“Yeah, look…” Steve Smith begins, as all Australian cricketers seem to do. “The equation is simple. We need to win all five of our remaining games to make the play offs…” Smith fidgets with his hair on the other side of the Zoom call, a day before Rajasthan Royals are to play Chennai Super Kings, in one of those five matches that the captain says they must win, or else…
The Royals are star-studded—Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Smith himself—each of them have worked miracles and magic in cricket last year, before the pandemic disrupted the game, but none of them have been able to stop the Royals from sitting at the bottom of the IPL table after just three wins from nine games (as was the case over the weekend).
How’s the morale?
“When you lose games you feel you should have won, the guys are gonna be hurting a bit,” Smith says. “Which is good, you want that. But then you need to get over it quickly. If the sun comes up the next day, you have to keep trusting your preparation, and trusting everyone around you.”
The sun indeed rose the next day, and Royals got their much-needed win (versus CSK on Monday). They live to fight another day and that’s all Smith needs. Give him an opening. Watch him go. Like in Edgbaston last year, 2019—the Year of Smith; the year he came back from a year-long ban. Twelve months of no international cricket and into the World Cup, followed by the first Ashes Test in Birmingham. The stadium erupted with brutish animosity when he walked out. But the sun came out and Smith came out to the middle with a bat in hand so all was alright in his world.
Would you say you are good at shutting out the outside world?
“Oh yes, definitely.”
That day, like all days, Smith did Smith things. He fiddled. He tapped his bat. He spoke to himself, pulled faces. He fidgeted endlessly. He drove and he pulled. By the time he was in the 30s, Australia were six down. Then Stuart Broad fired one in towards his off stump, a ball with just a hint of movement and Smith, who had shuffled across, decided not to play it. The ball thudded into his rear pad, and the umpire signalled out. Smith looked incredulous. He reviewed it, and sure enough, the replay showed that the ball would have missed the off stump. Smith was putting his trust in his preparation. It was the whole point of the shuffle—“getting myself over to the off stump and knowing that anything outside of my eye-line, I could leave if I wanted to. I started doing my movement across in 2013, did it in a game at WACA (Perth) because of the pace and bounce, thought it would get me into a good position and everything sort of clicked into place. I was getting my weight transfer back through the ball to drive, playing the short one well. I kept doing it and it got bigger and bigger over time and I thought that I was in a good position.”
Around this time, Smith started to feel “like I was in a good space, I knew I was there to stay for a bit.”
Except, even as Smith was trying to find his groove after the most trying year of his life, Australia were having a proper collapse at the other end. Before Smith could reach his half century, three more Australian wickets had fallen.
“I was hoping that someone could bat with me,” Smith says. “You need partners!”
Smith had already found out that his trust in his preparation was not misplaced; now he had to trust those around him. That would be Australia’s No 8 and No 9 batsmen, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon. Smith finished with 144.
“It’s my favourite innings in international cricket,” Smith says. “Coming back into Test cricket, I was excited, I still believed that I had everything in the kit bag to be successful. And then that innings, we were under the pump, losing wickets, I was batting with the tail, and I know the importance of the first Test in the Ashes as well. To be able to dig the team out from there, it gave me belief to know that I’m back, I can still play.”
What came next is imprinted in the minds of all cricket lovers—another century in the next innings, an astounding 671 runs in the series at a mind-bending average of 134.2 despite missing one innings and one Test because of concussion rules, the comparisons with Don Bradman, the totally reasonable discourse on whether it was the greatest batting performance in a Test series ever seen in the game—and through it all a dancing, twitching, utterly original player smashing through bowling attacks armed with the secret of, as he put it, “how to minimize ways of getting out.”
The constant tinkerer
How does he do it and why hasn’t it clicked (yet) at the IPL?
One aspect is simply practice and being immersed in the game; Smith’s obsessive nature in this regard is well known. He is inseparable from his bat and he is always tinkering with technique even when, by his own admission, he is in the bath. “Normally we’ll be playing Tests and then come straight into the IPL so we’ll have that volume of work behind us,” Smith says. “For a batter there’s nothing like time in the middle regardless of which format. Unfortunately, I’ve not had that recently.”
Nonetheless, Smith has been tinkering. At the IPL, he has tried out various approaches already, with mixed success. At the start of the tournament he tried opening the batting and hitting a high tempo straightaway.
“I did that reasonably well whilst playing a different style of game from what I am accustomed,” he says, “playing a few more shots, a bit of slogging to be honest, and I think I just kept on doing that but I just couldn’t get the groove, the right tempo for my game. I’ve been struggling to find a bit of rhythm.”
On October 17, in a game they lost to RCB, Smith finally felt like he was “starting to get my groove.” He scored 57 off 36, playing, “the way I play my best, you know, hitting the gaps, not trying to over-hit, manipulating the field…
“I had tried to find my feel in the nets, but it’s hard,” he says. “Before this game, I spent two and a half hours in the nets just batting, just trying to get the feel – and I felt something sort of come back and I thought, yes, this is good, I’m sort of working up to something.”
One of the things the constant tinkerer was working on was a minute change in the shuffle.
“I only figured this out a few days ago, that my weight was a bit back, I was too much on my back foot,” he says. “I felt like I was playing balls off the backfoot that I shouldn’t have been, so I’ve tried to get my weight more with my head going forward, pressing forward and using my weight to go through the ball.”
Practice—the physical aspect of the game—is one side of the story, the better understood side. But it hardly explains what separates good from great and great from historic. How does a man become an unstoppable force?
“Practice is certainly a huge element, but the confidence to do it out in the middle, what needs to be done in regards to the surface and what’s coming down at you—and sometimes it might look ugly or it might look different—but to do what needs to be done, to be able to adapt to the situation is really important,” Smith says. “The shuffle, for example, I had not practised that at all. I just adapted to the moment (in 2013).”
Ah. The moment. It brings us of course, to “the zone.”
“The mind is an incredible thing and there’s always thoughts racing through it,” Smith says, “but I think if you ask the best players in the world what they are thinking when they are batting they would tell you that they are not thinking at all, they are just reacting to what’s coming at them. They know the field, they know the gaps, they are watching the ball as closely as they can and they are reacting in the present moment and the instincts take over. I think that’s what you call ‘the zone’.”
A few years back, Smith learnt that even in that zone, there are thoughts and urges that can go unnoticed, and you need to “catch them”.
“For example, I might get an urge to smack a ball,” he says. “In Test cricket, catching it and saying, ‘why, what’s the point?’ Just give yourself a ball, play it out and see if the thought is still there and then do it again. The thought might come back and you’re like ‘na, na, it’s ok, we’ll just play this ball out too.’
“But, in T20 cricket, allowing those urges, to let them in sometimes is a good thing. You have that urge to smack someone, you back it completely. Soon as you have some hesitancy there’s a chance that you’ll not hit it in the middle.”
It’s a delicate balance and it takes Smith plenty of work.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but there are days where it just happens, and you are in a place where you are hitting the ball well, your movements are good, you are not thinking about your technique or anything really,” Smith says, his hands dancing across his face—it’s like the only time he can allow himself to be still is that fraction of a second when the ball is released by a bowler.
“I think the more you get into that frame of mind, the more you can do it,” he says. “It’s difficult to put a finger on why some days are like that. If I find the answer, I will let you know.”