Steve Smith celebrating yet another Test century (photo: Peter Smith)
Every cricket fan is aware of the events that occurred in Cape Town on 24th March 2018. It was not only a very dark day for Australian cricket and the players involved but for the game as a whole.
16 months later and Steve Smith walked to the crease at Edgbaston in his first Test match back, with the Aussies 2/17 in the first innings and the English bowlers with their tails up.
For the past 495 days, Smith along with Warner & Bancroft have been in some very dark places. Not only has their characters and reputations taken a huge hit, they would have thought about their mistake and whether they’d ever play International cricket again.
The trio will never be able to go back and change what happened in Cape Town and to many people they are cheats and always will be. But what’s done is done and whether you agree or not, all three are back playing Test cricket for Australia, in the biggest series of all, the ASHES.
As Smith walked to the crease on the morning of day 1, he was greeted by hostile and unnerving boos from a unified Edgbaston crowd (known to be one of the loudest and most ruthless grounds in the country).
No matter how good an athlete you are, everyone is human and has emotions. Smith was feeling anxious about his return to Test cricket and I have no doubt his emotions would have been churning as he walked to the crease to face a fired up Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. Yet, for the thousands at the ground and the millions watching around the world, you would never have known. His face and body language displayed complete focus.
While he was beaten a few times by some excellent bowling, he was in complete control throughout the innings and mixed patience, with aggression as he ended up scoring more than 50% of the Australian’s total score.
There have been hundreds of articles written about Smith’s brilliance on day one at Edgbaston so this article isn’t going to be about that but instead focus on what I understand and believe it is that makes Smith so good.
The first time I came across Smith
I first came across Steve Smith when he was a very highly fancied 17 year-old playing for New South Wales in the Australian Under 19 championships in Adelaide. Steve had a reputation wherever he went due to the fact that he was dominating Sydney grade cricket for Sutherland CC, possibly the best grade competition in the world, from a young age.
Batting at first drop, behind the also highly fancied Phillip Hughes, Smith Walked to the crease with huge expectations. I was captain of a pretty young, inexperienced and comparatively very weak Northern Territory team that was struggling to compete with the bigger states. None were bigger than the NSW side that boasted Smith & Hughes. Smith was expected by most to dominate us that day. However it was one of the few days I’ve ever seen him ‘fail’ as his nicked his first ball to me at slip. Caught Scollay, bowled Bayly for a first ball duck. Fair to say us Territory boys were pretty happy with ourselves.
Probably one of the very few first ball ducks of Steve Smith’s cricket career
Since then I’ve tracked Smith’s career closely and have got to know him a bit as we share mutual best mates. Through the numerous social meetings I’ve had with him and what I regularly hear from his best mate Rootesy, I have been able to gain a remarkable insight into Smith as a person, as well as what is shown on TV of Smith as a cricketer. Rootesy & I were in the crowd at the Oval in 2013 when Smith scored his first Test century. Little did we then, or anyone possibly know, how astonishingly good as a player he would go on to become.
6 Pillars of Success
After observing and studying the world’s best athletes for many years, I’ve come up with what I believe to be the SIX keys components of what makes an athlete (in any sport) successful. I’ve called it the SIX PILLARS OF SUCCESS and it is what I aim to coach all of the athletes that I work with at Cricket Mentoring. They are:
While an athlete doesn’t always have to be 10/10 at all of these to be great, generally they have to be very good at some and on the better side of average on most. I believe that while there are always exceptions to the rule, generally the world’s best athletes are closer to 10 out of 10 than 1 out of 10 on most of these pillars.
Steve Smith is no exception. You don’t average over 60 in Test cricket without being technically & tactically very good while also being physically fit, having mental and emotional control and also having your life outside of cricket in order. Here’s what I think makes him so good based on the 6 pillars of success that we teach.
One of the most common things any pundit or arm chair expert talks about when discussing Steve Smith is his unique technique or style. Smith has effectively thrown the ‘textbook’ out and is doing it his own way. He is showing that it’s ok to be different. I could write an entire article on just his technique, however I’m going to just focus on a few aspects of it that contribute to his success.
While I don’t believe in people being born with ‘talent’ (I’m going to write a separate article on this), I do believe Smith has incredible hand-eye coordination. Whether he was born with this coordination or he’s trained himself to have it, his batting certainly benefits from that coordination.
