Ben Jones analyses a superb innings from English youngster Will Smeed, on a thrilling night of PSL action.
The opening night of the 2022 Pakistan Super League was quite a subdued affair. An underwhelming score from Karachi Kings, a clinical chase from the reigning champions MUltan Sultans, and a large margin of victory – the tournament started less with a bang, than with a whimper. 24 hours later however, and PSL7 started in earnest, with a high scoring barnstormer of a contest between Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi – a contest set alight by an outstanding innings from Will Smeed. The young Englishman – yet to turn 21, and with only 24 T20 innings to his name before this evening – blasted a dazzling 97 from 62 balls which, despite coming in defeat as Peshawar continued their winning streak over Quetta, felt like the arrival of something rather special.
An aggressive opener with a simple, clean technique, Smeed is a classic modern English white ball batter – he gives it a whack. From the first over of the game, where he climbed into Sameen Gul, the tone was set. On a much better surface than the previous night, Smeed was keen to show the sort of high level, ultra-attacking intent which has caught the eye of T20 leagues the world over. In the inaugural edition of the Hundred, where Smeed turned out for Birmingham Phoenix, there was plenty of evidence of what English coaches often refer to as “super-strengths”. From 18 deliveries on his hip, Smeed smacked 41 runs for no wicket, a pronounced strength to which Peshawar Zalmi’s bowlers appeared to pay little attention. A third of their Powerplay deliveries would have gone down leg – only once in their history have they had a higher figure in the Powerplay – and Smeed went to town. Even though he is powerfully built for a young man, he was timing the ball over square leg rather than muscling it, using the pace towards short, difficult to defend boundaries.
Peshawar had opted for a very pronounced strategy with the ball, bowling a huge proportion of slower balls. Across the course of the first 15 overs, just over 30% of their deliveries were below 120kph, taking pace off and challenging the batsmen to manufacture their strokes a touch more. The issue for Peshawar was that Smeed and Ahsan were more than up to the task, and those slower balls went at just under 14rpo. When you come into a contest with such a clear plan, and it so obviously isn’t working, it is tough to regain your composure as a bowling unit, particularly with the talismanic Wahab Riaz out of the side having contracted Covid-19.
However, the night still belonged to the Englishman, and it was Smeed’s destruction against those pace off deliveries which really caught the eye. From the nine slower-ball deliveries he faced, he took the Zalmi bowlers for 30 runs; while some may have taken the approach of playing for the slower variation as the stock ball, leaving themselves vulnerable to the quicker one, Smeed just played each ball as it came. There was one notable instance where Ben Cutting dug the ball in just back of a good length, with the pace entirely off the ball, and the Somerset youngster just waited for a full beat before swinging cleanly through the line and dispatching it to midwicket. There was control amongst the flair.
The ending of the innings did fray a little, caught off a no-ball then cleaned up from the free hit, before holing out to the final ball of the innings. Yet the damage had been done, and the announcement was complete – this was the arrival of a serious talent, onto the global T20 stage. But along the way, he broke enough records for a slightly fumbled climax to be swiftly forgotten: the highest score by an Englishman in PSL, the second highest score by a Quetta Gladiators batsman, the highest score (and only fourth ever half-century) by an U-21 batsman in PSL, all fell into Smeed’s hands.
In his trajectory, there are elements of the emergence of Tom Banton, another Somerset player who announced himself onto the global stage with a T20 ton. In the way he actually bats, there is an air of Jonny Bairstow, less so in a technical manner but more in the instinctive, reactive way he strikes the ball. There is a clarity to his game that is enviable, and which separates him from some of the more frenetic young English hitters.
There are some early concerns about how effective he is against spin bowling. Today, he took just four runs from the 12 deliveries he faced from Usman Qadir and Shoaib Malik, and across his short body of work his strike rate against spin is down below 120. That is not intended to be overly critical, but just a slight caveat to any over-excitement. Plenty of English lads come through whacking pace on the true surfaces and small grounds around the UK, and many of them fall away when the nature of the cricket changes. Smeed has passed the first test, but there are plenty to come. Even in this very tournament, the higher quality spinners in Multan, Islamabad and Lahore colours will push him.
Such is the depth in English white-ball batting at the moment, that players are getting exposed to overseas leagues earlier, and earlier. In the last 12 months there have been seven English batters aged 22 or younger, Smeed among them, to play in PSL, CPL, IPL or BBL cricket. These players are getting chances earlier, but they are getting tested with it. A disappointing campaign, like Harry Brook’s in the Big Bash for Hobart Hurricanes, can kill the growing sense of momentum in your career rather quickly. There is a lot on the line.
So the coming weeks will be significant for Smeed, in burnishing his reputation and testing himself against the best, inviting increased faith from other coaches in other leagues – and perhaps in due course, those at international level. For now though, the young man can bask in having delivered a superb performance for his new side, in a new league, at the very first time of asking.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.