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Steve Smith finds his hands – India’s fortunes lie in them

Steve Smith.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

For so long have coaches been telling us about the importance of a batsman’s footwork that handwork (a clumsy word, but you get the idea) has been neglected.

By proclaiming “I have found my hands” before he went on to hit two successive ODI centuries against India, Steve Smith has brought this element back into cricket talk. But more of that later.

At 31, Smith (Test average: 62.84, ODI average: 43.71) is statistically the greatest batsman after Don Bradman (given a minimum of 15 Tests), and seems set to stamp his authority on yet another series. India’s fortunes in Australia will depend on how well they counter his methods. The only time they won a Test series there was when Smith was serving out a ban for ball-tampering.

Following textbook where it matters

Smith is not the prime example of a batsman who chooses effectiveness over staid orthodoxy, but one who follows the textbook where it matters. Yes, he fidgets, he squirms, he twiddles, but that is not what drives bowlers to distraction. He is in the right place at the right time, and never mind what happens before he gets there.

Watch him closely. He might bring his bat down from gully (or even point), but he presents a straight bat to the ball after rotating it in a semicircle. The essence of batsmanship is the ability to convert stillness into motion; you can do it the traditional way by remaining immobile till you have judged length, or the Smith way by getting a head start on the movement — the momentum setting him off.

The initial back-and-across movement as the bowler approaches is sometimes exaggerated so he finishes outside the off stump, even exposing the leg stump. But when the bowler targets the unprotected stump, the front foot is planted so he both denies the bowler a glimpse of it and gives himself room to glide the ball down the leg-side. A fielder is sometimes placed at leg-slip, mainly in the hope of a miracle.

When the bat meets the ball, Smith’s head is in line, and more importantly, perfectly still.

Organised mindset

For all his apparent cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof technique, where it matters, Smith’s batting is out of the coaching manual. Sachin Tendulkar called it a “complicated technique with an extremely organised mindset”, but the complications are around the stroke, not at the time of playing it.

Yes, Smith plays away from his body; but he makes up by the ability to hit through the line. The bat becomes an extension of his hands. You imagine he can’t play the cover drive with that right hand grip, but he fools you by turning his shoulder around as he pulls his right elbow in. Again, the momentum does the trick. The wrists help in placing the ball between fielders.

‘The gift of hands’ was a speciality of Virender Sehwag too; another player who wasn’t too fussed about where his feet where in relation to the bat swing. And another player who was balanced in strokeplay. One-day cricket helped make Sehwag a great Test player. In Smith’s case it is the other way around — Test cricket seems to be the stepping stone to one-day mastery.

“All of your energy is in your hands,” said a baseball coach once. Most cricket coaches tend to underplay the importance of the hands, focusing on feet movement instead.

Importance of self-knowledge

That it took even a batsman of Smith’s calibre some four months to “find his hands” is testimony to the importance of self-knowledge in sport. With most batsman, they know they are in the groove when their favourite strokes begin to roll out easily. Smith knew he was back on track when his off drive — his rarest stoke — worked well in practice.

“You shouldn’t get out if the ball is not hitting the stumps.” That is Smith’s mantra. Such is his self-belief that he once changed his technique in the middle of a Test innings, working out the back-and-across movement to his satisfaction.

What must worry India is that the last time he spoke of finding his hands, ahead of the 2017-18 Ashes series, Smith aggregated 687 at an average of 137. In the following Ashes series he made 774 in four Tests.

Troubled by a left-armer

The Indian camp has said brave things about fast bowlers targeting Smith’s rib cage. New Zealand’s left- arm seamer Neil Wagner had troubled him thus in the series a year ago. It will be interesting to see if India’s left armer, T. Natarajan, will be picked to try the Wagner method. He is not in the original Test squad, but it might be worth taking a chance.

It is possible that when Smith “found his hands”, he meant it metaphorically. But it is also literally true. He looks too comfortable for Indian bowlers to feel the same way.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:48:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/steve-smith-finds-his-hands-indias-fortunes-lie-in-them/article33224181.ece

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