“Better tomorrow, better the day after and better the day after that.” Steve Smith’s words echoed around the indoor practice area at the Edgbaston Cricket Centre. It wasn’t clear who those words, which were shouted out with a lot of emotion after his lengthy batting stint, were exactly directed towards. In all likelihood this was Steve Smith speaking to Steve Smith, or making a declaration to himself. Graeme Hick, Sridharan Sriram and Justin Langer had by then either moved away or were busy packing up the copious amount of balls that had been used to satisfy Smith in the nets.
The 30-year-old former Australian captain had just got done with an uncomfortable hour-and-a-half batting in the nets, facing batting coach Hick’s throwdowns and the bowling machine. And he’d looked rather ill at ease for most parts. But his passionate post-session pronouncement could well sum up his batting ever since he made a comeback to high-profile cricket with the IPL in April. He’s rarely looked at his best, but has ominously been getting better and better.
Smith was the third highest run-getter for Australia in the World Cup with 379 runs at 37.90. But despite notching up four half-centuries-which included a couple of 80s-he never really got going and looked completely like the indomitable Smith before the Cape Town fiasco. His knocks, even the impactful ones were scratchier than usual, and he spent as much time giving the bowlers a tough time as he did himself for never quite reaching the high levels the premier batsman sets for himself.
If anything, there’s more theatre while watching Smith in the nets than even in the middle. There is of course the multitude of tactile eccentricities but also the incessant self-admonishment which at times can come across as verbal self-flagellation. The show was truly on in Birmingham on Sunday morning (July 28).
Smith’s session started with facing multiple throwdowns from Hick as he looked to be trying to get into the best position to counter both length balls pitching on off and sliding away, as well as those pitching on middle and straightening a little. Two loud taps on the floor, with the sound resonating around the empty enclosed area, the mini-crouch and the two taps in the air with the bat behind him and he was off, ball after ball, time after time.
For nearly three years, while his Test average ballooned to the early 60s, fast bowlers from around the world kept trying to exploit the right-hander’s apparent potential to be an lbw candidate by aiming for his pads, and repeatedly finding the middle of his bat. It almost turned into a case of Steve Smith playing illusionist with his hapless opponents. But already in the last two months in England, he’s fallen lbw on four occasions and seen his stumps knocked back twice. Most of those lbws, whether it was Bhuvaneshwar Kumar in the World Cup game at The Oval or Peter Siddle in the warm-up in Southampton, have come in the exact fashion that fast bowlers had fantasied about each time they bowled to him-them aiming for the pads, and Smith with his unusual back-lift and technique attempting a shot and missing the ball. It’s like the Steve Smith visibly innocuous but literally unbreachable fortress has finally been breached in his second coming.
Here, Smith looked very keen on fixing the leak. And a majority of the early part of his stint in the nets were spent with Hick slinging deliveries at good speed towards his stumps and pads, at varying speeds, and Smith getting his bat to them. He didn’t always look his best doing it, and at times he even got squared up by deliveries that barely straightened after pitching between off and middle-so conscious was he of getting into line and ensuring the ball goes nowhere near his pads. It was then time to move into the adjoining net with Hick stepping on to the bowling machine.
While Hick set it up, Smith in a tone very similar to those highly earnest kids you see in Spelling Bee competitions looking for the “language or origin please” or asking for the word to be “used in a sentence please” began shouting out requests to the former England batsman with a very familiar “please” at the end of each one. They ranged from him wanting deliveries that pitched slightly short of good length and moved away from him-at one point he even stood with his bat away making sure the balls were doing exactly what he wanted them to before taking strike.
It was time to prepare for, what it seemed like Chris Woakes, based on the specific instructions he had for Hick anyway. Firstly, he wanted the coach to hold his arm up for a second, so that Smith gets a slightly lengthier sighter of the ball as is the case when Woakes runs into bowl, before loading it into the machine. He then inquired about the speed of the first few deliveries and wasn’t too satisfied when Hick revealed it was 74 mph. For the next 20 minutes or so, he kept orchestrating Hick’s use of the machine, while trying to get into the best shape to either leave or defend the length deliveries pitching on off and straightening, at times moving away sharply. There were times his outside edge was beaten, and comprehensively so. Out came the virulent shakes of the head, a few words of self-criticism and then back to business. Intermittently you’d hear him go, “Can I have it slightly shorter please” or “the speeds seem to be varying with each delivery please”.
Bowling machine done, outswinger sorted, but Smith still wasn’t content. Back he went back to the first net with the stony-faced Hick collecting balls and loading up his side-arm almost nonchalantly. You wonder at what point the support staff will start demanding for overtime pay whenever Smith is part of the squad.
This final segment of the practice session was back to throwdowns at a rapid pace, but this time short of length and around off-stump or slightly outside it-a Stuart Broad-ish angle and approach. Again Smith mistimed and misconnected with more deliveries than the times he got it right. There were plays and misses, inside-edges while he attempted pushing these through the covers and on one occasion he even got hit in the ribs by a nasty delivery that jumped off a length-though he would later tell Hick that it had felt a pull on his right shoulder owing to the blow. You wondered how long they could be at it, considering you knew and they knew that Smith wasn’t leaving till he’d got it right.
Then came four balls on the trot that pitched on off-stump and Smith drove with great conviction, his head over the ball like it used to be at his peak and the reaction to each shot was an affirmative nod from Smith. There were also a few leaves, which got him compliments from coach Langer and Sriram, and you could see Smith liked them too. There were still a couple of deliveries that troubled him, one zipping through his defences and over the stumps and the other where the ball hit the toe-end of his bat as he pushed at one and rolled towards the on-side. But Smith was looking happier. He did make Hick chuck at least a dozen deliveries after having shouted, “last few” himself. But as he finally brought his session to a close, there was a spring in Smith’s stride. It looked like he’d attained his goal for the day.
Beware England. For, Steve Smith is getting better tomorrow, day after, the day after that and looks like every day for the rest of the summer.
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