When Ricky Ponting took over from Steve Waugh as the Australian Test captain, the first advice he received was make sure he looked after his game first. Captaincy can be draining and the burden of leading the country has hampered some of the greatest batsmen that have played the game.
Steve Smith, however, is at a different end of the scale. In the rich Australian cricketing history, his record as a batsman with the ‘C’ next to his name, stands only second to the great Don Bradman. On Saturday, the minute he drove Stuart Broad through the covers to bring up his 21st Test century, his batting average as a Test captain hovered close to 75.
Smith had taken his batting to a new level with three exceptional centuries in adverse conditions in India this year. But his century against England on Saturday was one of the most resolute innings of his entire career.
For two months during the ODI series in India, Smith was fighting a couple of technical issues. One of them was that he was holding the bat so tightly with the bottom hand that it was causing his bat face to be closed as he started his bat arc down the line of the ball. It also meant his bat was starting to come down from gully rather than the customary third slip. Importantly, it was causing him to play the ball across the line, something that was accentuated due to his strong bottom hand grip.
Since coming back to Australia, Smith had worked for a long period of time to rectify the issue. England, who had done so much homework on the Australian batsmen, noticed that there was that slight chink in the armour.
The minute Smith walked out to bat, Joe Root planted three men in the arc of mid-wicket to mid-on. The strategy was to bowl at the stumps and lure Smith to play one across the line through square-leg. England tried and tried. Smith resisted. He played straight to mid-on or drove past the stumps. England had succeeded in tying him down, but Smith had ruined their plan.
It prompted England to switch to plan B. The next idea was to dangle the carrot outside off-stump. But Smith was ready to play the waiting game as he left, left and left. He continued to nudge balls off his hips through the leg-side and drove only through wide mid-on.
So methodical and resistant was Smith that it took 90 balls for him to score his first through the off-side. His first boundary through the off-side came only when he had crossed his half-century. It was a classic example of mind over manner.
One aspect of Smith’s batting that makes him extremely difficult to bowl to is the fact that he is so difficult to bring forward. The extra bounce on the Australian pitches suits his style, but the fact that he can simply ignore playing those extravagant drives through the covers is an indication of his mental strength.
One by one Smith had repelled each of England's plans and in the process ensured Australia crept close to the England’s first innings score of 302. Smith’s stubborn innings led England to bring out plan C. It involved putting six men on the leg-side and peppering him with short-pitched bowling.
Apart from one instance in which Smith top-edged a pull, he was in complete command as he ducked and swayed to wear out the England bowlers. At no point did Smith get rattled, nor did he get restless. The plan was simple, bat for as long as possible.
In the midst of all the stubbornness, he still played some sparkling shots by standing tall and punching the ball through the covers. The on-drive past the bowler was played with such precision that even the straight men Root had employed to block the drives were bisected with consummate ease.
Ironically, having resisted a drive through the covers for 260 balls in his innings, he finally stroked one through the covers to bring up his 21st Test century. It was like rubbing salt into the English wounds. He had overcome all their plans. He celebrated his century by pumping his chest with the fist and looking into the eyes of every English fielder, almost urging them to devise better strategies.
Perhaps no statistics highlights the defiance of Smith’s innings than the fact that his hundred was the slowest in terms of balls faced (261) by an Australian batsman in Tests since Simon Katich back in 2010.
Above all, it was the manner in which he was able to guide his team single-handedly into a dominant position that would please Smith the most.
With each day, Smith continues to defy those experts that continue to criticise his unorthodox technique. With 21 Test centuries, 12 of them as captain, no tactic or burden is about to tie the Australian skipper down.
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