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Match Analysis

Another Steven Smith fifty, another Steven Smith non-hundred

He's batting as well as ever, but teams are packing the leg side and making him work much harder than ever before

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Steven Smith keeps out a yorker  •  AFP/Getty Images

Steven Smith keeps out a yorker  •  AFP/Getty Images

Something is not quite right with Steven Smith, and yet he's not playing badly by any stretch.
There are a number of players in this series who would gladly sign up for scores of 78, 72, and 59 in three innings. David Warner is chief among them. Marnus Labuschagne, with two inexplicable ducks in four innings, is another, while Travis Head is the only Australia batter on tour who hasn't passed 30.
Maybe we expect too much of Smith. But it seems he's no longer Superman, piling up centuries at will, and no one can quite work out why.
Smith himself looked bewildered as he trudged off after being trapped lbw in Lahore. He was so plumb he walked before Ahsan Raza had a chance to raise his finger. It was his 7th 50-plus score in his last 14 Test innings without a century. Since the 2019 Ashes, Smith's opus, he has passed 50 on 10 occasions in 26 innings but has only registered one three-figure score. In total, he has just one century in his last 29 Test innings dating back to his epic 211 in Manchester in 2019.
Lahore looked the venue where his 14-innings drought would end. Smith has long been Australia's man for a crisis, but he has not often entered in a crisis since the emergence of Labuschagne.
Here he entered at 8 for 2 after Shaheen Shah Afridi burst through Warner and Labuschagne in the same over to leave Australia reeling after winning the toss. Smith looked like a man on a mission. He caressed three glorious boundaries in his first 15 balls, including two sumptuous off-side drives. The mannerisms were back. The senses were heightened. He even spotted the roving camera moving at deep midwicket while playing a defensive stroke off Hasan Ali.
When Smith stroked his third dazzling drive, off Hasan, to move to 19 from 27 balls the headlines were being readied.
But what happened next was indicative of what has plagued Smith for two-and-a-half years. He stopped scoring. He went 22 balls without a run. That included a dropped catch when he attacked Nauman Ali's first ball to him. Smith crushed a drive at a catchable height back to the bowler, but it was too hot to handle.
Smith broke the shackles by lofting Nauman straight down the ground in the 18th over for his fifth boundary. But that would be the last boundary he would score until the 51st over. He scored just 30 runs from 106 balls in that period. Usman Khawaja, on his way to another outstanding 91, struck seven fours and a six during that time.
Run-scoring has become a grind for Smith, even accounting for surfaces as slow as these in Pakistan. Where once he cruised through the middle overs of an opening day, rotating the strike at will and finding the boundary with ease, he has now been made to earn every run and it is taking a toll.
Since the 2019 Ashes, Smith has a strike-rate in Test cricket of just 40.80. Up until the end of the 2019 Ashes, his career strike-rate was 56.38. For Smith to score a century at a strike-rate of 40.80, he needs to face 246 deliveries, approximately, whereas previously it took, on average, just 177.
Since the 2019 Ashes, he has faced 177 balls or more in six innings, including in the first two Tests of this series, and has just one Test century to show for it. On the previous 27 occasions when he faced 177 balls or more in Tests, he posted 24 centuries, and he added two more hundreds in innings where he faced fewer than 177 deliveries.
Teams have become better at containing Smith. They have been smarter with their leg-side fields to cut off his scoring zones. His main batting coaches, Trent Woodhill and Michael Di Venuto, had set him up technically to score heavily from good length balls in the fourth-stump channel. His back-and-across movement and unique grip set him up to pick opponents apart through the leg side as they tried to hit his pads.
But the slowness of the surfaces in this series and the canny field settings have caused Smith's scoring to grind to a halt. The challenge of facing an extra 69 balls to score the centuries he so desperately craves is taking a mental toll.
It's forcing mistakes Smith would not previously make. In Rawalpindi, he tried to sweep a length ball from outside leg and gloved a catch down the leg side. In Karachi, he tried to force off the back foot through cover point with only minutes remaining in the day, and edged to slip. And today, he got his bat tangled against his back pad while trying to work a ball off middle stump from Naseem Shah and was plumb lbw, having ground his way to 59 from 169 deliveries.
"I thought he batted really well today," Khawaja said. "He was stiff. His bat got stuck in his pad.
"You bowl that ball against Steve Smith he's hitting it 99 out of 100 times.
"I'm sure it's frustrating in some respects. He is in my opinion the greatest batter I've seen in my era, averaging 60 throughout pretty much his whole Test career.
"It's so funny. We're talking about Steve Smith probably not scoring hundreds but he seems to be getting 70, 80 every game and doing it very easily. That's just the class that Steve Smith has. I'm sure there's a big score coming and then once he gets a big score there will be more big scores.
"The odds say that he's going to get a big one very soon."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo