2nd Test, Day 1: Steve Smith’s unconventional style reaps rich rewards
When Steve Smith was brought into an ailing Australian team in 2011 he described his role as ‘to make sure I’m having fun and that everyone else is having fun.’ The fun was all England’s (and their supporters) as the bowlers exposed his crude, clumsy technique. Four years later he has the same method, bat waving about erratically, jumping across his crease like a man stepping over a puddle, but, on a completely lifeless Lord’s pitch, the fun was all his (and Chris Rogers’.)
Unconventional players are often the hardest to bowl at. Moving targets are difficult to lock on to. A notorious example from the previous generation was Derbyshire’s Kim Barnett. He had a similarly unconventional style, standing outside leg-stump and then leaping across to off stump as the ball was delivered. There was always a tendency to bowl outside off stump thinking he wouldn’t get over in time. But he invariably did, and worked balls off the stumps through the legside. Coaches might have muttered about his unorthodoxy, but he scored more runs for Derbyshire than anyone else in history.
Smith now has eight test centuries in the last 18 months. All scored with great panache, to the bewilderment of bowlers who can’t work out how he does it. He looks vulnerable, and yet he never gets out. He hits across the line, but he never misses.
Perhaps England’s tactics need a rethink. They are convinced Smith is susceptible to what they call fifth stump line – six inches outside offstump. They concentrate on a channel there, trying to make him chase balls that he should leave. They have looked at the stats, and worked out that he can be dismissed that way, caught by wicketkeeper or in the slips. What they perhaps should factor in is that he has been out like that in 10 of his last 23 completed test innings, but he has averaged over 80 in that time.
Jimmy Anderson bowled an admirable spell at Smith just after lunch, plugging away on that fifth stump line, eliciting the occasional false stroke as Smith essayed a drive without moving his feet much. Ben Stokes even induced a flying edge from such a shot that just carried to Ian Bell. Like many slip catches at Lord’s down the years it wasn’t accepted. It was the only genuine chance he gave.
For the most part Smith defended carefully, thumped anything wide and short through the covers and picked up runs through mid wicket. Bowlers are reluctant to bowl straight at him because he seems to score off those balls with such ease. But it might be worth a try. The trouble with the fifth stump line approach is that it permits only one mode of dismissal: caught. The stumps become almost irrelevant. By bowling at them – with more protection on the legside perhaps – then bowled and lbw are possibilities too.
England may cite the fact that, in Smith’s prolific run of form – over 2000 runs in the last 16 tests – he has only been dismissed leg before or bowled a handful of times. But that might be because no one has tried to get him that way for any sustained period. That said, the only person who could remove him from the crease on that lifeless pitch would be a sniper.