He has a different grip to what’s conventional and starts with his bat facing more to point than the ‘normal’ slips. However he keeps his hands in close to his body and once the ball is released his bat comes down as straight as anybody’s. His strong bottom hand allows him to manoeuvre balls into the leg side easily and also hit square on the offside off both the front and back foot.
One thing that Smith has spoken about as making a big difference to his batting was removing the late bat tap that he did when he first played for Australia. He used to tap his bat as the bowler was about to release the ball and since removing it he’s spoken about how he doesn’t feel as rushed.
The second major change he’s made to his technique since he first came into the Australian Test side as a bowling all-rounder is the back and across movement he does. He’s spoken on numerous occasions about how he first tried it during the Ashes Test in Perth in 2015 when he was getting a lot of short balls and was struggling to deal with them.
Smith recently told Nasser Hussain during a batting masterclass for Sky Sports
“At that stage I think I was only going probably a centimetre or two towards middle stump and it was just putting a bit of weight on my back foot and from there I was able to get out of the way or play the pull shot or hook shot and everything sort of clicked into place for me. I was finding a way to get back through the ball and hit down the ground, transfer my weight if I wanted to hit through the off side and I felt leaving the ball I was in a nicer position to leave the ball outside my eyeline.”
GETTING OUTSIDE OFF STUMP
Smith now often gets so far across to the off stump and outside it that he can not only leave anything outside his eyeline, especially when it’s doing a bit, but also hit balls that most people would hit to cover or mid-off, through the leg-side where he’s stronger and generally there are less fielders. Smith is incredibly hard to bowl and captain to because hit hits the ball in ‘funny area’s’. He scores a lot of runs between mid wicket and backward square leg and often hits balls off 4th or 5th stump through those areas which forces bowlers to go even wider where he can let them go or slash them square of the wicket on the offside when they miss their length.
Although he has quite a pronounced trigger movement, his head is always still when the ball is released. One of the major dangers for any batter when they have a pronounced trigger movement is that their head continue to move across to the offside and they therefore ‘fall over’ a bit but Smith never seems to have this problem.
After he triggers across, he has a wide base and generally doesn’t commit forward too early. As he mentioned in the Sky Sports interview, he has some weight on his backfoot and sometimes drives with his front foot not fully planted on the ground. I believe that he’s able to do this because of his wonderful hand eye coordination. Through the thousands of hours of practice, his hands almost always go to exactly where the ball is. He has trained his body to see the ball and get his hands to exactly where it is.
Smith has become a master at playing the ball very late. When he first came into the Australian Test side he was out on a number of occasions nicking the ball going hard at it. Unless he is playing a full blooded attacking shot Smith now defends the ball incredibly late and ‘under his eyes’ which means he will generally play and miss rather than nick it. Smith very rarely gets nicked off in defence.
For a more in depth analysis of Smith’s technique, check out this interesting article.
(Note: Smith’s style works incredibly well for him but is very hard to replicate for young players. I’ve seen a number of young players try and bat like Smith, with an underhand grip and big trigger movements however it’s usually goes horribly wrong. I am a big fan of young players watching others and trying to imitate or copy them, however Smith’s unique style, which works so well for him, is very hard to replicate.)
I often say to the players that I work with that having an excellent technique means nothing if you don’t know how to use it properly. Having clarity about your game and building your game around your strengths is a hugely important part of being successful. That being said you also have to be able to adapt your game to the conditions and situation and there’s no one better at that in world cricket than Smith. He assesses the conditions quickly and adapts his game accordingly. When the ball is moving around he lets them go outside his eyeline and waits for the bowlers to miss their line and looks to hit more through the leg side and off the backfoot where the risk is reduced. When it’s not moving so much he waits until the bowlers miss their line (as previously mentioned) but also their length where he drives them through the off side.
Another thing that makes Smith special is he generally understands how the opposition is going to get them out. When the Aussie ODI team was in Perth a few years ago, I caught up with Smith for dinner. He was playing Pakistan two days later and he told me that he thought they were going to try and bowl really wide to him, stack the off side and get him caught slashing at a wide one. He then said how he was going to walk across his stumps even further than he normally would to get closer to the ball and would be willing to get bowled leg stump. Two days later I was watching the match on TV and that’s exactly what the Pakistan bowlers did and Smith did as he’d said and went on to score a century.
