India vs Australia: Run machine Steve Smith revved up
Steve Smith continues to amaze. India may have gone to Australia thinking of how to bowl to him in Tests where he is the world’s top batter but, following a makeover in his one-day game, Smith has become the main tormentor in the ODI series. With thrilling back-to-back centuries, Smith has helped Australia take the series which ends in Canberra on Wednesday.
Since Smith burst on to the scene in 2010, there have been many phases in his batting. Starting as a white-ball dasher, he trained his mind to curb the penchant for big hitting on the leg-side and became a risk-free accumulator of runs. When India landed in Australia for this tour, their bowling plans would have been for that version of Smith. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami knew it would be hard work to get his wicket but they would be less worried about his strike rate. After all, Smith’s record in ODIs was good but not intimidating. He had nine hundreds in 125 matches before the tour. Virat Kohli had 43 in 248 ODIs.
At the start of this year, Smith finished the ODI series in India with a century getting 131 off 132 balls in Bengaluru. It was a typical workmanlike Smith effort; finding the gaps, running hard but never really breaking free. On a ground much smaller that the Sydney Cricket Ground, where the first two ODIs were played last week, Smith hit 14 fours and one six and had a strike rate of 99.24. India chased down Australia’s total of 286/9 easily to take the series. In the innings before that, at Rajkot, Smith got 98 at a strike rate of 96.07.
Scoring freely in ODIs was not the Smith way possibly because he had tweaked his technique to ensure more success in Tests. It was a change that had limited his range of power hitting. That was then.
The Smith show on Sydney was different. The run-machine had transformed into an entertainer. From a strike rate in the 90s in Rajkot and Bengaluru, Smith scored at 159.09 and 162.50 in the first two ODIs.
India’s best chance to prevent a whitewash lies in finding a way to stop Smith. According to data analysed by Cricviz, Smith’s acceleration has been awe-inspiring. In the first game, starting at a strike rate of 95 till the first 20 balls (scoring 19), Smith zoomed to 185 from the 21st to the 40th deliveries (scoring 37 runs) and then to 188.5 for his last 49 runs.
In the second game, the final flourish was even better. The first 20 runs came at a strike rate of 100, it improved to 155 after facing 21 balls and soared to 220.8 after 40 balls. It was an innings of a batsman at the peak of his powers. Even in Australia, the series was hyped around Virat Kohli. Smith was expected to score a mountain of runs but it would be Kohli’s style that would catch the eye. To Australia’s delight, Smith is getting runs and getting them in style.
Smith has been brilliant against pace and spin and on both side of the wicket. In the first ODI, of the number of runs he scored against pace, 18 runs were in the cover region as he played lofted shots early on, sometimes just guiding the ball over the fielder. There were 17 runs in the arc from long-on to square-leg when he was taking the ball early and also getting under it. Showing off his T20 range of shots, he got 16 runs behind on the leg-side.
As India pacers looked to change their length in the second ODI, Smith changed his scoring area (see Crizviz data chart). Using the pace of the ball, he scored 33 runs in the region behind the wicket: from point to square leg. There were 21 in front of the wicket.
Against spin, in the series opener, Smith had scored on both sides of the wicket; 14 runs in the covers and as many from midwicket to square-leg. In the second game, when he ripped into leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal, Smith smashed 34 runs between long-on to backward square-leg.
Former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar and pace bowler Karsan Ghavri advise greater bowling discipline by probing Smith on the off-side. Another way to contain Smith, who has no apparent problem in his technique and flawless levels of concentration, is to build pressure by having the game’s best bowlers operate for most of his innings.
But what has increased India’s challenge is Australia’s batting line-up firing as a unit. There were 100-plus opening stands and heavy power-hitting in the slog overs by Glenn Maxwell in both games. That makes it difficult to for Kohli to have his best bowlers focus on Smith.
Former India pacer Ashish Nehra and former India opener Gautam Gambhir have also spoken of the need for Kohli to handle his bowling changes better. In the second ODI, Mohammed Shami’s first spell lasted just two overs before Navdeep Saini replaced him. “He wanted Shami to bowl from the other end, that I understand, but then, why would he use Jasprit Bumrah for only two overs with the new ball?” Nehra said on Cricbuzz. “I believe, Kohli is an impulsive captain. He is making too many changes in his bowling. And this is an area that he needs to take care of.”
Since Smith has had the measure of India’s main spinner Chahal, scoring at a strike rate of almost 200 in both the games – taking 25 runs off 13 balls and 18 runs in nine balls off him - India could look at replacing the leg-spinner with Kuldeep Yadav on Wednesday.
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