Can someone film Steve Smith when he is sleeping, please? Does he sleepwalk? Does he ever stay still? If you get past his bodily ticks — the twitches and the frenetic movements of a 3-year old unable to be still, you get to the essence of his art: the time he has to play a shot. Is it an illusion created by feverish moves that when his muscles finally calm down prior to meeting the ball that it seems he has more time?
The stillness after the storm, creating that illusion but that can’t be it. Just look how late he plays the ball, or leaves it outside off. The military-snap leave in particular, when he yanks the bat at the last instant, in seeming mockery of the bowler — the ball seems to be almost kissing the bat when Smith turns prudish and sends it away harshly.
And at times, it does seem he has two shots for a ball — usually said about many good players but only the greats actually possess that. Not even Virat Kohli has that. Kohli’s shots are picture-perfect but they rarely give the impression that he was toying in his mind about numerous possibilities; Kohli’s shot seems to be the best possible to that ball, executed to perfection. That’s a tribute to him — that clarity of mind is what makes him excel more than say Rohit Sharma.
Smith is different. Because he watches that round red thing like an obsessed lover. The late Martin Crowe had once explained the intricacy involved in playing late. “To play late, you have the see the ball early, otherwise you are unsure and playing the ball too early.”
One can see Crowe’s words come to life in Smith. Even as he is moving about and his mind is working overtime to arrive at the shot decision, his eyes are fixated on the ball. At what point in the trajectory does he decide the shot to play? At times he seems to decide so late, especially when he whisks the ball from middle stump to leg, raising hopes of lbw in the bowlers, but he is obviously in control.
In some sense, Smith is the most arrogant batsman of modern era. Not because he thrashes and biffs the ball — many others do it a lot better — but in the way he constantly undermines and teases the bowlers. The drive off the back foot. That last-instant leave. The casual swipe across the line as if he is flicking dirt off his trousers. The sudden decision to go inside-out to balls that he usually smears through the on side.
Watching Smith bat often brings to mind Jacques Kallis. Not because there is any similarity but because they couldn’t be more different. No one perhaps has stripped batting of its accoutrements like Kallis did – anything that was excess to the core of a shot was dropped off, the feet movement was precise, there was a sense of clinical cleanness to him; that was what made him great, and that was also why many cricket watchers remained aloof to that greatness.
Kallis had made batting sterile, a remarkable non-fussiness inherent in his defence that made it seem as if there was no venom in what would have been a cracking inswinger. For his feet would have moved exactly how much was needed – not more, not less, and the bat would have come down in straight lines to block the ball dead in front. Like he would sponge out Zaheer Khan’s in-dippers. He almost denied that moment of its potential romantic battle that perhaps left some a touch cold.
Rahul Dravid made struggle sexy, dragging the viewers into the fight with him – he would stretch inexorably towards the moving ball, a dare in itself, but Kallis didn’t do dares. He just did what was needed.
Smith veers to the other extreme. He is all dares and there is a bit of showmanship in his style. An ordinary leave doesn’t suffice, he has to snap his bat away. A regulation straight drive to a middle-stump ball won’t do; he has to let the ball keep coming in till we jerk up, till the bowler’s eyes almost pop out in anticipation, before he would nonchalantly whoosh it to the leg side. Precise foot movement? Why such abstinence. Indulge, walk, nay roam, about the crease. If Kallis was the unemotional batsman, a sort of Hollywood’s Russian, Smith is pure Hollywood. Theatrical even when he is not playing a shot. No wonder we watch with jaws open.
But somehow, he makes all that flashiness seem utilitarian. Perhaps, because he doesn’t have the personality that matches the stereotype of a showman. Maybe, it will hit us when, one of these days, he will start the Michael Jackson moonwalk while awaiting the ball.
The other day one met Sreesanth. For all his eccentricities, he is a good guy to talk cricket with. He asked a question, rather wondered aloud, why aren’t the bowlers bowling leg-cutters or the away-swinger, the one that lands full on a length around off and goes away from Smith.
“You are never going to get him lbw, forget it. Never. The best ball is the one leaving him from the off-stump line. Where does he end up despite all that moving about? Off-stump or just outside it, right? So the leg-cutter or a good outswinger that moves away from the line of his body is still the way to do it. Why aren’t they bowling it? That away ball can’t start from outside off as he would not touch it. It has to start in his line, where he thinks about playing before it moves away.”
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Why didn’t they bowl the leg-cutter? Perhaps, that’s Smith’s greatest achievement. By doing what he does, he makes the bowler forget the basics. He presents a moving target that distracts them. You aren’t going to go get him with bouncers too often as he moves to the off-stump line, the best position possible as the ball is almost always going to be near his left shoulder. He got felled by a bouncer but that was the one time when he froze, he didn’t walk at all, just stood there and got knocked down. That’s not going to happen often unless he reveals hitherto unseen yips against bouncers. It’s best used as a surprise item to catch him unawares, not the staple diet.
All easy and almost obvious, one would think, but somehow, incredibly, Smith makes the bowlers forget the basics. That’s some devilish trick. Only in Smith’s case, the greatest trick the devil has played is not that there is no devil but to create an illusion that there is a devil in all other places. The bowlers get tired trying every useless trick possible to get him; the latest being bowling at the sixth stump outside off stump. Boredom can get someone like Brian Lara (unless he has a landmark in sight); it’s not going to get a batting-obsessed Smith. Certainly not in this comeback-from-hell year. Unless he has crossed 200.
It’s not his leg-side smearing of straight deliveries that boggles the mind as all said and done, we have seen many a subcontinental batsman do it even if Smith’s way is distinctly different. It might startle an Anglo-Saxon but it’s familiar territory to us. It’s that backfoot straight/off drive that bewilders. Only the West Indians have shown that flair in the past. And even with them, it was within their flair framework. The lithe bodies gliding back before they let the hands go through the line as if whiplashing the ball.
It wasn’t easy for them, of course, but they grew up watching batsmen from their region do it for generations. It sort of becomes regional muscle memory. Batting often works like that. Laxman had to follow Azhar’s wrists. Tendulkar had to whip the ball to leg a la Gavaskar. Ponting had to pull.
There is no Australian precedent to Smith’s back-foot wizardry. And unlike some West Indians proficient in that shot, say Lara, his body doesn’t waltz similarly. The spring and coil of a West Indian batsman is different, more jazzy, beautiful, almost natural. Smith’s backfoot drive isn’t of the same mould. Until that bat starts to descend, he is as Australian as it can be. The back-foot-across movement and the arms flex all point to an Australian firm punch, but suddenly, once he sees the ball is pretty full, he morphs. He bends his knees, lets the hands go through, loose-limbed and all, through the line. It doesn’t have the balletic rhythm of a Caribbean batsman but, more importantly, he has total control over it. It’s a shot that fetches him four runs and in the process he has left his stamp all over it: ballsy, ingenious, arrogant, startling, copybook-shredding, bowler left gaping, showmanship, great skill, and one shot that seems most unsuited for the occasion, for the position he had withdrawn to.
In other words, pure Smith. He doesn’t do it as others do; he does it as he wishes to do. A true original of our times. The fools can boo all they like; the rest of us can but gape in admiration.