Ben Jones analyses how to dismiss the Australian legend.
It’s the question on the lips of a nation. How on earth do England get Steve Smith out?
This is a man who averages more than any batsman in history barring the undisputed greatest, and frustratingly for English bowlers, they can’t stop running into him. They’ve been dominated by him in 2017, 2018, and 2019, his 12 month ban falling rather nicely in terms of allowing his Ashes brutality to continue, uninterrupted. He averages 92.56 in his last 11 Ashes matches, and he shows no sign of stopping.
There’s no avoiding him – so they need to come up with as many ways of getting Smith out as they possible can. Here are a few ideas.
SLOW LEFT ARM
Australian fans have known it for a while, keeping pretty quiet on the matter – but Smith does have a significantly worse record against left-arm finger spin than against other bowlers. Indeed, his average against it is his lowest against any bowling type, scoring just 35 runs per dismissal.
There’s context, of course. Broadly, Smith’s issues have been against top-class left-arm spinners; Rangana Herath, Ravindra Jadeja and Keshav Maharaj have all dismissed him multiple times at very attractive averages. However, there’s enough evidence that he does still struggle against mediocre left-arm spinners; Dean Elgar has dismissed him twice in 41 balls. For whatever technical reason, there is something about the angle which disturbs Smith.
More specifically, he’s disturbed by the direction of spin, because while it’s most notable when facing the left-arm spinners, it’s the fact that the ball is spinning away which causes the real trouble. You would always expect a batsman to prefer playing balls spinning into them, but you wouldn’t expect the difference in average to be so pronounced.
As such, England have a relatively easy decision to make. Moeen Ali has been bullied by Smith over a prolonged period (3 wickets @ 114, and looks bereft of confidence with bat and ball. Selecting the Somerset finger-spinner Jack Leach gives them a clear advantage when building a plan to Smith, and has the added benefit of removing an out of form player.
Recommendation: Pick Jack Leach
Archer’s return is important for England. Firstly, it will allow them to field the more traditional 11 players in the second Test, rather than the ten they made do with at Edgbaston. Secondly, he’s a brilliant bowler in excellent form off the back of a triumphant World Cup campaign. However, the oft-cited third benefit – that Archer’s pace could unsettle even Steve Smith – is potentially a bit too optimistic. As a raw fact, Smith doesn’t struggle against 90mph+ bowling. He batters it.
However, Archer’s return does have a third benefit – more significant than his pace is the height from which he releases the ball. In the World Cup Jofra Archer’s release point was, on average, 2.15m off the ground. In Test cricket, Smith has shown some vulnerability to bowlers releasing the ball from that height, or higher.
Once the ball is coming from that high release, the most influential factor is the line, rather than length. If you can find the channel outside off stump from that release height, Smith averages just 23.28. Archer’s defining skill as a bowler is his control of line, so he is the perfect blend of ability and physique to execute this strategy.
Recommendation – Select Jofra Archer, target the channel outside off
In the 2017/18 Ashes, Joe Root has shown an admirable willingness to try lots and lots of different plans to Smith. Leg-slips, close catchers, lopsided fields, men on the fence – he has been keen to keep Smith guessing, to not let him settle against any particular mode of attack.
It’s a good trait to have, that flexible optimism. But trying to match Smith’s quirky technique with a quirky dismissal is flawed thinking. As many batting experts have observed over the years, despite all the idiosyncrasies in Smith’s technique and the odd positions he gets into, when he addresses the ball, his head is normally very still and his bat very straight. He still does the basics as a coaching manual would suggest you should. So bowlers should do the same.
Smith’s weakness against pace is the same as anyone else – on a good length, in the channel outside off stump. The natural pattern with Smith is that bowlers hang it in that zone, then dart it back in to try and pin him LBW. Generally, Smith deals with it rather well, given that he averages 45.37 against balls on his stumps. The key is in not getting drawn in, not losing focus, and not going for the magic ball.
You can mix in those early bouncers, to try and shock him before he gets going, but as a default, there is nothing wrong with just sticking in that channel. It’s boring, but so is watching the star player of your sworn cricketing enemies bat for day upon day. As the graphic below shows, Smith doesn’t get “set” against those deliveries on a good length outside off. They are almost as effective when he’s faced 150 balls as when he’s faced 50. Stick at it, and you’ll be rewarded.
Recommendation – Stay patient with Plan A
Overall, it’s hard to maintain any real optimism when bowling to Steve Smith. The only way you can maintain a positive mindset is to come prepared with different strategies, and to acknowledge that his dominance has little to do with your own failings as a bowler. He is better than you, but you only need to be better than him for one ball.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.