Smith on another Oval epic, and Warner’s weird pitch work
It is mere coincidence that the pitch hosting Steve Smith’s first Test innings in England since his dominant 2019 Ashes campaign proved more hazardous than any he has previously encountered, given he has reprised the batting technique he used in that series which relies heavily on steady ground underfoot.
But Smith’s decision to revert to what worked for him four years ago may serve as a warning to England, even despite a declaration from one of their batters, Ollie Pope, that the 34-year-old will face “quirkier” bowling strategies than he did four years ago.
In between rounds of golf in Scotland this week, England’s Test players would also have taken note of Smith peeling off his seventh Test century on British soil to underpin Australia’s first innings against India at The Oval on Thursday.
For now, Smith is more concerned with the unorthodox methods of one of his teammates.
Smith revealed the initial stages of his six-and-a-half-hour innings across the first two days of the World Test Championship final were disrupted by David Warner’s unusual solution to make a technical adjustment of his own.
Australia’s star No.4 joked he “almost fell in” a deep groove scratched out by Warner parallel to the stumps in a move Ricky Ponting suggested was to help stop the opener’s back foot from moving to the leg-side.
“I almost twisted my ankle the first few balls I faced out there to be honest, and then I sort of got used to it,” Smith told reporters after posting his third Test hundred at The Oval.
“But it was odd. I’ve never experienced that before on that side really … when I’m moving to off-stump and I’ve got this hole there, it’s something I haven’t experienced before.”
Smith has extra reason to be concerned with the state of the batting creases given he also divulged on Thursday that he has gone back to employing the more dramatic version of his batting technique.
The back-and-across trigger movement that exhausted England’s bowlers during the 2019 Ashes was reined in by the right-hander ahead of Australia’s last home summer, with Smith explaining his step across his stumps had limited his scoring ability through the leg-side.
He had maintained that new, more traditional style even for the start of his recent county stint in the UK.
But after returns of 3 and 30 in his first two hits, Smith had decided he “wasn’t quite happy with the positions” he was getting into when the ball was delivered.
For his final match for Sussex, Smith switched back to his more extravagant technical approach and duly scored 89 against a Michael Neser-led Glamorgan attack.
He then stuck with it for his 268-ball 121 against India this week.
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“I quite like it for English conditions and the way the ball bounces over here,” Smith said at stumps on day two with India 5-151 in reply to the Aussies 469 all out.
“It worked when I was here last time. Just the positions I get myself into … it doesn’t take long to get back, it’s probably my more natural sort of movement.
“It doesn’t mean I will do it all the time, I may revert back to old styles at certain periods when I feel it’s necessary.
“But on this surface against the bowlers I was going to come up against, I felt that was the right way forward.”
Smith’s success with his old style means he looks certain to face England with it.
But the Ashes hosts have already declared they are one step ahead of him.
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As Smith fired a pre-Ashes missive by repeating his view that England may struggle to replicate their aggressive ‘Baz-ball’ batting approach against Australia’s bowlers, Pope suggested the series hosts may have some surprises in store for the veteran batter over the coming weeks.
“He loves batting in England, over the years he averages over 60 here now. It’s obvious he knows these conditions and he knows his game inside out, so there’s a lot of respect for him,” Pope said before Smith’s latest batting feat in England.
“But there’s also a lot of talented bowlers in our changing room who have worked out ways we can challenge him.
“I can’t say too much but there’s probably slightly different plans this time.
“He’s got his routines – his slightly longer routines – before he faces each ball and he won’t be ready until he’s done all those routines.
“What’s made him successful is that stubbornness and that stubbornness for runs as well. That’s exactly the bubble we’ve got to try and get him out of.
“Steve Smith is a highly-skilled batter and scores a lot of runs but I think for him we might be looking at even quirkier ways to challenge him, test him out and make him as uncomfortable as we possibly can to try and get his wicket.”
World Test Championship Final
June 7-11: Australia v India, The Oval
Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey (wk), Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Josh Inglis (wk), Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Todd Murphy, Michael Neser, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc, David Warner