Torrent of runs slow to a drip: How India turned screw on Steve Smith

At the end of the 2019 Ashes series after England's plan to have Steve Smith caught at leg slip belatedly bore fruit, the great batsman found solace from the unlikely manner of dismissal.

"They've had that position a bit for me and I've always felt if you hit one there it's kind of unlucky in a way and it just takes a catcher out of somewhere else, so go for your life," Smith said after the Test at The Oval.

Steve Smith departs for a duck in the first innings of the Boxing Day Test.Credit:Getty

"When you do [pitch full], where do you put fielders? He hits through point, he hits straight down the ground, he hits them in weird areas through mid-wicket. You bowl a fourth-stump ball and he hits you through mid-wicket for four and you're like, 'Where do I bowl to this guy?'"

It worked twofold. Smith the Great became Smith the Good, his average reduced to a tick under 43, but his scoring rate of 34 runs per 100 balls was nearly half that of his superhuman Ashes campaign.

In short (pardon the pun), if they could not get him out cheaply, they would at least make his stay at the crease as uncomfortable as possible.

Smith said in November the tactic was a form of "flattery" as it showed teams had all but conceded they could not get him out through more conventional methods.

India have not imitated Wagner – as it takes considerable skill, strength and stamina to be able to bowl short at variable speeds for long periods – but his success has clearly not gone unnoticed.

Aware of Smith's ability to whip balls through the onside that most players would hit through off, the Indians have protected the leg side with men at leg gully and in front of square.

These fielders are primarily in run-saving, rather than catching, positions, denying Smith the easy single to get off strike and start again.

Steve Smith – Ashes series (2019)

  • Balls faced: 1196
  • Runs scored: 774
  • Average: 110.6
  • Strike rate: 64.7
  • Dot balls: 66.8%

Steve Smith – NZ and India series (2019-20)

  • Balls faced: 695
  • Runs scored: 224
  • Average: 28
  • Strike rate: 32.2
  • Dot balls: 81.3%

Opta's figures show that 40 per cent of the deliveries Smith has faced this series have pitched back of a length outside off stump, for two runs from 27 balls, compared to just 15 per cent in this area from the 2019 Ashes to this summer.

"I think with the modern game, something that we're realising very quickly is people are coming up with new ways of thinking about the game slightly differently," Marnus Labuschagne, another player who is finding batting more difficult this series, said during the Boxing Day Test.

"People are coming up with new ways. They came in with a heavy leg-side field and bowled very straight, didn't give us any real scoring options to get off strike."

That's the technical aspect. Twelve months ago, some attributed Smith's reduced output to the unfamiliar position he found himself in of not having to dig his team out of a hole. The events of recent weeks debunks this theory.

Perhaps, as the former teammate suggests, the head knocks during the past 18 months are still in the back of his mind and affecting his positioning at the crease. Only Smith can honestly answer this question, though it probably won't be for public consumption until the end of his career.

Are the onerous conditions of hub life since mid-August weighing him down? So too not being able to see his wife, Dani Willis, for more than four months?

New Zealand’s Neil Wagner may have shown the world some issues with Steve Smith’s technique last summer.Credit:AP

"Not ideal, but nothing to suggest there’s a link between bubble life and Steve’s form," Australia's batting whisperer, Andrew McDonald, who, as the Rajasthan Royals head coach, has spent more time with Smith than most in recent months, said this week.

Smith puts it down to a lack of time in the middle. He may have "found his hands" in quarantine but, without the Sheffield Shield games he would conventionally have before the Test season, other aspects of his unorthodox game have not returned.

"When I look at this year, 64 balls is the longest I've spent in the middle, during those one-day games," Smith said on SEN during the Boxing Day Test, referring to his centuries in the series against India.

"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."

So what can Smith do? One former teammate believes Smith last summer seemed more intent on survival rather than scoring. Smith himself has said he needs to adopt a more attacking mindset, particularly against spinner Ravi Ashwin, who has dismissed him twice this series.

Michael Hussey offered a more radical solution – but one Smith has employed before.

"What I found amazing is a few years ago he changed his technique and footwork mid-innings to start shuffling across," Hussey says. "Maybe one of the options is to not shuffle across. If he stays a bit leg side of the ball he can look to hit it a bit more off side.

"Maybe standing stiller. That won't be an easy change to make because he's obviously gotten pretty used to shuffling across the crease and flicking a lot through the leg side."

There's not much to do in hotel quarantine but the man who coach Justin Langer describes as the "best problem solver in the world" has a decent brain strainer to put his mind to.

"There’s a challenge there for Steve to rebound," McDonald said. "The world’s best players usually rebound."

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