It is almost an Australian tradition now. They begin every Test series by announcing the name of the player they will be targeting. But this time round, Pat Cummins has gone a different route. Rather than saying who they’ll be going after, he’s come out and said how Virat Kohli’s absence may not be the deciding factor in the series.
The words might rile up India skipper Kohli, who has been granted paternity leave by the BCCI and is scheduled to return to India after the opening day-night Test, anyway. But with Kohli gone, the onus will be on Cheteshwar Pujara and his uniquely slow grind.
For India, on the other hand, the challenge is as clear as daylight. To win the series, they will need to get the better of Steve Smith. On India’s last tour Down Under, Australia’s best batsman was Marcus Harris and he scored 238 runs at an average of 36.85. Smith does better even in his poor series’.
They talk about how his unorthodox technique makes him difficult to bowl at but the true problems arise from his consistency. He scores runs against all oppositions and on all surfaces. The best attacks get the best out of him too and he is yet to meet his match in the format that has seen him average 62.84 after 73 matches.
In Marnus Labuschangne, he might have found a dependable ally. The 26-year-old is averaging 63.43 after 14 Tests but it is still early days in his career. For now, Smith is the indisputable leader and the man whose back the Indian bowlers would like to see the most.
Smith’s obsession with batting or shadow batting has become a running joke but when he is focussed and in the zone, he seems to block out all distractions.
During the Ashes in 2019, coach Justin Langer had revealed that even when the willow was out of his hands, Smith’s mind refused to let go.
“He’s just shadow batting the whole time,” Langer said. “He’s shadow batting on the sand (in Gallipoli), he’s shadow batting in the shower – I’m not joking.”
He is always at it, always moving yet he is as still as one can be when he meets the ball. David Warner rarely ever bats before a match, Sachin Tendulkar would only take throwdowns but Smith never misses a session. The sound of the ball hitting the middle of his bat is music that spurs him on. It cuts out the chatter. It gets him in the zone.
|Vs Ind in Aus||4||769||192||128.19||4|
|Vs Ind in Ind||6||660||178*||60||3|
Highest career averages
|DG Bradman (AUS)||52||6996||334||99.94||29||13|
|M Labuschagne (AUS)||14||1459||215||63.43||4||8|
|SPD Smith (AUS)||73||7227||239||62.84||26||29|
The team management tries to slow him down from time to time but there is no denying that it is working for him at the moment.
In the 9 matches he has played since his return to the team after the ball-tampering ban, he is averaging 73.42 and this is despite the poor series against Pakistan. It might be said that he wouldn’t have had much motivation in that series. When he came out to bat in the first Test, Australia were 351/2 and in the second Test, they were 369/2.
Just ahead of the ODI series against India, he seemed relieved. He revealed, he had finally found his hands after struggling through the IPL. For a player like Smith, who shuffles across his stumps all the time, hand-eye coordination is vital. If it’s not in sync, he won’t be able to whip the ball across the line and keep getting trapped leg before the wicket or get the leading edge.
And then as if to show that he wasn’t kidding, he slammed two quick-fire centuries in the first two ODIs to get the tour off to an ominous start for India.
Smith since Aug 1, 2019
Come the Tests, India will need a plan. Hell, they’ll need a plan A, a plan B, a plan C and hope that at least one of them works. For if it doesn’t, the series will be lost. It is as simple as that.
So what can they do? What are they most likely to attempt to do? The options are clear.
In Australia’s Test series against New Zealand in the 2019-’20 season, Neil Wagner kept attacking Smith with the short ball. The left-armer removed the Australian ace four times with the short delivery – twice caught at square leg, once at leg gully, and once fending to the off-side gully.
During the last Ashes series, he was concussed after being hit by a Jofra Archer bouncer. He missed a Test but continued to score the big runs when he returned to the playing XI.
So while the short-ball attack is an option, is it a viable one? Smith still ended up averaging 42.8 against NZ and 110.8 in the Ashes.
“It’s no dramas for me. I just play the game and sum up the conditions, how they’re trying to get me out and being able to counter that,” Smith told News Corp. “I mean, a few different oppositions have tried it and they’ve certainly found it more difficult to [execute it] the way Wagner did. He’s got an amazing skill set where his speeds go up and down…everything is between your ribs and your head.
“If teams are trying to get me out like that it’s probably a big benefit for my team because it takes a lot out of people’s bodies if you continually bowl short. I’ve faced a lot of short bowling in my life and I haven’t had too many stresses with it. I suppose we’ll just wait and see.”
With Ishant Sharma missing, India will also have to wonder if Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and whoever the third paceman is can sustain this line of attack and for how long.
By covering his stumps, Smith has a better sense of the balls he can leave and ones he needs to play. So Sachin Tendulkar feels that the best way to attack the right-hander is to go even wider. Take the leg-side away from him and make him reach for it.
“Smith’s technique is unconventional...Normally, we tell a bowler in Test matches to bowl on and around off-stump or may be fourth stump line. But for Smith, because he shuffles, may be that line (of delivery) moves further away by four to five inches,” Tendulkar recently told PTI in an interview.
“One has to aim between (imaginary) fourth and fifth stump for Steve to nick one. It’s just a mental adjustment of line, more than anything else,” the former captain said. “I think, he needs to be tested on and around that off-stump channel. Keep him on the back-foot and induce that early mistake.”
Teams tend to try this with Virat Kohli too and the tactic calls for the bowlers to have an inordinate amount of patience as well. It isn’t easy to keep moving to this line after bowling conventionally to the other batsmen. It might also lead to a loss of rhythm.
The leg-side trap
Since Smith moves across his stumps so much, getting him caught down the leg-side could be a tactic worth exploring too. Coming around the wicket could also work and maybe even force Smith to stop moving across the stumps as well.
The short ball into the ribs could get the tickle through to the ‘keeper or even be guided to the leg slip. India might even consider just placing a fielder there to get into Smith’s head.
Perhaps the Indian team is already looking at this given how they got Harris out in the second innings of the second tour game – they had Prithvi Shaw placed at leg-slip in the first over (bowled by Shami) itself and the opener obliged. But a lot will also depend on whether the ball is moving in the air or off the pitch.
Late movement could induce a mistake whereas no movement could be easy runs. India will have to find the right balance there.
Either way, we are set for a fascinating battle between the best Test batsman of this generation against one of the finest bowling attacks around. Who knows, maybe Bumrah could find an even higher level or perhaps Smith may once again stamp his class on a series that is fast attaining marquee status in world cricket.
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