Steve Smith’s heavy exposure to T20s since his ball-tampering ban has added an extra gear to his batting, as he underlined with a stunning 62-ball ton against India on Friday.
The Australian star’s previous nine ODI centuries had come from an average of 105 balls, emphasising just how out of character this innings was in its pace and aggression.
The third-fastest ODI century ever by an Aussie, Smith’s SCG blitzkrieg was marked by innovation and belligerence, the kind of knock he’s previously reserved for the shortest format.
While many fans bemoan T20’s impact on batting techniques, in Smith’s case it seems be powering a valuable evolution in his ODI game. The tampering ban may have inadvertently helped release untapped potential.
In the five years prior to that ban Smith played just 13 T20s a year on average. As a comparison, Indian champion Virat Kohli played more than double that many T20s in the same period.
Back then T20s were a low priority for Smith – he rarely played for Australia, with most of his appearances coming in the IPL.
Since the sandpaper fiasco, however, Smith has been bingeing on the shortest format. In just over two years he’s featured in a whopping 60 T20s. It was the only format he was able to play during his ban, when Smith was blocked from making international and state appearances.
So he jetted off to T20 franchise leagues in Canada, the Caribbean, Sri Lanka and India. Smith’s newfound affection for T20s didn’t expire along with his ban. Since that exile ended Smith has played in two IPL tournaments and every single T20 for Australia and even featured in the BBL last summer for the first time in six years.
This heavy involvement in T20s has changed Smith. The world’s premier Test batsman might not have morphed into an Andre Russell-style slugger, but he does seem more familiar and comfortable with taking risks in white-ball cricket.
Smith’s ascent to Test deity status was built to an extent on his aversion to undue risk, his determination that his wicket must be earnt not gifted. Not until very well set at the crease would he unfurl his full repertoire of strokes against the red ball.
In the space of a year, starting in late 2013, this more cautious approach saw Smith progress from a meme Test cricketer to a mean Test cricketer. Gradually this flowed into his ODI game.
While Smith began his ODI career as a dynamic, mercurial stroke player, he transformed into a wary, predictable anchor batsman, one praised for his consistency yet also criticised for an inability to shift up the gears.
Now, likely due to his greater T20 experience, Smith is showing signs he can adopt either of those identities as the match situation demands.
This was certainly the case on Friday night. It was vigilant Smith who arrived at the crease with Australia at 1-156 in the 28th over. He played within himself as he moved to 30 from 30 balls on a pitch that bulged with runs.
Then, in a moment, Smith changed character. The accumulator was replaced by a daredevil. First he cleared his front leg, T20-style, and clubbed Indian spinner Ravi Jadeja over cover for four. Next ball he clattered another boundary behind point.
The subdued Smith, the one we’ve come to know in ODIs, would likely have eased off at this point. With 13 overs remaining, he’d have been content to get off strike with a single. This new version, though, decided to go after Jadeja again the very next ball, opening up his stance once more to create room for a slog over long on. Smith’s mis-hit would have been caught well inside the boundary but for a bad misjudgement by fieldsman Shikhar Dhawan.
The Aussie was not affected by this fortune. Instead of noting his luck and reining himself in, Smith revelled in his newly discovered top gear, thumping fours from his next two balls to make it five boundaries on the trot.
From then until his dismissal Smith deployed naked aggression. He played pick-up shots, lofted cover drives, slog sweeps and brutal pulls. Amid that maelstrom one stroke stood out. To the world’s No. 2 ODI bowler Jasprit Bumrah, a man capable of hitting 150 kilometres per hour, Smith got down on one knee.
From that position he played a curious yet brilliant stroke to an off cutter that pitched a good 70 centimetres outside off stump. This gentle scoop-sweep lobbed over the square leg fieldsman and bounced, bounced, bounced to the boundary.
Very, very rarely in his career can India’s best quick have been swept. Smith would not have been on the list of batsmen Bumrah may have expected to attempt such an outrageous shot.
This, however, was not the Smith he knew or we thought we knew. This was a brazen batsman whose game has widened in scope due to a buffet of T20 cricket.