team, I wasn't probably getting the big runs that I'd like to get
"I was pulling balls in front of square like I was out there in this innings and I think when I'm doing that I'm getting myself into good positions. I felt as though for a few years there my [bottom] hand was so far round the bat, closed, and I was getting front on with the chest, which all I could do was really help them on their way behind square rather than use power in front of square. That's essentially it. I'm certainly in much better positions."
In Perth, he equaled Sir Donald Bradman's tally of 29 Test centuries looking like a different player. He's spoken previously about how he has changed his starting point, his trigger movement and his body angle at the crease.
But on top of giving him more scoring options, his scoring rate is recalibrating back to the level that made him the world's most prolific Test batter.
Between the 2019 Ashes and the tour of Sri Lanka he struck at 42.55 in Test cricket, compared to his career strike-rate of 54.07. He was still facing enough balls to be scoring heavily, but his open stance, open chest, exaggerated back and across technique and closed bat face was shutting off his scoring zones in front of the wicket through both the off and the on side to the point where he faced more than 200 balls four times but reached three figures just once. Run-scoring had become painstaking work for him. He wasn't failing, but he wasn't converting at his normal rate.
In Perth, West Indies simply could not contain him. He moved swiftly to 50 in 74 balls on the opening day. He actually slowed down on day two, in part because of having to restart his innings, but also because West Indies bowled better areas. But he cruised to a century in 180 balls, with only 10 boundaries. He strolled to his double-century in 311 balls.
"I suppose the reason for my slight change in technique is because I was unhappy with where I was at with my batting," Smith said. "Whilst I was still contributing to the team, I wasn't probably getting the big runs that I'd like to get.
"But I think now with the way I'm able to play and the way teams have bowled against me, I've had to adapt a bit and where I'm at with my body and my hands I feel like I'm opening up the whole ground as opposed to probably just behind square on the leg side, and I'm able to hit the ball in different areas, which I probably was able to hit previously. So I feel in a good place."
He now sits fourth on Australia's all-time list of century-makers alongside Bradman. He is one behind Matthew Hayden and three shy of Steve Waugh. There's every chance he could knock them off by the end of this summer. But he was less confident about Ricky Ponting's record of 41 Test centuries for Australia.
"That's a long way away, I'm not sure," Smith said. "I'm 33, 34 next year. Not sure how long I'll play for. But we'll see, 41 is certainly a long way away. There are a lot of Test matches I guess in the next year for us so we'll see how many I can get. Hopefully, I can get a few more in that period of time. We'll go from there."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo