Australia’s current frailty has been well documented but in Sri Lanka they today face a wounded Test opponent missing their most experienced and accomplished batsman.
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If Steve Smith were to make 20 consecutive ducks, he would still average 50.1. No, that’s not a typo; it’s a stunning statistic.
This stat simply underlines the career that the Australian captain has compiled so far. His unbeaten 141 in his first innings of this Ashes series leaves him with an aggregate of 5511 runs at an average of 61.2 from 105 innings.
Of all the batsmen to have played 20 or more Test innings only two men have averaged more – Don Bradman, who averaged 99.9 from 80 innings, and Adam Voges, who scored 61.9 from 31.
This week’s century was Smith’s 21st Test ton. It means he scores a century every five innings. By comparison his, contemporaries Virat Kohli (5.7), Kane Williamson (6.5), Hashim Amla (6.6), AB de Villiers (8.4), Joe Root (8.5) and Alastair Cook (8.6) all lay in his wake. None of those batsmen averages more than 54.
Smith is the third-fastest batsman in terms of innings to score 21 Test centuries behind Bradman (56) and Sunil Gavaskar (98).
While some have been burdened by the weight of captaincy, Smith has thrived. In his 27 Tests at the helm, he has scored 2971 runs at 72.5 with 13 centuries – and let’s not forget that he is still only 28 years of age.
It has been a remarkable career, even more so when you consider how it started. He debuted against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010 as a leg-spinner batting at number eight. His first century – against England at The Oval – came in his 12th Test and 23rd innings. Since then he has scored 20 hundreds in 45 matches.
His latest innings at the Gabba was grafted out in concert with the position he found his team in. It was a quintessential captain’s knock. He largely eschewed driving down the ground after Shaun Marsh chipped a slower ball from Stuart Broad to James Anderson at mid-off, highlighting the sluggish nature of the pitch.
One of the exceptions was a crisply struck cover drive that brought up his century. He spent over half an hour navigating the 90s, not through nerves or uncertainty but as a result of the scoreboard, with his team looking to reel in England’s first innings with eight wickets already in the shed.
In the end, he guided Australia beyond parity to a 26-run lead.
There is little orthodox about Smith’s technique. Indeed, if you were coaching a 12-year-old with a similar technique, you would be advising him to make considerable changes.
His bottom hand is turned way around on the handle, a position that normally greatly inhibits the ability to drive through the offside. It provides no such encumbrance for Smith. His exorbitant lateral movement across the crease allows him to access the leg side from deliveries that most batsmen would play to the off.
So many times he gets into the bowler’s head and messes with their line. In essence, he is a master at getting them to bowl where he wants them to. At times he can border on looking ugly from an MCC coaching manual perspective, but his effectiveness is undeniable.
While his footwork can at times look awry, his bat swing is exquisite. In the latter portions of his downswing, the full face of the blade is brought to bear towards the delivery. It can give the impression that his bat is wider than those of his counterparts.
Smith is also a master at playing the ball late, which eliminates lofted shots down the ground and allows him to access gaps in the field with nuanced wrist work at the very last moment. He is currently in complete mastery of his game and has been for quite some time.
From his pre-stance choreographed fidgeting to the time he strikes the ball, Smith may look awkward at times. But more often than not it is the bowlers who are the awkward ones as they strive to breach a technique that has been honed to perfection.
It is a methodology that is never likely to be widely taught nor mimicked, but for Steve Smith it works an absolute treat. His first innings at the Gabba was another salient reminder of that fact.
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