Another element to Smith’s tactical play is that he tries to limit the ways a bowler can get him out. Having watched a lot of cricket in my life, I haven’t heard many other top players talk about this as much as Smith does. Again from the Sky Sports interview with Hussain, Smith said
“What I’ve learnt over the years is you want to limit the ways you get out. And if you’re getting out all different ways then you start thinking about things and trying to change different things. For me, that’s why I’ve moved so far across to get to off stump knowing that if the balls outside my eye line at all I don’t have to play at it and if it’s on my pads all I got to do is hit the ball essentially. And sometimes I miss it and I’m ok with that. If I’m missing it and getting out LBW that’s fine cause I know that majority of balls I’ll hit and ill score a lot of runs whilst I do so.”
Finally, whether this falls under technical or tactical is up for interpretation, Smith, like many other great players, very rarely hits a fielder when he plays an attacking shot. More of than not, when Smith plays an attacking shot, he finds a gap and it races away to the boundary.
When I first played against Smith as a 17 year-old, he certainly didn’t look the best athlete going around. In fact, he was probably more on the chubby side than the athletic side. After he was dropped from the Australian Test side he made fitness a priority and just as has been reported about Virat Kohli, dedicated himself to becoming as fit as he possibly can be. If he’s not hitting balls he’s trying to do something to keep himself fit.
A younger Smith doing some boxing training with former junior representative teammate Ryan Medley
My wife & I were staying with our friend Sam Robson over the 2012/13 New Year’s break. We brought in 2013 with a small group that included Smith, his wife Dani, Chris Rogers and a few others. This was a time when Smith wasn’t in the Australian side. After enjoying themselves on New Year’s eve, Steve & Dani then turned up at Sam’s place the next day to collect his car, having run 10km from his place in Coogee Beach to Sam’s place in Vaucluse as Smith needed to ‘work off the night before’.
Even though he is now the best batter in the world, he hasn’t let is standards slip. When on holiday in the USA during his 12 month ban Smith dragged Rootesy (who was holidaying with him) on runs around Central Park (New York) and up and down Runyan Canyon (Los Angeles) much to Rootesy’s displeasure.
You don’t bat for long periods of time and score big scores if you’re not physically fit and Smith’s hard work off the playing field is one of the reasons he’s able to do what he does on it.
It has been widely publicised how much Steve Smith loves batting which is one of the biggest reasons he is so successful. Whether it’s in the middle or in the nets Smith never gets bored or sick of batting. He said on Sky sports that he doesn’t particularly like watching cricket and would much rather be out in the middle. He is known to enlist his wife Dani to feed him balls into the bowling machine when he didn’t have a coach or another player available to train with. It’s this hunger to stay in the middle for as long as possible that breeds his patience and ability to absorb good spells of bowling without panicking or worrying about the run rate. It also makes him more patient than the bowlers. When they get bored first he capitalises.
Wayne Bennett, immortal Rugby League coach defined mental toughness as ‘the ability to not give in to yourself. Being mentally tough is not taking the easy option. It involves keeping your concentration focused no matter what’s happening around you. If you’ve got a plan and a goal you’ve got to stick by it. Follow your beliefs and don’t give in to yourself.”
Current Australian coach Justin Langer describes mental toughness as “having 100% attention on the next ball bowled to you.”
Steve Smith is obviously incredibly mentally tough by both of the above definitions. His innings at Edgebaston is just another example of his ability to keep his focus on the present moment (the next ball) and not get distracted by what’s happening around him or his own thoughts or self-doubt. No one but Smith will truly know all the thoughts and doubts that went through his mind after the South African series. To get through that and the hate that followed and come out the other side doing what he’s doing shows his mental toughness.
Smith is not only exceptional technically and tactically but he also makes good decisions more often than not. Decision making is a huge part of batting and a player with the best technique who makes bad decisions is more than likely going to struggle for consistency.
Michael Vaughn said during Smith’s first innings hundred that he picks up length quicker than anyone which makes him seem to have a lot of time.
While I don’t know what Smith’s mental routine (I will ask him next time I see him) as the bowler is running in, I’m sure he’s very clear and focused on nothing but the ball. Having interviewed a number of world-class players for my podcast, The Process of Success, and having listened to many great players speak about their game, it’s clear that every player has some sort of mental routine to focus them as the bowler is running in. No doubt Smith is no different.
Anyone who watched Steve Smith as a captain or saw his press conference at Sydney airport after returning from South Africa would know that he is an emotional person. Unlike Steve Waugh and other successful captains when Smith was captain you could see his emotions when things were and weren’t going well. He also cried in front of millions of people when addressing the media after the ball tampering saga. Yet when he bats he has incredible emotional control. As human beings, our emotions effect both our decision making and also our skill execution. When we are scared (in cricket we can be scared of failure or getting hurt or looking silly or lots of things) our body gets tense and tight and we react and move slower. When we are confident, relaxed and happy we make fast and good decisions and react quickly. Smith very rarely seems to be overawed by his emotions when batting. No doubt he gets nervous, anxious and tense at times but he obviously has a mechanism (whether conscious or it just comes naturally to him) of coping with those emotions.
It’s very hard for an athlete to perform at their best if their off field life isn’t in order. Some can ‘compartmentalise’ their life and are able to perform no matter what is happening in their life off the field (Shane Warne comes to mind), yet it will effect most athletes in a negative way.
Steve Smith’s life is all about cricket. A common theme in many of the world’s best athletes is that they are almost obsessive in their discipline and pursuit of excellence. Steve Smith is no different. As previously mentioned, Smith is relentless in his preparation and pursuit to be the best he can be. Yet, everyone needs something to get away from the game.
A major reason for Smith’s on field success is his happy home life. Smith married his longtime girlfriend Dani last year (Rootesy was the best man) and she is not only his biggest supporter but also keeps him level and focused. I don’t think there’s any coincidence that Smith has played his best cricket since he has been with Dani.
Having had a few social days and nights with Smith, I know that he, like most cricketers, enjoys a drink socially. However he is very particular about when he does it and never compromises even his practice for a good time.
MOVING CLOSER TOWARDS BRADMAN
I began writing this article at the end of day 1 of the First Ashes Test after Smith made an exceptional 144 in Australia’s first innings. As I come to the end of it, he has just been dismissed for 142 in the second innings. With an incredible 286 runs for the match, he walked off shaking his head – still not satisfied. This is the first time in his career that he’s scored a century in both innings of a Test match and what a time to do it. Here’s a few more incredible stats that highlight the genius of Smith…
Smith scored his first Test century in his 12th Test match. As it stands he’s currently playing his 65th Test match and has now scored 25 Test hundreds. That’s 25 hundreds in his last 54 matches equating to almost one century every second Test match!
Smith now sits equal third on the most number of Ashes hundreds equal with the great Steve Waugh. Smith has done it in just 24 Ashes matches while it took Steve Waugh 45 Tests. Only Jack Hobbs (12 hundreds in 41 Tests) and the untouchable Don Bradman (19 hundreds in 37 Tests) ahead of him for the most Ashes hundreds.
HE’S HUNGRIER THAN EVER
Rootesy, who knows Smith as well as anyone has been saying for the past 12 months, that he will be back better than ever before. If this Test Match is anything to go by then he isn’t wrong!
Banning Steve Smith for 12 months was like taking his oxygen away from him. On numerous occasions Rootesy told me how Steve was struggling not being out in the middle doing what he does best. Yet the time away from the game has given him a chance to get away, reflect and learn. That coupled with the hunger and determination to win back people’s respect and get back doing what he loves means it’s scary for opposition teams what could be ahead.
Whatever your thoughts are on Smith after the Cape Town incident, one thing that’s for sure is that Steve Smith is one of the finest batters ever and is back playing Test cricket in emphatic style. At just 30 years of age, he’s coming into the prime of his career and could only get better.
As a spectator, a fan, a coach and a parent, I can’t wait to see what’s to come.
About the writer: I founded Cricket Mentoring in August 2016 with the goal of helping cricketers all over the world become the best they can be – on and off the field. As a former professional cricketer with Middlesex CCC (2010-2012) I’ve played with and against some of the world’s best players and worked with some elite coaches. I’m a Cricket Australia Level 2 coach and through my own personal experiences, practice and a hunger to always learn, I’ve developed and continue to refine my principles and philosophies on the great game. I believe there’s 6 pillars to peak performance (Technical, Tactical, Mental, Emotional, Physical, Lifestyle) and most athletes only focus on one or a few things. All of our content (articles, videos, podcast) covers the 6 pillars and has been created to assist cricketers understand what it takes to achieve great things in the game.
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