Qantas Tour of South Africa

How Smith takes the best from the best

Australia's skipper candidly reveals how he has experimented with incorporating traits from the world's best batsmen into his game

Andrew Ramsey

22 February 2018, 08:45 PM

How Smith takes the best from the best

The endless accolades showered upon the world's top-ranked Test batter Steve Smith throughout the past year have routinely described his less-than-orthodox technique as "unique", "self-styled" or even "idiosyncratic".

But look a little closer, beyond his routine of tics and twitches and fidgets and exaggerated mannerisms, and there can be seen telltale trade secrets of his most respected rivals.

That almost afterthought 'dab' stroke, whereby he drops his hands as the ball zeroes in on his off stump and shapes the bat face at such an angle to deflect it past the infuriated slips cordon, is lifted directly from New Zealand captain Kane Williamson.

The pre-meditated plant of his back foot that has him virtually front-on to the bowler so that any delivery angling in at him is ripe to be heaved through the leg-side is a ploy perfected by South Africa's batting ace, AB de Villiers.

And anyone who saw Smith tackling spinners on the subcontinent over the past year would likely have noticed that crouching cover drive, for which he reaches well outside his eye line and flicks the ball in a manner reminiscent of a hockey short-corner, was immediately reminded of India skipper Virat Kohli.

This is not to baselessly accuse Smith, who last week received the annual Allan Border Medal as Australia's foremost men's cricketer across all formats, of blatant copyright infringement.

Instead, the 28-year-old who today embarked on the four-Test Qantas Tour of South Africa with members of his squad quite candidly admits he is the bowerbird of batting who intently watches fellow masters of his craft and tries to mimic them when appropriate.

My mind has gone to another level: Smith

"I look at some of the best players around the world and sometimes I do try and bat like them," Smith told in the aftermath of his Border Medal win.

"I just try and learn, and these guys are the best players in the world for a reason.

"So you try and get whatever you can out of them."

Two years ago, when Williamson's Black Caps headed to Australia for a two-Test campaign that was followed by Australia's reciprocal visit across the Tasman months later, Smith announced to his teammates that he would try to imitate his rival captain.

Not as an act of one-upmanship, but rather in honour of the deft touches and graceful ease that have characterised Wiliamson's rise into the top-tier of Test batters alongside his under-30 contemporaries Smith, Kohli and England's Joe Root.

But in acknowledging that his talent for imitation might not yet rival his innate batting acumen, he foreshadowed that at some stage during those games he was likely to execute one of the adopted late-cut strokes so belatedly it would deflect directly from bat face on to his stumps.

"I think I said during a net session, 'I'm going to get out at some point throughout the summer by just chopping the ball on from the middle of my bat, I play it that late'," Smith revealed.

As it transpired, the pair finished that five-Test stint with returns more similar than their batting styles – Williamson scored 570 runs at 63.33 with two centuries while Smith (in his first summer as official Test captain) compiled 543 at 67.88 also including a pair of hundreds.

Heading to India and Bangladesh for Test series last year, Smith adopted some of the technical nuances he had noticed in Kohli's batting but supplemented them with a few of his own additions that he had formulated after previous visits to the subcontinent.

The best of Smith's remarkable Ashes

"In places like India, for instance, I open my hands up a little bit," Smith said in reference to the slightly different grip he employs on slower Asian pitches.

"I don't feel that I can get nicked off (caught behind the wicket) quite as easily in India as opposed to somewhere like Australia or South Africa.

"So I open up different parts of the ground."

It was a method that brought personal rewards in India a year ago even though his team was ultimately defeated – Smith was the series' leading scorer and averaged 71.29 with three centuries compared to Kohli's average of 9.2 with a top score of 15 – but it comes with its perils.

On his return home from Bangladesh last September, he found himself unsure of how he was supposed to grip the bat in Australia conditions and during a JLT Sheffield Shield match prior to the start of the Magellan Ashes Series was moved to take drastic action.

Having found what he felt was the optimum grip while batting in the middle, he asked the officiating umpire to use a pen to trace an outline of where his hands were placed on to the rubber grip of his bat for ready reference once he released his hold.

"Sometimes it can be a bit difficult coming back from there (the subcontinent)," Smith said.

"I actually forgot how I like to hold the bat when I'm in Australia the last time I came back, so it might work for a while but it takes a bit of getting used to."

While he has shown a fondness for incorporating de Villiers' back-foot strategy into his game plan – especially when the ball is swinging reverse and tailing in towards the legs of a right-handed batter – he is not expecting to add other Proteas' players to his repertoire for the coming tour.

Given the success he enjoyed in South Africa when Australia triumphed there in 2014, and briefly secured the world number one Test ranking as a result, Smith will be looking to reprise his own results rather than replicate an opponent.

That 2014 series, which saw Smith establish himself as an integral part of Australia's Test line-up having won back his place in the starting XI during the preceding year, holds fond memories for the leg-spinning allrounder turned specialist batter.

His first innings 100 on a spiteful pitch at Centurion against a South Africa pace attack of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Ryan McLaren in the series opener stood as the high point of his Test career to that moment.

Feb 2014: Smith, Marsh dominate Centurion

Having tinkered with his batting technique prior to the 2013-14 Ashes Test in Perth and scoring a vital century as a result, Smith went to South Africa four years ago with a new-found confidence in his game.

He finished that campaign as Australia's second-highest scorer (after player of the series, David Warner) with an average of 67.25 across his five innings, and a reputation as one of the most exciting young players on the world stage.

Since then, he has pushed himself to ever-greater achievements with each passing year and will arrive in Johannesburg to begin the upcoming four-Test tour after an Ashes summer that he single-handedly dominated and which his team completed unbeaten.

As a result, he won't be adding any additional 'characters' to his batting ensemble given the likelihood that conditions in Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town will be similar to the pitches on which he revelled during the Australia summer.

Though he reserves the right to make a few changes should that landscape change.

"Just myself, I think," Smith said when asked who he might be looking to impersonate in South Africa.

"But you never know. It might come in throughout certain games where I want to change something, or need to adapt to whatever's in front of me."

Qantas tour of South Africa

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.

Warm-up match v SA Invitational XI, Sahara Park, Benoni, Feb 22-24

First Test Kingsmead, Durban, March 1-5

Second Test St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, March 9-13

Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26

Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3