The unsuspecting Jimmy Neesham was puzzled. Glenn Maxwell, fielding at cover, couldn’t trust his eyes. Steve Smith had just let an off-break rip away, which the unprepared Kiwi left-hander just scrambled to defend. The world knows that Smith can bowl leggies — it’s the gift that gave him an unexpected Test debut against Pakistan at Lord’s nine years ago. He batted at No. 8 and it’s well storied how he transformed into a batting colossus. But here the leggie-turned-batting great was bowling off-breaks with control and venom.
Let alone off-breaks, he hadn’t bowled anything in the last three years in ODIs. Then this trickery. But knowing Smith’s penchant for the unorthodox and his uncanny ability to pull it off, like his batting, this doesn’t come as a surprise.
Smith’s new dimension provides Finch with alternatives. He can now resist the Adam Zampa temptation even if the surface promises turn. He can rely on the Smith-Glenn Maxwell combo for filling up the fifth-bowler’s quota. Maxwell, with his flat off-breaks, and Smith, with his concoction of leg-breaks and off-breaks. As for Smith, he can keep mixing his spin variations when facing teams like South Africa that have three left-handers in the top order.
During his time away from the game, Smith was diligently working on his bowling. Like for instance, he brooded over an action-tweak.
“I’m trying to base my action off Shahid Afridi actually, and try and bowl quite fast and into the wicket. As I’m getting a bit older, I can’t walk in anymore and bowl as fast as I need to, so I’ve got a bit more momentum through my run-up so I can get the ball down a bit quicker,” he had said.
So when one inspects closely, Smith is more Afridi than Shane Warne these days. He doesn’t flight the ball as much. Neither does he get drift. The leg-breaks rather skid on straight, or break away marginally.
In this regard, the break was timely. Plying for his childhood club Sutherland afforded him time to work on his bowling. “In most of the games (T20s), he used to bowl his full quota of overs, mostly leg-breaks and was quite effective too.
He would get more turn than our regular leg-spinners and would tell me that he wanted to bowl more regularly in international games,” club captain Chris Williams had told this newspaper.
For much of his career, Sachin Tendulkar used to flirt between seam-up/off-breaks/leg-breaks with as much ease as he shifted gears when batting, depending on conditions and situations. In contemporary cricket, only Sri Lankan Akila Dananjaya does it to a reasonably effective extent.
Providing an edge
While such bowlers aren’t indispensable to the game, their presence no doubt renders an edge. Smith might not bowl in every match, but in case Finch wants to do something different, he can dial him. It could be a punt, but on such punts have swung games in the past.
Cue Tendulkar in Kochi, against Australia and Pakistan. Cue Tendulkar in that epic Kolkata Test (2001, Australia).
Smith always had that Tendulkaresque knack of breaking partnerships. Like Kevin Pietersen at Cardiff and The Oval; Eoin Morgan in Manchester; Paul Collingwood at The Oval. All in the 2010 series. A year later, he had Pietersen’s number again, besides nailing an in-pomp Ian Bell twice in a row in the return leg.
Why Australia let such a utilitarian spinner slip away, despite the scarcity of spinning talent in the shorter formats, is unfathomable. Maybe, his ascent as a batsman led to the descent in his bowling. Being the chief batsman and dragging the team during a transitional phase had taken an obvious toll. But the art was not lost.
But now that he’s relieved of captaincy, Smith can dwell more on his bowling. Whereas he might be a limited spinner, risks overdoing the stuff, his cricketing nous is an add-on.
The Australian gave a fleeting evidence of it in his five balls against Neesham. After ripping the off-break, he held his length back, forcing Neesham to stretch his upper body to defend it with stiff hands and stiffer legs. A trifle more turn and speed would have spelled more trouble.
The third ball was rather slowish and closer to the stumps and Neesham could afford to play it off the surface and get inside the line off the ball.
The last ball was the one that went straight on, slightly fuller to make a devastating impact.
Neesham just glided it to point for a single. Missing perhaps was a degree of extreme nuance, but one could decipher that Smith meant serious business. Not just another happy-go-lucky part-timer.
The most striking feature of Smith’s off-spin bowling is the smoothness of his action and release. He doesn’t tweak the ball viciously like Graeme Swann, neither does he impart massive revs on the ball. He also keeps changing the release points, shuffles his length, mixes his line, changes his pace. Smith, crafty as he is, has it in him to leave the batsmen puzzled.
There could be more of Smith, the twirler, this World Cup.