Steve Smith’s greatest strength is adapting on the run, but decoding the strategic puzzle set for him by India is becoming one of his toughest Tests yet.
It was somewhat unfortunate that, during perhaps the worst period of form in his career, Smith was named the ICC’s Test player of the decade.
While there was some consternation about the makeup of the best Test XI of 2010 to 2020, no one was arguing with Smith receiving the top gong.
It’s an incredible achievement, and his rise remains one of Australian cricket’s greatest ever stories.
On the morning of day four at the MCG, former teammate Chris Rogers asked what he saw as his greatest strength.
In a candid interview, Smith’s ranging answer referenced the ability to make adjustments on the run.
During last year’s Ashes series, coach Justin Langer called Smith “the best problem-solver in the game”.
“You’ve got to learn to adapt on the go,” Smith said on SEN Test Cricket.
“There’s things I change day-in day-out and you’ve got to have the confidence to do it out in the middle without practicing it. (It’s about) adapting to that situation that’s needed on the wicket, or what they’re trying to do or how they’re trying to get you out, and just being able to do it on the go rather than getting out and going ‘I should have done this’. For me that’s one of my biggest strengths.”
But Smith has shown thus far this series, he has not been able to solve the puzzle set for him by India.
The tourists came to Australia with specific plans for the world’s best Test batter, which were expertly executed in Adelaide and especially in Melbourne by the tactically astute Ajinkya Rahane.
In short, India has bowled straight at Smith and choked him on the leg side, preventing him turning over strike, which is a key feature of his game — especially early in his innings.
During last year’s Ashes (where Smith averaged 110.6) Smith’s ability to turn the likes of Stuart Broad from a foot outside off stump to behind square leg was maddeningly repetitive for England.
While Joe Root generally moved an extra man onto the leg side for Smith, the home side still struggled to plug the gaps.
But India have gone a step further.
At times they’ve employed a six-three leg side heavy field and, firing in at his pads, asked Smith to strike ‘inside-out’ through the offside, something he has been unable to do thus far.
He has returned scores of 1, 1*, 0 and 8 this series.
It would be a stretch to suggest he has been ‘worked out’, but both India and New Zealand have employed the tactic successfully in the last 12 months.
Cricket writer Gideon Haigh put Smith’s newfound challenge succinctly.
“Teams have worked out that he is very skilful at getting off strike,” he said on the Cricket, Et Cetera podcast.
“He has this reliance, almost the respirator systems of his batting is that capacity to turn the ball off his hip and get a single to leg. I think teams have decided they’re just going to bottle him up. They’re not going to bother stopping his boundaries, they’re going to stop his singles. And that has stopped a lot of his momentum at the crease.”
Smith has a likeable ability to understand and speak openly about technical issues at the crease that he is working through.
He acknowledged during the interview that he had allowed Ravichandran Ashwin to “dictate terms”, and understood what needed to change.
“At the moment I’m searching for time in the middle,” he said.
“When I look at this year, I think 64 balls is the longest I’ve spent in the middle during those one-day games. For me that’s important, I find a lot of rhythm out in the middle. You can bat as much as you want in the nets but there’s nothing that can replicate what a game can do. So that, for me, is what I’m searching for at the moment. That can be tough to do, particularly in a Test match when you’ve got some quality bowlers.”
It shouldn’t be discounted the impact of consecutive biosecure bubbles on Smith’s game.
While he was quick not to use it as an excuse, he admitted that not having seen his wife since August was difficult.
They were expected to reunite at Christmas, but Sydney’s COVID outbreak prevented that from occurring.
The mental impacts of COVID-enforced restrictions aren’t insignificant, and Smith has now spent over 150 days in largely confined environments.
A hallmark of his character, however, is an ability to find a way through difficult periods.
Some of those who know him well — Tim Paine and Ricky Ponting two of those — have expressed little doubt that a big score is around the corner.