It’s been a tough week for Australian captain Steve Smith with much of the fallout of the second Border-Gavaskar Test in Bangalore centering around his DRS ‘brain fade’ in the second innings.
Leading into the Ranchi Test, Smith’s integrity was called into question by sections of media, fans, and even his opposing captain Virat Kohli hinted that he believed Smith’s glance at the dressing room after his dismissal was more than just an error in judgement but rather part of a larger plan to get help deciding whether to review on field decisions.
On day one in Ranchi Smith responded to all the criticism and attention of his tumultuous week in the best possible fashion, with a determined and classy unbeaten century – his sixth against India and 19th overall. During his masterful innings Smith also became the third fastest batsman (in terms of matches) to 5000 Test runs, behind only Don Bradman and Sunil Gavaskar. The fact that Smith has maintained an average in excess of 60 is all the more impressive.
Smith’s second century of this series, he is the only batsman to score a century so far, just emphasised his dominance over his favourite opposition. The Australian captain has already scored over 1219 runs against India at a remarkable average of 87.07. Ranchi is just his 9th Test against the current world number one side. Bangalore was the only Test in Smith’s last seven against India where he has failed to score a century.
The first day’s play in Ranchi was another perfect example of how India have got it so drastically wrong to Smith, and how good Smith is at baiting opposition bowlers into bowling to his strengths. Smith’s technique is undoubtedly unorthodox, but the awkward appearance of his exaggerated movements are very deceptive and often lull bowlers into thinking he will be vulnerable to being LBW, like he was in Bangalore, but the Yadav delivery that dismissed Smith snuck along the ground after hitting a crack – an aberration rather than the norm.
Despite all of Smith’s movements at the crease he is actually extremely still when the ball is delivered, providing him with great balance. Combined with his supreme hand-eye coordination the New South Welshman picks off deliveries aimed at the stumps all day long. The 27-year-old also has a very strong bottom hand grip, which makes him very strong through the leg side, something he again demonstrates against straight deliveries.
Smith’s shuffle across the stumps and bottom hand strong grip once again tempted the India’s bowlers into trying to dismiss him LBW, and once again he piled on the runs against an attack that appeared to have no plan B against the world’s best batsman. Only for brief periods did Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav attempt to attack Smith on a sixth stump line, where he isn’t as strong, but on a pitch with little sideways movement the Indians lacked the discipline to maintain this line of attack and once again conceded easy runs to Smith - not that he needed their help.
The Australian captain’s rise from a fresh faced leg-spinner who batted at number eight on Test debut back in 2010 to the number one ranked batsman in the world has been phenomenal and his success is underlined by a hunger and determination to succeed that allows him to turn an unorthodox batting style into an extremely successful one.
This determination was on show in Ranchi where Smith grafted on a slow surface and his inner strength was there for all to see. There was no way he was going to let the week’s events negatively affect his performance, Smith was always going to lead from the front when his team needed him most.
It was clear to all who witnessed it that Test century number 19 meant a lot to Australia’s steely skipper, one only had to see the look on his face when he reached his hundred to see how determined he was. The speculation and controversy that has surrounded Smith since his ‘brain fade’ in Bangalore have no doubt been felt deep, but he isn’t the type to let those emotions bubble over, rather harnessing them to perform for his country.
Smith’s Ranchi innings isn’t done with yet, but it has already set his team well on the path to a strong first innings total that will put the hosts under immense pressure to stay in the match, and in the series. There is no doubting Smith is a man on a mission, and the way he batted was typical of the captain and leader he has become.
A determined and gritty knock built around patience and a supreme knowledge of one’s own game and a mastery of the opposition’s bowling attack, Smith quickly summed up the conditions – while there was little sideways movement, the slowness of the wicket would make run-scoring difficult. His ability to milk the bowling to keep the score ticking over, while picking off the bad balls which became more regular as the day wore on, was the basis of another fantastic innings by this modern batting marvel against his favourite opponents.
Smith’s constant shuffling and bat twirling style might not be the most pleasant on the eye, but it is very effective, and India must be sick of the sight of it. If only they could work out a way to get him out.