A few days before the ODI series between India and Australia began, Steve Smith fired a warning shot to the tourists, stating that he had ‘found his hands’ and that he intended to make the most of a prospective purple patch. To that end, the Australian began like a house on fire, notching successive 62-ball tons, meaning that the Indians endured the wrath of Steve Smith, yet again, after a brief hiatus in 2018.
Since the ODI series though, Steve Smith has aggregated a paltry total of 84 runs across six innings, with three of those coming in the ongoing Test rubber against the Indians. More worryingly though, those displays have smacked of the indecisiveness and the lack of conviction that plagued Steve Smith during the IPL.
To put things into perspective, in the 2020 edition of the IPL, the Australian looked a bundle of nerves each time he batted – something that the cricket-watching population has become unaccustomed to, considering the poise he portrays at the crease.
In fact, those performances seemed to be the nadir of a relatively steep ebb for Steve Smith – a low he had seemingly overcome with consecutive centuries in the opening couple of ODIs.
Unfortunately for the Australian though, those fears seem to have sneaked into his batting again, thereby forcing Steve Smith to perhaps ‘lose his hands’. That it has come at a time when the Australians are craving for his run-scoring pedigree, makes the entire narrative more intriguing.
Thus, with Steve Smith scoring a grand total of 2 runs across three Test innings, which incidentally, is lower than what Jasprit Bumrah has accumulated, perhaps the time could be ripe to delve deeper into the issues that have actually plagued him. After all, a lean Steve Smith period is as common as a free lunch, isn’t it?
In the IPL, Steve Smith often looked to impose himself on the opposition, without ever establishing a foothold. Subsequently, he went searching for scoring options that didn’t represent the most prudent course of action. To drive that point home, one only needs to look at his dismissal against Pat Cummins in Match 12 of the 2020 edition.
However, in the ODI series against India, after having ‘found his hands’, Steve Smith was willing to give himself the time to gauge the situation, before blending it with extravagance. More importantly though, he was willing to wait for the ball, rather than going looking for it – something that happened in the T20I series that followed, and has only exemplified in the Tests.
In each of the T20Is, Steve Smith fell back to his IPL habits and unfortunately for him and Australia, those didn’t die easily. As for the Test series, well, he has been guilty of being a little more impatient, considering the stakes have been amped up exponentially.
Though the initial counter-argument might point towards Steve Smith labouring to 1 off 29 balls in the 1st innings at Adelaide, it is necessary to understand that the method of batting has been restless, not just the result.
In the pink-ball Test, Steve Smith went fishing outside off stump way too often than he normally does. Usually, when he is in a rich vein of form, he waits for the bowlers to bowl to his strengths. On that occasion though, he looked visibly agitated at his inability to keep the scoreboard ticking. And, inevitably, that led to him poking loosely at a Ravichandran Ashwin delivery.
A game later, that pattern continued, despite Steve Smith only lasting 8 balls. Against Jasprit Bumrah, the Australian got into line well and defended the ball late. However, as soon as Ravichandran Ashwin was introduced, he was culpable of flirting with the ball in front of his pad.
To put things into context, just a delivery before he was eventually dismissed, Steve Smith was caught in a tangle, with the Australian playing around his pad as the ball spun and clipped the flap en route a couple of leg byes. Moments later, he again fiddled and dug his own grave.
To be fair to Steve Smith, he was also undone in the air, courtesy some exquisite bowling by Ravichandran Ashwin. However, Steve Smith’s tendency to float his bat in front of his pad just undermines his entire modus operandi and unsurprisingly, he ended up nudging the ball straight to Cheteshwar Pujara at leg slip.
Ever since Steve Smith has surged into the ascendancy as a premier Test batsman, he has been someone content to play the ball as close to his body as possible. There have been countless occasions when bowlers have tried to pin him on the pads, only for it to be proved futile by a characteristic swish.
In the past few games though, the former Australian skipper hasn’t been as patient, often meeting the ball in front of his pads. In turn, that also means that the ball goes beyond the eye-line that is synced to play the ball late, considering that Steve Smith shuffles way across his crease too.
Effectively, that creates a bit of a blind spot. And, if one were to look back a little further, it has been something that has troubled Steve Smith after the 2019 Ashes. More specifically, since Neil Wagner muddled the Australian’s thinking with a short-ball barrage.
To counter that particular threat, Steve Smith tried to not get caught in positions where he had to fend at deliveries near his left shoulder, often opting to meet the ball in front and play it towards mid-wicket, away from the ring of New Zealand fielders that were stationed in the square leg region.
Unfortunately for the Australian though, that change in mechanism seems to have involuntarily crept into his batting – a notion driven home by his recent dismissals, which have been unlike the Steve Smith the world has been acclimatized to.
Steve Smith hasn't scored a Test century since the 2019 Ashes
As far as numbers are concerned, since casting himself as a top-drawer Test batsman in the summer of 2014, the longest phase Steve Smith had gone without a hundred was 7 Test innings. Well, that was until the current chapter, wherein he has gone 13 innings without one.
Usually though, such lean episodes have been followed up by runs of gargantuan proportions, meaning that India might still be wary of the proverbial wounded lion aka Steve Smith. Yet, there is a feeling that the summer of 2020 is perhaps the toughest the Australian has ever faced, at least on the cricketing front.
To be blunt, he isn’t just battling a slight chink that has somehow ventured into a seemingly indomitable technique, he is also pitting his wits against a set of bowlers whose general tendency is to be unforgiving.
Weeks ago, towards the end of November, Steve Smith spoke glowingly of having ‘found his hands’ and more tellingly, the touch that had deserted him for the better part of 2020. Yet, as the cricketing summer veers into its most important juncture, the Australian finds himself at a crossroad where, for a change, he doesn’t seem as invincible.
Often, great players emerge from these troughs with greater gusto and more clarity in their game-plans. And, if that indeed transpires, India might have to bear the brunt of it.
However, seeing Steve Smith score 2 runs in three Test innings against India is something the latter might never have even visualized, let alone experienced. And, for now, one reckons that would do, despite the presence of a massive Steve Smith-shaped caveat.Published 26 Dec 2020, 20:10 IST