A high-scoring shootout looms when Australia begin their three-match T20 series in South Africa on Friday.
Steven Smith is on the ground. He fell while flashing his bat quickly, very wide outside off.
He connected of course. The ball pierced the ring of course. And of course it went for four. This shouldn’t work. Everything we’ve learnt from before we can even remember tells us that this idiosyncratic, self-conscious, fidgeting, constantly moving ‘technique’ should result in LBWs and edges to the slip cordon.
But it works. It works a treat. In four Test matches this year Smith went from 0 to 774 runs, including three centuries, and tops the run charts for the year. The next best, Ben Stokes, has made 627 runs from eight matches. Virat Kohli has played six matches and scored 476 runs.
Smith is so far beyond the curve that you could argue he cannot be compared to any contemporary player. His batting average is ten runs higher than Kohli’s and 12 runs higher than Kane Williamson’s. It is 16 runs higher than Joe Root’s, who is one more bad year away from falling out of the ‘Fab Four’.
Smith is the avant-garde. He bats like a cubist painting. He’s Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a wonderful and strange imposition on cricket’s incredibly ordered world. Kohli is the Vitruvian Man of this world, the perfect meeting place of power, timing and technique. Williamson is a Vermeer, tight and controlled, subtle strokes directing the ball rather than hitting it. Root’s like Pop Art: fast-paced, smart running, then powerful attacks against the ball – Boom! Wow! Pop! Four! Out!
So how does Smith’s technique work as effectively as it does? The shot that ended with Smith on the ground was played during his innings of 211 at Old Trafford. He does his step across. His back foot is on off stump, his front foot remains outside leg, and middle and leg stump are visible in the gap.
At the point of release his head remains perfectly still and his eye line is flat along the horizon. As the ball travels down, it moves away and is a little over a metre from Smith’s hands. He shifts his weight to his back leg as he enters the shot, almost half crouching as he lifts the bat behind his head.
When he connects he begins to fall, his front foot lifting from the ground. All his weight is now on his back foot, which is over a metre away from where the ball pitched, but it’s this back leg directing the power and trajectory of the ball. Smith’s back knee is pointing through cover and his head is directly over this knee, looking through cover. His body is not square; his chest and stomach are directed through cover also.
As Smith lands on the ground, back knee first, he becomes square, but his head, eyes and that back knee are all pointing in the direction of the ball and his front leg is splayed wide outside leg stump. As he loses balance and finally ends up with his body on the ground he follows the direction and power of the ball, falling dramatically through cover.
The ball pierces the ring and runs away quickly for four. Ben Stokes, the bowler, can only smile, chuckle and look slyly in Smith’s direction. When Smith stands up he raises his bat. He’s on 51 now and will score another 160 runs to set up Australia’s most comprehensive win of the series.
Smith’s weird and silly batting always makes me smile, and it is a whole lot less chaotic than it looks to even the most dedicated follower of the game. His game is based largely on his incredible hand-eye coordination. This is matched with perfect balance from head to toe. Smith often uses his back foot to direct power and trajectory when playing a traditionally front-foot shot. It’s a common feature of his cover driving and also his on drives.
He looks very odd, tapping this and tapping that, looking here and looking there. But he averages 64 in Test cricket, so who really cares when he’s doing that and we just get to smile and laugh.