What. A. Ball.
The unorthodox in sport can work.
Rafael Nadal’s technique is unique but effective. You wouldn’t show footage of him to a young player and tell him to copy it. But 19 Grand Slams later it’s not only been effective, but also very successful. There isn’t a grand slam that he hasn’t found success at.
Steve Waugh wasn’t as classical or technically correct as his brother Mark, but his average finished a touch over 50, and his brother a shade over 40. Technical correctness isn’t the only way to succeed in sport.
Steve Smith fits into the unorthodox category. As far as batting goes, he belongs in the ‘about as unorthodox as you can get’ category, especially for a specialist batsman.
To date, it has been successful. The fastest ever to 7000 Test runs at an average over 60. If you took Steve Smith out of Australia’s Ashes 2019 campaign, it would be fairly safe to say the Ashes may have changed hands. Missing him last summer meant Australia lost a lot of runs in their middle order, and India overcame the home team with relative ease.
However, all of this success has come during Smiths’ first half of his career. Now he has turned 30, he enters what, for virtually all great cricketers, is the second half of their careers. Very few make it past this decade, especially in this day and age.
Arguably the best way we can learn about the future is to see what has happened in the past. If greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis struggled at the back ends of their career, then we know virtually nobody is impervious to bad form as their careers wind down.
Steve Smith has been a run machine for Australia, however, there have been chinks in his armour.
Before sandpaper-gate in 2018, Smith’s form on the South Africa tour was poor. He had made 142 runs at 23.66 in the three Tests. His technique had become more and more front on, and he had not been fluent at the crease. The South Africans had sorted him out somewhat. Then the suspension came.
With 12 months off he had time to reflect, regroup and fix what was wrong. His Ashes series was better than brilliant. He carried a team that was batting like cricket was new to them.
However this summer his unorthodox method has yet to see him pass 50 in the three Tests on good wickets, against some attacks that he would have normally scored against. His form, to be frank, has been bad.
So is it time for Smith to cut down on the extra movements at the crease, the extravagant leaves and try to just get batting to be as simple as possible?
Sure you could argue that all of that worked in England, but it hasn’t in the two series either side of that, against South Africa in 2018 and Pakistan in 2019.
Sachin Tendulkar’s final 13 Tests saw him make 512 runs at 24.38.
Ricky Ponting’s final six Tests saw him make 178 runs at 16.18.
Jacques Kallis final seven Tests saw him make 249 runs at 22.64.
If three great modern-day batsmen can struggle in the home stretch, it means nobody is infallible.
The time for Smith to refine his technique may not yet have arrived, and ultimately, he may feel changing a successful formula is unnecessary. If he chooses to keep what is familiar, he could be right. His unorthodox approach could be successful from start to finish. At this point in time, this bit is unknown.
The unorthodox in sport can succeed. However, simplicity and sport have a great relationship as well. Simple things like minimal movements, keeping your head and eyes as still as possible and playing through the V will always be a part of cricket. The basics won’t change because of one person.
Should Steve Smith overhaul a technique that has worked for him? Of course not. However, in Steve Smith’s game, is there room for a more simple approach?
On the weight of history and knowing what has happened to other greats, then refinement and improvement shouldn’t be overlooked. Evolving and getting better doesn’t stop for a sportsperson.
At his peak, Smith has been marvellous, but once that passes, and it will, then simplifying things could be the road that is best travelled.
Rafael Nadal has proved in tennis that being different can succeed. He has won 19 Grand Slams. Roger Federer has also shown that technical correctness will always have a place in sport. He has won 20.