‘They know what the Universe Boss is capable of.’
Steve Smith’s guard is on leg-stump, but 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.
His knees are bent, and then comes 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 their base. His hands are above the off-stump and his head is on the line of middle stump, tilted ever so slightly towards the offside.
At the point of release the fast bowler has no vision on the wooden pegs he is supposed to target. All he can see is that white pad.
At that instance, according to the many experts and bowlers, Smith creates the 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 finds its target. 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 with 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 batsmen in 2013, Smith has been LBW six times in his 98 innings. Of those six instances, four instances are when he had scored less than 30, another two innings were when he was 199 and 71.
Excluding the 199 and 71, fast bowlers around the world have succeeded in trapping him in front of his stumps on only 4 per cent 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, of which six times he had inner edged the ball onto to the stumps.
But why is he so successful at repelling that strategy?
Last year during the third Test against Pakistan Smith told Channel Nine, “If guys get me out LBW then I say to bowler, ‘Well done’, but if I edge one outside of the off-stump, then I get upset at myself”.
Smith went on to say, “You have to minimise the way you have to get out”.
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 doesn’t have a high percentage of leg-before-wicket dismissals?
There are two key factors. One is the placement of Smith front leg, the other is his bat arc or the slight close face.
Ever since the LBW laws had been amended in the mid-1930s the majority of leg-before-wicket dismissals have come 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 with 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 into the line of the ball and ensuring his front leg is always inside the line of that delivery.
The beauty of Steve Smith’s bat plane is that while it might start wide, in the crucial last 10 per cent of the journey the bat comes straight down the pitch and ever so slightly down towards the leg-stump and the non-striker’s end, assuming he is assuming he is facing a right-hand bowler.
If Smith continued that bat path, the bat would get wider and wider off the stumps, but the greatness of Smith lies in the fact that his impact point is so perfect. He manages to hold himself at the right point to ensure he does not get squared up, with his right hip coming around. To ensure this works, it is extremely rare you will find him meeting the ball ahead of his body.
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, rapping a batsmen on the front leg.
In Smith’s instance, even if a ball does jagg back because he rarely plants his front foot – or if he does, it’s such a small stride that never crosses the stumps – he rarely gets hit on the pad.
Add to all this, because of his dominant bottom hand grip, that 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 looks to come down on the ball rather than 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 gap between the bat and pad.
Speak to the batting coaches who 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. It is fascinating to see Smith hit thousands of balls from side-on next to the crease, and you realise how rarely the bat gets in front of his body. It simply doesn’t happen.
If it did happen, the gap between bat and pad will be substantial and Smith will get out bowled. But, as the statistics show, six of his eight bowled dismissals are because he has inside edged the ball onto his stumps. The margin for error is extremely slim.
One may ask: how does he get out LBW? Smith’s dismissal in Adelaide was the perfect example. Basically a bowler has a better chance of dismissing him by beating the outer edge rather than the inner edge.
Many viewers burst out in laughter when Smith leaves the ball or completes a defensive shot with that extravagant finish. It happens because he is so determined and is fighting his body’s natural instincts to pull through towards the mid-on.
At the impact point he has to either 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 his body. But this is part of the technique 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.
The chances of the ball zipping that much in Australia are extremely slim, and the only time it happened Chris Woakes managed to trap him LBW, by beating the outer edge of the bat. It happened because, despite holding the face of the bat, the ball moved substantially to hit the back pad or get the outside edge.
In the famous interview Don Bradman gave to Channel Nine 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 Smith has the same traits in his batting.
With a technique that many people still believe is unorthodox, Smith has eliminated or severely minimised two modes of dismissal – bowled or LBW – against fast bowlers. To succeed against him you need a pitch or 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 a batsman that 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.
As a final note, 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.