It took England 399 balls to finally trap Steve Smith in front of his stumps. Smith was adjudged leg before wicket, a mode of dismissal that many fast bowlers around the world attempt, the minute he takes guard. But it rarely happens. Even when it does, it generally happens when Smith has already crossed some extraordinary milestone.
With a leg-stump guard, or at times, he calls for two-leg. Both his feet are close to each other, the bat is tapped behind the right foot with a slightly open face and raised towards gully. The knees are bent and then come the trigger movements that must haunt the English bowlers in their sleep.
As the fast bowler runs in, Smith places his right toe across the stumps, his right foot covering the base of the stumps. His hands are above the off-stump and the head on the line up of middle stump, tilted ever so slightly towards the off-side. At the point of release, the fast bowler has no vision on the wooden pegs he is suppose to target, all he can see is that white pad.
At that instance, accordingly to many experts and bowlers, Smith creates that impression that he is a prime LBW candidate. Former players-turned-commentators still believe he is vulnerable early in his innings with the incoming full ball at the stumps. Coaches see the vision and encourage their respective bowlers to target that pad. But the ball never thuds into the pad. On most occasions, Smith just punches the ball towards the on-side for a boundary.
Ever since Smith started the shuffle across the crease mid-innings at the WACA four years ago, fast bowlers have become obsessed in trying to get him out LBW. But perhaps it’s time to look at the numbers.
Ever since returning to the Australian set-up as a batsman in 2013, Smith has been LBW seven times in his 98 innings. Out of those seven instances, he scored less than 30 four times. In the other three innings his scores read — 199, 71 and 239.
Let’s exclude the 199 and 239 for now as, it’s only fair to say, he has conquered the fast bowlers by then. This means fast bowlers around the world have succeeded in trapping him in front of his stumps in only four percent of his international innings. In an era of the DRS, those numbers are unbelievable. Interestingly enough, Smith has been only bowled in eight of his innings, out of which six times he had inner-edged the ball onto to the stumps.
Almost inadvertently, Smith has eradicated the LBW or bowled dismissals from his game with a shuffle across the stumps. It contradicts the mechanism of batting. How can it be that a player with a strong bottom-hand grip inclined to hit the ball on the onside from in front of his stumps does not have a high percentage of leg-before-wicket dismissals?
Last year during the 3rd Test against Pakistan, Smith told Channel 9, “If guys get me out LBW then I say to the bowler — ‘well done’, but if I edge one outside of the off-stump then I get upset at myself.”
Smith went on to state, “You have to minimise the way you have to get out.”
There are two defining factors that make his unorthodox technique rather perfect against the incoming ball. One is the placement of Smith’s front leg and his bat arc.
Ever since the LBW laws were amended, a majority of leg before dismissals are when a ball thuds into the front pad. In Smith’s instance, his left leg rarely gets hit. To understand it, you need to start at the bowler’s release point.
At the point the bowler releases the ball, Smith’s left leg is well out of the way and totally outside the line of even the leg-stump. Most of Smith’s weight is on that back foot. The front foot is very nimble and light, ready to move into the line of the ball while the head remains absolutely still.
It is worth noting that Smith is predominately a back-foot player, meaning he uses the back leg for maximum control and power. This means he rarely lunges on the front foot like a Ricky Ponting or a Virat Kohli, enabling him to always have that front pad out of the line of the stumps. On bouncy pitches of Australia, there is rarely a need for him to come forward and that suits his technique.
As the ball starts its path down the pitch, Smith is a master at aligning his head with the line of the ball and then ensuring his front leg is always inside the line of that delivery. The beauty of Smith’s bat plane is that while it might start wide, in the crucial last 10% of the journey, the bat comes straight down the pitch, but ever so slightly down towards the leg-stump towards the non-striker’s end. (This is assuming he is facing a right-hand bowler).
If Smith continued that bat path, the bat will end up getting wider and wider of the stumps. But the greatness of Smith lies in the fact that his impact point is so perfect and he manages to hold himself at the right point, to ensure he does not get squared up (his right hip coming around). Observe him side on and it is extremely rare you that will find him meeting the ball ahead of his eye line.
One of the prime reasons batsmen get out leg-before-wicket is because the ball generally nips in off the pitch or through the air and beats the inside edge of the bat wrapping a batsmen on the front leg.
In Smith’s instance, he rarely plants his front foot or if he does, it’s such a small stride (that too never across the stumps), that even if a ball does jag back he rarely gets hit on the pad.
Add to all this, because of his dominant bottom-hand grip, the bat plane is towards the on-side ever so slightly which means it is difficult for the ball to slide past the inner edge, as he will continue to play with the inner movement. Importantly, Smith always plays with a straight bat and looking to just come down on the ball and not deflect it.
Technically speaking, this will leave a slight gap between bat and pad for the ball to pass through, but because of Smith’s bat plane, which comes slightly towards the leg-stump at the non-striker’s end, it means the bat is actually moving in the line of the incoming ball.
With that minimal foot movement, Smith must ensure that the impact point is precise otherwise there will be a gap between the bat and pad.
Speak to the batting coaches that have worked closely with Smith in recent years and they will tell you that his major area of focus during a net session is getting that impact point spot on. To see it close up, it is worth watching Smith hit thousands of balls from side on next to the crease and you will you realise, how rarely the bat gets in front of his body. It simply doesn’t happen.
If it does happen, the gap between bat and pad will be substantial and Smith will get out bowled. But as statistics show, six of his eight bowled dismissals are because he has inside edged the ball on to his stumps. The margin for error is extremely slim.
So then one may ask how does he get out LBW? Smith’s dismissal in Adelaide or even in Perth was the perfect example. Basically a bowler has a better chance of dismissing him by beating the outer edge rather than inner edge.
Many viewers burst out in laughter when Smith leaves the ball or completes a defensive shot with that extravagant finish. The reason it happens is because he is so determined and fighting his body’s natural instincts of pulling through towards the mid-on. At the impact point, he has to stop or hold his position and then open up once he plays the shot. Otherwise he risks getting squared up or playing in front of the body. But this is part of his technique which he has mastered with thousands of repetitions.
On flat pitches, where there is no lateral movement, it is almost impossible to dislodge him. To expose that technique, the ball has to seam away from him from the line of the stumps — like it did in England in 2015 — or hit a crack — like it did in Perth.
Smith gets beaten because despite holding the face of the bat, the ball has moved substantially to hit the back pad or get the outside edge.
In the famous interview Don Bradman gave to Channel 9 over 20 years ago, the master batsman said, “As I brought my bat down I liked to close the bat face ever so slightly so it allowed me to play with the swing”. It is fair to say that Smith has the same traits in his batting.
With a technique that many people still believe is unorthodox, Smith has severely minimised two modes of dismissal (bowled or LBW) against fast bowlers, especially on tracks with minimum lateral movement.
To succeed against him, you need a pitch or a bowler capable of beating the outside edge of the bat. On the current Australian tracks, that is almost an impossible task. It is time for fast bowlers to be creative and conjure up alternative methods to dismiss the batsman who is starting to impose himself like Bradman. Bowling at his stumps is simply not going to work. Good luck to all the quick bowlers around the world.
If you ever wanted to know the perfect ball to Smith, watch Steve Finn dismissing him during the first innings of third Test at Edgbaston in 2015.
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