Once in a generation: Smith a digital era Bradman
Modern-day maestro's insatiable appetite for run scoring leaves England seeking fresh answers - and a way to stave off defeat
Andrew Ramsey at Edgbaston
5 August 2019, 07:48 AM AEST
During the eight spare days between the end of the first men's Ashes Test and the start of the second, England's exasperated strategists might want to consider meeting at London's Piccadilly Hotel to update their planning for Steve Smith.
Now that Smith has pocketed a century from both trips to the crease in the opening match of the five-Test series, it's a given that those who crunch numbers and study videos will be tweaking the methods employed against Australia's current batting phenomenon.
Or perhaps just be sitting down with a completely blank sheet of paper to start afresh.
The conundrum that Smith now poses for England's bowlers is not dissimilar to that which occupied the mind of Douglas Jardine when he was charged with quelling a similarly irresistible force – Don Bradman – ahead of the 1932-33 Ashes campaign in Australia.
As a qualified lawyer who preferred to dabble in banking, Jardine would scarcely have equated himself with the tracksuit-clad data analysts who form part of a modern-day team's support staff, or the even less sartorially savvy equivalents who hunch over laptop computers in press boxes.
But it was by poring over footage of Bradman's batting – if not quite examining his interception points, scoring clusters and trigger movements – that brought the legendary lightbulb moment.
"I've got it," Jardine purportedly exclaimed while watching newsreel film of Bradman from the final Test of the 1930 Ashes series in which he scored 974 runs and averaged 129 (with four centuries) across five Tests.
The basis for Jardine's acerbic assessment of the greatest ever batter's fortitude was supposedly the sight of Bradman backing away towards square leg to avoid a Harold Larwood bumper, delivered on a rain-affected pitch at The Oval.
The incidental fact that Bradman scored 232 in those conditions during that Test suggests Jardine's data analyst skills were on a par with those he subsequently showed in diplomacy.
But he believed he'd seen a weakness in an otherwise impervious foe, so he summoned Larwood and his fellow Yorkshire fast bowler Bill Voce to dinner at the Piccadilly Hotel where Bodyline was born.
Today, England understand that leg theory can't be employed to stop Smith, because it was outlawed in the aftermath of that incendiary 1932-33 series in Australia.
But current coaching staff member Graham Thorpe admits that a new plan of attack is imminent given that Smith's scores in his past six Ashes innings have been 239, 76, 102 not out, 83, 144 and 142 (average 157.2).
"We ran through a number of plans in this match," Thorpe said, after Smith helped Australia set England an unprecedented last-day victory target of 398 to win the first Test at Edgbaston.
"Maybe we have a few more up our sleeve as well."
From the on-field evidence tendered on day four in Birmingham, those strategies remain in their infancy or were proved to be either ineffective or inappropriate.
It's unclear whether, after Smith was shaken by a blow to the protective helmet he copped from Ben Stokes late on Saturday afternoon, the 'moon ball' delivered by spinner Moeen Ali in Sunday's first over was a follow-up ploy.
The sight of a full toss sailing straight at his head certainly caught the former Australia captain unawares, but its use as a tactic was reduced by the reality that such deliveries are deemed a 'no ball'.
Soon after he scored his second century of the match, a feat that he's never before achieved at any formal level of cricket, England wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow claimed a regulation take and immediately hurled the ball back at Smith, as if the batter had unknowingly wandered out of his crease.
Again, Smith was clearly surprised when it thudded into his upper body, but his concentration and will to keep batting, to keep scoring runs, to keep building Australia's lead, remained unbroken.
The previous Australia men's team player to score hundreds in each innings of an Ashes Test in England was another ex-skipper, Steve Waugh, who has been watching Smith's deeds from the dressing room in his role as team mentor.
Renowned for his capacity to block out extraneous distractions ranging from bodily injury to hostile crowds (and opposition), Waugh claims he's never before seen a batter with the single-mindedness of Smith.
While Waugh didn't draw the direct comparison, his intimation is that Smith is verging on some kind of digital-era Bradman.
"His preparation is amazing," Waugh told Channel Nine during Sunday's lunch break, at which time Smith was unbeaten on 98.
"He's thorough, he hits more balls than I've ever seen anyone (hit).
"When he goes out to bat it's almost like he's in a trance-like state. He knows exactly what he wants to do.
"He knows the opposition, what they're trying to do, how they're trying to get him out and he seems to have an answer for everything.
"He's an incredible player. I don't think I've ever seen anyone quite like him and his appetite for runs is second to none.
"His technique is amazing, it's unique, but he knows what he's doing, he knows how to score runs.
"It's like he analyses every ball, and it's like a computer – he spits out the answer."
Smith has previously confessed that when he's in the frame of mind that Waugh was referring to, he feels like he has effectively entered "a zone" that is almost a higher level of consciousness.
Today he described the results he's achieved in his first Test following a 16-month suspension as "a dream come true", but also explained the work over past weeks that went into helping him reach that exalted place.
Unlike Bradman, who played just one form of top-level cricket (first class) and most of it against a single international opponent (England), Smith is of the generation that switches constantly between Tests and one-day international and Twenty20 cricket.
And that journey has him constantly travelling, with the Australia team, with his Indian Premier League franchise, New South Wales squads and – over the past year or more – clubs in Canada and Bangladesh.
So it's no surprise that it took the "computer" some time to reinstall Test match software after running entirely different programs for 16 months and it wasn't until match eve in Birmingham that the update had been successfully loaded.
"Playing the World Cup (from early June) and then playing in this first Ashes Test, I wasn't hitting the ball as well as I would have liked at the start of the week," Smith said after play on Sunday.
"I hadn't faced red balls in a long time. It was about finding the rhythm of looking at that (red ball) coming down at me and getting out of white-ball mode and into red-ball mode.
"I don't change a great deal there, the way I play, but there is certain little things that I do – change the way I hold my bat, and the way I try and move across the crease.
"It was just about finding that rhythm and it took (Bupa Support Team assistant coach and former England batter) Graeme Hick a lot of throws to get there.
"But I found the rhythm two days before the game, I reckon, and topped it up the day before.
"And I was confident coming into the game that I was in a good place."
The next place that Australia's arch-rivals will try to shut down the Smith "computer" is Lord's, in the second Ashes Test starting August 14.
It's a venue, just three miles across north London from the Piccadilly Hotel in the heart of the city's West End, where Smith last played a Test four years ago.
And scored 215 … against England.
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
Tour match: Australians v Worcestershire, August 7-9
Second Test: August 14-18,Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval