The Smith shuffle

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Fidgeting and bustling, Australia captain Steve Smith has risen over the past few years to rack up numbers similar to the likes of Don Bradman and Sunil Gavaskar.

Steve Smith's physical idiosyncrasies — involving constant motion — ought not to engender stability at the crease. But his reflexes make sure he rarely misses the ball. | AP

Steve Smith played his 53rd Test at Ranchi. The 53rd Test is a significant one for any Test batsman. It is in this Test that a batsman finally emerges from Sir Donald Bradman’s shadow.

Bradman represented Australia 52 Tests. In these he played 80 innings, was dismissed 70 times, made 6,996 runs, and ended up 4 runs short of average an even 100 run per innings. As the table below shows, the next best aggregate after Bradman is 1,997 runs short. After 53 Tests, Smith is one of only 2 players (the other is Sunil Gavaskar) to have made more than 5,000 Test runs.

The Top 10 Test Aggregates after 52 Tests

PlayerDateGroundTeamOpponentAggregate
DG Bradman14-8-1948The OvalAustraliaEngland6,996
SM Gavaskar19-9-1978BangaloreIndiaAustralia4,999
SPD Smith4-3-2017BengaluruAustraliaIndia4,924
ML Hayden16-3-2004KandyAustraliaSri Lanka4,718
JB Hobbs14-12-1928SydneyEnglandAustralia4,625
L Hutton7-6-1951NottinghamEnglandSouth Africa4,569
D Warner26-7-2016PallekeleAustraliaSri Lanka4,507
JE Root8-12-2016MumbaiEnglandIndia4,500
KP Pietersen14-5-2009Chester-le-StreetEnglandWest Indies4,494
BC Lara27-2-1998GeorgetownWest IndiesEngland4,417
IVA Richards28-4-1983St John'sWest IndiesIndia4,411

Unlike his colleague David Warner, who also features in this list, Smith has demonstrated remarkable versatility. At home, Smith averages 68.6 in 24 Tests. He has made 10 of his 19 Test hundreds in Australia. Away, he averages 60 over 25 Tests. Classifications being what they are in cricket, his Tests against Pakistan in England and the U.A.E. are classified as Tests at neutral venues. Here, his 274 runs have come at a modest 34.3 average.

Smith made his debut against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010. In his second Test at Leeds, Australia were bowled out for 88 and conceded a first-innings lead of 170. In the second innings, he walked in at number 8 with Australia 217/6 (effectively 47/6) and smashed 77 in 100 balls against Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir, Umar Gul and Danish Kaneria to stretch the lead to 179. Australia lost that Test by three wickets, but Smith had done enough to earn a spot in the team for the last three matches of the Ashes a few months later. An undistinguished show meant that he was dropped.

Smith returned on Australia’s tour to India in 2013. The visitors were plagued by managerial difficulties on that tour. But Smith announced his return with a 92 in Australia's first innings at Mohali. Apart from his swashbuckling strokeplay, what stood out was just how closely he mimicked all the mannerisms of his captain Michael Clarke.

The pronounced shuffles open the leg side up and allow Smith to score even when the ball is marginally outside off stump.

 

Smith made his first Test hundred in his 12th Test at the Oval against England in 2013. Since then he has produced 19 in 42 Tests (including the current game). They have come against every successful attack in the world in recent years, including the likes of Steyn, Philander and Morkel in South Africa, Anderson and Broad in England, Herath in Sri Lanka, Ashwin and Jadeja in India, and Boult and Southee in New Zealand. He also has a 97 in Abu Dhabi against Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar on his CV.

Unlike his two closest rivals for the title of the world’s top Test batsman — the relentless Joe Root and the classical Kane Williamson — Smith’s methods are decidedly unorthodox. His style against seam bowling is marked by a massive shuffle towards off stump. This method has caused him problems in conditions where the ball has movement extravagantly off the pitch. But it is also the basis of his quick scoring. The pronounced shuffles open the leg side up and allow Smith to score even when the ball is marginally outside off stump.

Commentators, usually accomplished former players, typically recommend against using such a pronounced shuffle; it is very difficult to do correctly. Further, the cost of doing it wrong is typically high. If the batsman is slightly late on the ball, there is a very real risk that he will still be on the move when the ball arrives and consequently be off-balance at the point when the ball is met. This lack of balance is usually described as the batsman “falling over to the off side”. The second problem is that the batsman shuffling across the stumps is a clear candidate for LBW if the ball is missed. The remarkable thing about Smith is that he almost never over-balances, and he never seems to miss the ball.

 

Many players in the past have managed to play this way for a series or two and produced terrific results. But invariably, they lose form, and given their technique, this loss of form results in a loss of run output. In Smith’s case, this has not happened. Since his comeback to the Australian Test team in Australia’s previous tour of India in 2013, Smith has averaged at least 38 in fifteen consecutive series. He has made at least one century in 12 out of 15 series. In two out of the three series where he didn't make a century, he had best scores of 92 and 97.

Today there is enough evidence to suggest that Smith is able to use what would normally be a high-risk technique with great certainty in Test cricket. Seam movement does bother him, but even in England, he made centuries at Lord’s and The Oval. Given his methods and the results he achieves, Smith’s place in the pantheon of batsmen after Bradman is assured. It would be interesting to see how he adjusts his methods when he grows older and his reflexes slow down just that crucial little bit. Smith will celebrate his 28th birthday later this year. He is only just entering the prime years for a Test batsman. He could achieve numbers by his 100th Test that would leave him in a league of his own.

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