Steve Smith loves to move. Watching him take stance for a delivery is as fascinating an experience as watching him bat. He pats his thigh-pads, touches his helmet, fixes his gloves, looks around the field, and then, at long last, brings his bat to the ground as a signal to the bowler, who could’ve finished a hot dog by now, to start his run-up. As the bowler runs in, he does his final preparatory move — the half squat pulse. He does this routine six balls an over, every over, all day. For someone who scores at a brisk rate in all formats, one could wager he spends a lot more calories preparing to bat than he does while batting.
Audiences, teammates, maybe even the fielders, go through an entire emotional journey while he gets ready. Sir Ian Botham, one who has seen and played a fair bit of cricket, couldn’t help himself on the first day of the 2019 Ashes. “This is unbelievable”, he quipped, clearly suffering in wait for Smith to give English bowlers a chance to bowl at him, never mind plot his dismissal.
Little do they know, this is only the prelude. Steve Smith’s batting technique is a warp drive of a whole new level. Most batting textbooks will tell you that when a batsman attempts a shot, a bat’s downward arc should start from the slips, ideally first slip. The variance of techniques is what makes cricket such a delightful sport to follow, but the arc, among a few other things, is common between all the great batsmen to have played the sport. Smith’s starts from square gully, sometimes from point.
Next comes the shuffle. Good batting, elite batting, hinges a lot on the stillness of body. Great batsmen find a way to suspend time as a bowler is about to finish his run-up. For a brief second, the only things that move are the bowlers’ arms and legs. A repeating theme among the paeans written to the technique of the all-time greats is how their head and body used to be motionless when bowlers released the ball.
In that school of batsmanship, widely regarded as the de facto standard, shuffling is spoken of as a cardinal sin, almost as if it is a recipe for guaranteed failure. It makes sense too. It is far easier to negotiate a moving ball at 85 mph with a still body than with one in motion. Steve Smith has shuffled all his life, and his test average is second only to the peerless Don Bradman. For more than half a decade, bowlers, very good ones, have tried to find a chink in his armor, and they have failed.
Great batsmen also play great shots. A well-timed cover drive is a batsman’s way of exerting control on the match and the bowler. A fierce pull for six is, well, any expletive of your imagination. To the untrained eye, and as it turns out — to many bowlers across the world, Steve Smith looks like he’s just about getting his bat on the ball’s path, just managing to defend his pads or the stumps. His continuous movement and shuffling clashes with the deep-rooted conventions of what good batting must look like and leaves an illusion that he is uncomfortable. If Smith was a magician, and he probably has a case to be called one, he would call this his greatest trick. The Prestige, in pop culture terminology.
Smith has treated everything orthodox about batting aesthetics as embellishment, breaking his craft down to the most basic technique of efficient run scoring. Despite all his body movements and elaborate rituals, he still hits the ball with a straight bat. At the point of contact with the ball, the bat is always perpendicular to the pitch. His fluidity, then, enables him to play the ball at uncanny angles at a pace only he is aware of. Steve Smith’s technique comes off as quirky and cumbersome, but in truth, he treats batting in the most uncomplicated manner. If he can hit the ball in a way that enables him to score well, to hell with the optics.
Technique is, or can be, a strictly physical concept. To stand out amongst the competition, one must control their body to move in the most effective way possible. The distribution of athletes with conventional technique as opposed to something unorthodox at the highest level of any sport is a great illustration of the importance of getting your mechanics right. It is drilled into you from the day you first attend a practice session, and often the first thing you’re taught by a coach.
Steve Smith would argue, justifiably so, that his technique is just as efficient and effective as anyone else, maybe much more than most others — he has the numbers to back it up. It’s because Smith doesn’t treat technique the same way most others do. He belongs to a rare breed who treat technique as a small physical detail of a larger mental game. As long as he is getting runs, it doesn’t matter to Smith if they are pretty. Like Novak Djokovic, who wouldn’t find himself anywhere near the podium if the aesthetics of tennis are used to rank players across its history, but has more Grand Slam titles than everyone but two of them (men’s singles, of course), Smith makes it impossible to defeat him, because his mind is uncluttered by the embellishments which most others fawn over. You remember a Kohli innings for his cover drives, a Kane Williamson innings for his back foot punches, but you remember a Steve Smith innings for how he negotiated conditions and bowlers.
Smith’s mind — much unlike his hands, feet, or any other part of his anatomy — is still. At a World Cup semi-final, at Pune on a track that has more cracks than Donald Trump’s logic, on the first day of a home Ashes test, or at 122–8, in front of a crowd baying for his blood, on the day he is returning from a year-long ban from any first-class cricket, he treats cricket as an easy game between wood and leather.
This recent ICC World Cup, much celebrated for New Zealand’s honest brilliance and England’s belligerence, let us a little glimpse into the strength of Steve Smith’s mind. In the semi-final against England, on a sluggish Edgbaston pitch, with the entire batting lineup crumbling around him, Steve Smith announced his come-back with an 85 that was typically Steve Smith — unspectacular, edgy, workmanlike, yet, the core around which his team’s inning revolved. In the four ICC World Cup knockout matches he has played in his career, Steve Smith has never scored less than a half-century. He has 1116 runs from his last 10 Ashes innings. Such performance probably doesn’t come solely from the purity of technique.
It is Edgbaston again. He shuffles, pats his paraphernalia, brings his bat down from an angle that should be awkward, and drives the ball for four through the covers. It is a spectacular shot, yet merely an inconsequential detail, because it is one with which Steve Smith has just reached his second century on his comeback test. The largely English crowd, unrelenting throughout the World Cup and this test, finally gives up and stands in applause. The story, like it always is with him, will be about the mental strength it must take to play knocks of this significance.
How else do you even explain two centuries in a single test after a year away from all cricket?