Last week, playing an innings of great intensity and character, Steven Peter Devereux Smith literally had the best spin attack there is, in the world, on the ropes. Both physically and psychologically. The Pune track was a dustbowl where the strong Indian batting side barely crossed three-figure marks in both innings. The Aussie skipper’s epic knock of 109, therefore, in the second innings helped the tourists go one-up in the four-Test series.
It was as if Steve Smith had mastered the ‘Indian Rope Trick’ and used it to smother the prized Indian spin attack of Ravichandran Ashwin, Jayant Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja!
Yet, on 5 October 2010, just over six years ago, at Mohali, ‘Smithy’ had handed a Test match to India on a platter. What’s more, he wasn’t even a part of the playing eleven!
With India’s last man, Pragyan Ojha in and six runs required for a win, the bowler Mitchell Johnson and all the Australian fielders went up in appeal for an lbw. Smith, who had come in to field for Doug Bollinger, picked up the ball and threw it at the non-striker’s stumps. The runner — for VVS Laxman, who was beleaguered by a sore back — was out of his crease. The ball missed the stumps by a whisker and sped away for four overthrows. Ojha then picked up two leg-byes to help India win.
The would-be hero had walked out a devastated young man, from Mohali, that evening. He had missed winning a Test match, all on his own for Australia, by centimetres. The dubious distinction he had earned – despite the support of skipper Ricky Ponting and his teammates – would have haunted him for a long time.
Ironically, the next time he played in a Test match against India was again at Mohali, in 2012; the third in a series of four Tests. A stubborn knock of 92 off 185 deliveries from him notwithstanding, the Aussies were trounced 4-0 in the series.
Smith, according to the late Martin Crowe – a legend in his own right – is one of the fab four of modern day batting. The other three are Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson. For someone who had started off as a leg-spinner in the Australian squad – a Shane Warne clone – he has sure come a long way as a batsman in the last half decade or so.
During his early days as a junior player, he had to face rejections and his batting abilities were questioned. Coaches at the New South Wales youth programme believed that he wouldn’t go far as he was too flashy and his technique was just not right. Smith had left school midway to concentrate on a career in the game, backed by his mentor and coach, Trent Woodhill.
While in school one day, a teacher asked students from his class what they would like to be when they grew up. When Smith said that he would play cricket, the teacher had remarked, “Cricketers don’t earn much, do they?” Today, he is a rich man with a Cricket Australia contract, and earns millions through his endorsements and other contracts.
Cricketing pundits too predicted an early downfall for him as he was too unorthodox to succeed at the international level. His pre-stance fidgeting and his movement in the crease made him look very, very untidy. What the average cricket follower did not know however was that Smith was a quick learner. Lightning quick, in fact!
The transformation came three years after he was shuttled in and out of the Australian team. ‘Smithy’ got his first Test hundred against England, at the Oval, in August 2013. He believes that that tour of England was where he finally put the jigsaw pieces in place. “Playing against the best bowling attack in the world and scoring runs against them gained me a lot of confidence," he said later. He also mentioned the fact that he learnt of how bowlers were trying to get him out and what he could counter their plans with, including the pursuit of percentage batting.
Since that tour, he has got four more hundreds against England. He also has five three-figure scores against India, two each against the West Indies, New Zealand and Pakistan, and a century each against South Africa and Sri Lanka. As of last week, he had played 51 Tests, scoring 4888 runs @ 60.34, with 18 hundreds and 20 fifties. Not bad, really, for someone who wasn’t supposed to be good enough for the long haul!
Though comparsions are odious, it is interesting to see how the other three fab players have fared in Test cricket: Virat Kohli has played 55 Tests, has scored 4464 runs @ 50.72 with 16 hundreds and 14 fifties. Kane Williamson has played 58 Tests, has scored 4807 runs @ 50.07 with 15 hundreds and 25 fifties, while Joe Root has played 53 Tests, has scored 4594 runs @ 52.80 with 11 hundreds and 27 fifties.
Scoring hundreds against good attacks, on true wickets is one thing; scoring big on a viciously turning track, in India, against the likes of Ashwin, Yadav and Jadeja is quite another. Of course, he was lucky to be let off on a couple of occasions but that doesn’t take away anything from the character of his knock.
The Australians came prepared for a turner and the Indian curators handed them a ‘dustbowl’, giftwrapped. Their much-hyped Dubai sojourn and even the expert advise they received from Monty Panesar and Sridhan Sridharan did not deter the hosts from playing into their hands. From the way Matt Renshaw, the Marsh brothers, Peter Handscomb and Smith played – in addition to Mitchell Starc’s strongarm tactics – it was clear that the Aussies were mentally prepared to brazen it out in India.
How did Smith defeat the famed Indian spin trio? His strategy was simple. He played for the ball that spun into him. He wasn’t too bothered about the ball that turned away, even if he was beaten every now and then. Very often, he was seen swatting his bat – as he is wont to - and smiling back at Jadeja when he expressed frustration at beating the bat and not getting an edge. He was playing the game of one-upmanship and cleverly too!
‘Smithy’ was wary of the tricks up Ashwin’s sleeves and played his deliveries very, very late and with soft hands. From time to time, when the bowlers were tired or frustrated, and erred in line and length, he made sure that they were punished severely.
Finally, he made sure that he wasn’t hit on his pads by any of the deliveries that either spun in or straightened up. DRS has made it easier to get lbw decisions. He simply played inside the line of the ball. A practice fanatic who faces hundreds of deliveries and throw downs in the nets, it has been revealed that he practiced playing spinners without pads in the run on to and during the Pune Test match.
Smith and the Aussie think-tank have outmanoeuvred the Indian think-tank, atleast in the first Test of the series. Will the Test centres at Bengaluru, Ranchi and Dharamsala provide sporting tracks to the visitors or will they be rank turners too?
Steven Peter Devereux Smith has a shrewd cricketing brain. He has already told media persons that his team would be happy to play on any type of surface provided by the host associations. No arguments.
Let’s wait and see how the Indian brains trust counters the Aussie tactics. One can’t help but believe, from what has taken place in the last week, that this series will be played more in the 5-inch space between the ears rather than on the 22-yard strip. And it’s going to be fun!