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India on notice: Steven Smith 'finds his hands' again after disappointing IPL

He does not believe the India attack will be able to replicate the short-pitched approach of Neil Wagner last summer

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
No matter how many "controllables" Cricket Australia have tried to control in the lead-up to a Covid-affected summer, how many biosecurity protocols, meetings with government or compromises with broadcasters, there will always be imponderables of sport that dictate how the season plays out.
To the evident delight of Australia's cricketers and coaches returned from the IPL and currently quarantining in Sydney ahead of the ODI, T20I and Test series against India, perhaps the most important of them all clicked into place over the weekend: hold the front page, because Steven Smith has figured out how to hold his bat again.
That he has been able to return to the simplicity of long training sessions in between quiet hotel contemplations already looks to have been a blessing. Away from the relative cacophony of the IPL in the UAE, where he was captain of an unsuccessful Rajasthan Royals campaign, Smith has been able to find the clarity of mind and body he needs to hit a million-odd balls and, in his words, "find my hands".
"I was pretty disappointed actually with my batting throughout the IPL," Smith said. "I never really got into a good rhythm, but I think the last few days actually I've found something. People close to me that know me well, I've found my hands the last few days, which I'm extremely excited about.
"It's taken me probably about three and half or fourth months to do it, but found them now, which is pleasing and I actually look forward to going back to the nets again this afternoon to have another hit and just reinforce it and get started again in a few days' time. Theoretically it is a simple thing, but it's just getting that feel and the look of the bat behind my toe the right way and the way my hands come up on the bat.
"It's hard to explain but it just hasn't quite been right until probably two days ago, I found a little something and everything just clicked in. I had a big smile on my face after training the other day, because I walked past [Australia's senior assistant and also Rajasthan head coach] Andrew McDonald I think it was and said 'I found 'em again', I was really excited."
All the way through his career, including Newlands and after, Smith has always retained an almost childlike love of batting and at the same time a sense of mystery to it: Smith knows how good he is but there are times when even he doesn't know exactly how to find his best, other than to face countless throwdowns and hope that the old rhythm comes back. He is known for a recurring nightmare where he is timed out because he can't find his bat, and has often spoken about the need to find his hands and all else that flows from that.
The weeks prior to the 2017-18 Ashes series were another such time. "The first Shield game or two I remember I was struggling with it…I remember I found it in the game against Western Australia at Hurstville Oval, something sort of clicked halfway through that innings I reckon, and then I was good to go," Smith said.
"It's taken me a lot longer than usual, I don't know why, whether it was a big [break], I pretty much didn't bat for about four months during the start of Covid-19, maybe a bit longer, but I'm glad I've been able to find something the last few days."
The training time in Sydney has been valuable too for Smith to reflect on how his IPL approach will need to be massaged into something more rounded for the ODI and T20I series that prelude the Tests. "I think for me in white-ball cricket, it's about playing my game in the way that I do it," he said. "I think in IPL I got a bit caught up with trying to be a bit too powerful and that's not quite my game I don't think.
"You know there are those players around the world who can hit sixes at will. I'm probably not one of those. For me it's about hitting proper cricket shots and hitting the gaps and manipulating the field as much as I can. I probably went away from that a bit throughout the IPL. I know that's the best way that I play. So keeping my thoughts clear and hitting the ball in my areas where I want to hit them. I still think there's a need for a player like that in the short form of the game that's for sure.
Smith's excitement inevitably features at least some element of making up for the summer he lost in 2018-19, when he could do nothing more than watch as the Australian batting order was unable to compile the sorts of tallies required to pressure India often enough. Certainly the Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney Tests look as though they could easily have come to different conclusions with the addition of Smith's presence at No. 4 for the hosts.
"I don't know if it makes me hungrier. I'm always pretty hungry to go out there and perform well," Smith said. "I guess it was tough having to watch from the sidelines, particularly with the team not doing as well as they would have liked. And losing that series was difficult to watch knowing that I felt like I could go out and have an impact if I was playing. That was hard but certainly looking forward to this series. Two of the top teams going at it, two quality pace line-ups, two quality batting line-ups, and I think it makes for an interesting and exciting summer."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig