Describing Steve Smith as an elite problem-solver has quickly become a cliche.
Yet no other Test batsman has to overcome as wide a variety of bowling strategies as the Australian champion.
So dominant is Smith that opposition attacks have tried everything to unsettle him. Some have bowled full and wide with a stacked off-side field. Others have targeted his stumps with a strong leg side.
More still have set a deep field to deny him boundaries and try to frustrate him or have changed their lines, lengths and fields regularly in an attempt to upset his rhythm.
Again and again Smith has come up with solutions on the fly. At the core of this adaptability has been his remarkable restraint. Opponents implement these strategies with the aim of boring out Smith only for him to turn the tables, refusing to give in to their tactics until eventually it is they who relent and adopt plans B, C, D and E.
As the 2019 Ashes came to an end with Smith having piled up 774 runs at 110, England had churned through countless unsuccessful strategies. Watching on, the Kiwis had a plan.
During the World Cup New Zealand had dismissed Smith with a bodyline approach and heavy leg-side field. In Neil Wagner they had the perfect bowler to execute such a strategy in this summer’s blockbuster Test series. No Test bowler in the world takes more wickets with bouncers than Wagner and he promptly dismissed Smith twice with short balls in the first Test.
As I argued in a piece for The Roar, Australia’s batsmen needed to adopt clear plans for the short ball at the MCG after struggling against it in the second innings at Perth.
To Smith too it had seemed unclear how to counter the flood of short balls. He tried ignoring them, he tried milking them for singles, he tried attacking them. It was this latter approach that brought about his downfall in both innings as Smith pulled the ball straight to waiting fielders.
After his second dismissal in that fashion Smith looked livid. He could not believe he had fallen into an obvious trap yet again.
In the ten days between the first and second Tests Smith reportedly practised like a madman against the short ball. Then he came out yesterday with a clear plan. Early in his innings Smith refused to take on the bouncer, happy even for them to thud into his body rather than attempt a stroke.
Not before he was well set – until he had faced 100 balls – did Smith regularly start to lay bat on short balls. That was stage one of his plan, to allow himself to get bolted to the crease before unfurling pulls and hooks.
Whereas stage one was about temperament, stage two was based on technique. Smith made a point of standing tall and hitting down on his pulls and hooks to minimise the chance of lofting the ball.
Smith’s patience, combined with this technical adjustment, helped him to wear down the talented and disciplined Kiwi bowling unit. This is just what he has done to Test attacks all over the world in the past six years. When everything is clicking for him he tears attacks to pieces.
At other times, when runs are tougher to come by, he just grinds and grinds and grinds.
That’s what he did yesterday. NZ’s quicks bowled well on an MCG pitch that offered them reasonable assistance. Smith was not able to get on a roll but he never lost his composure, trusted his tactics and frustrated the Kiwis with 77* from 192 balls.
With Marnus Labuschagne (63), David Warner (41), Matt Wade (38) and Travis Head (25*) all chipping in, Australia had the better of what was an absorbing day of Test cricket.
New Zealand will need to make major inroads in the first session this morning to stop Smith from batting them out of the Test.