India beware: Steve Smith has 'found his hands' again

The world's No.1 Test batsman bouncing with excitement to get stuck into big summer of cricket after one of his more unique batting quirks clicked into place

Stories of self-discovery abound from the global COVID19 lockdown, but few are as quirkily idiosyncratic as Steve Smith's months-long search for his hands.

It's not that the world's top-ranked Test batter lost use of his extremities due to too much guitar strumming, or somehow misplaced them inside the flotilla of protective gloves he carries with him on his international cricket odyssey.

Rather, a crucial component of Smith's notoriously intricate set-up at the crease – the positioning of his hands on the bat handle – felt uncomfortably wrong when he first returned to the game after this year's lockdown and he has been unable to rediscover the secret.

Until last weekend, that is.

During a nets session at Blacktown Sports Park, where the Australia and India players recently returned from the Indian Premier League are able to train in small groups ahead of the Dettol ODI Series beginning on Friday, the myriad moving pieces of Smith's unorthodox technique locked into place.

"The past few days I have found something ... I have found my hands which I am extremely excited about," Smith said today.

"It's taken me about three-and-a-half or four months to do it.

"I had a big smile on my face after training the other day, I walked past (men's team assistant coach) Andrew McDonald and said 'I've found them again'.

"Theoretically it is a simple thing, but it is just getting that feel and the look of the bat behind my toe the right way and the way my hands come up on the bat.

"It's hard to explain but it just hasn't quite been right until probably two days ago and I found a little something and everything just clicked in.

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"It changes where you meet the ball to hit the ball in certain places.

"Just slight things, and bits of rhythm aren't quite right.

"It's taken me a lot longer than usual, I don't know why … I pretty much didn't bat for four months at the start of COVID.

"So whether it's taken me a bit longer to get them back, I don't know but I'm glad I've been able to find something in the last few days."

The unorthodoxies in Smith's hugely successful batting are mostly simple to spot.

His closed grip and bat raise towards point; his exaggerated trigger movement across his stumps; the dominance of his bottom (right) hand that allows him to whip balls from outside off-stump through the leg-side field.

But there other intricacies that only Smith can see and feel, such as the need to tape his boot laces beneath the bottom flaps of his pads so they aren't in his eyeline when he looks down that the crease in his batting stance.

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And the imperative that his hands to be fixed in perfect position, with any minor misplacement distracting like a burr embedded within one of those innumerable pairs of gloves.

The last time his hands became so uncomfortably displaced was prior to the 2017-18 Ashes series in Australia, after he returned from a series of one-day matches in India.

Dismissed for single-figure scores in New South Wales' opening Sheffield Shield match of that summer against South Australia, Smith went into the next game against Western Australia – just weeks before the first Ashes Test – conceding the occasional problem had struck again.

"I remember I was struggling with it, I didn't quite have my rhythm and the way I was holding the bat wasn't quite right," he recalled today.

"I remember I found it in the game against WA at Hurstville Oval, something sort of clicked halfway through that innings and I then was good to go.

"I had a similar moment the other day, albeit in the nets."

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Smith scored 76 and 127 in that game against WA, and finished the triumphant Ashes summer as Australia Test captain plundering 687 runs at an average of 137.40 including three centuries and a personal best of 239.

If the fix he found in the nets at Blacktown over the weekend delivers similar results in the upcoming Dettol ODI and T20I Series, as well as the Vodafone Test Series that follows, India will encounter a vastly different opponent to the one their bowlers saw in the IPL.

The 31-year-old posted 311 runs from his 14 innings as captain of Rajasthan Royals, with a high-score of 69 and an average of 25.91 (strike rate 131.22 per 100 balls faced).

"I was pretty disappointed with my batting throughout the IPL," Smith said today.

"From my standards, I wasn't consistent enough.

"I had a few innings here and there, but I never got into a really good rhythm.

'I didn't realise I was doing it that bad'

"I got a bit caught up with trying to be a bit too powerful and that's not quite my game.

"There are those players around the world that can hit sixes at will, and I'm probably not one of those.

"For me it's about playing proper cricket shots and hitting the gaps and manipulating the field as much as I can, and I probably went away from that a bit in the IPL.

"But I know that's the best way that I play, so keeping my thoughts clear and hitting the ball in the areas I want to hit it."

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The other daunting development for India's bowlers is Smith's belief that, despite his indifferent IPL form and the absence of any competitive cricket for almost a month in conjunction with strict quarantine confinement upon returning to Australia, he's hit sufficient balls at training to rediscover that "rhythm".

So inter-connected are the countless components of Smith's technique, he's been known to feel compelled to face hundreds, verging on thousands of deliveries in the nets until such time as he senses his game's in good shape.

It took up until Test match eve at Edgbaston in the previous Ashes campaign in the UK before he felt that comfort, and he duly peeled off 774 runs at an average of 110.57 as Australia retained the urn.

Smith marks Test comeback with brilliant century

And when he can't face bowlers or assistant coaches hurling throw-downs at him, he’ll 'shadow bat' in his hotel provoking curiosity, and occasionally ire, among house guests in the rooms nearby and below who hear the incessant tapping of Smith's bat on the floor at all hours of the day and night.

"I've done a bit of shadow batting in the hotel and copped a few messages (from teammates) last night saying 'stop tapping the bat down'," he said today.

"But because we've had a bit of a smaller group than we would normally have for a training session, it's actually been good for batters like myself to get the time that I can in the nets.

"I've had some good bats over last couple few days and will get some more in over the next few and then be ready to go.

"I can't wait to get started."

Dettol ODI Series v India 2020

Australia ODI squad: Aaron Finch (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Alex Carey , Pat Cummins (vc), Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Glenn Maxwell, Daniel Sams, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Andrew Tye, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa

India ODI squad: Virat Kohli (c), Shikhar Dhawan, Shubman Gill, KL Rahul (wk), Sanju Samson (wk), Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey, Hardik Pandya, Mayank Agarwal, Ravindra Jadeja, Yuzvendra Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Navdeep Saini, Shardul Thakur.

First ODI: November 27, SCG, 2.40pm AEDT

Second ODI: November 29, SCG, 2.40pm AEDT

Third ODI: December 2, Manuka Oval, 2.40pm AEDT

*The matches and travel remain subject to any relevant government restrictions or requirements