The Bradmanesque and the Smithsonian
Shortly before Steve Smith was dismissed on 80 in the first innings of the fifth and final Test at the Oval, the commentator David Lloyd fanned a running joke at the 2019 Ashes. “How will you get Smith out?” “Bodyline,” a man in the stands said, and the reply was met with laughter and applause in the studio.
That was how England infamously stopped the great Don Bradman in the 1932-33 Ashes in Australia, their first meeting after the 1930 series in England where Bradman had plundered the English attack for 974 runs in five Tests, the most runs scored in a single Test series. Many have scored big runs in the course of a single series since. But few, if no one apart from Smith in 2019, have done it with the flair that has made the players, the pundits and the public believe that they are indeed witnessing the next Don in the making.
What is it about Smith’s technique that has allowed him to transform from the attacking, more-or-less conventional basher he once was to the Bradmanesque figure he cuts today?
To find out, we pitted Smith against the man himself. Bradman penned his technical secrets in The Art of Cricket, first published in 1958—just how different is Smith?
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Bradman is the more unconventional here. The textbook grip says that both wrists, the bottom right (for a RHB) and the top left, will form an inverted V on the handle down the spine of the blade. This is how Smith holds it. But Bradman’s top hand was reversed, facing the incoming bowler, which allowed the partially shut face of the bat to work the ball effortlessly on the leg side (Brian Lara, of contemporary players, used a similar grip).
“I refuse to condemn an unorthodox grip just because it is different. The use of wrists and arms and the method of stroke production cannot be stereotyped,” writes Bradman.
Smith’s grip may not be unconventional, but he does hold the bat low down on the handle, which makes it easier to play through the leg side, but slightly harder to play through the front-foot drives. Instead of trying to change the grip, Smith has cut out the temptation to play drives through the “V”.
This is where Smith and Bradman separate for good.
“The main purpose of the initial position when awaiting a delivery of the ball is to be in such a comfortably relaxed and well-balanced position that you are able to go forward or back, attack or defend, with equal speed. The knees should be slightly relaxed. It is a mistake to crouch over…,” writes Bradman.
Smith crouches before the bowler runs in at him, to the point where his bent knees and high back-lift has already placed him in ‘ready position’ before the bowler has delivered the ball. But Smith isn’t ready yet; far from it. The massive shuffle of his feet is yet to come, where his right foot shifts back and across, all the way over his off-stump.
Bradman, of course, is dead against the shuffle. In his book, where he dictates the exact measurement of where the immobile feet should lie during the stance (“the front foot should be parallel to the batting crease and 8 cm in front of it… the front toe turned slightly towards cover…”), Bradman doesn’t care for anything that “necessitates a preliminary change of foot position before one can move into a stroke.”
The key to Smith’s success, according to Smith himself, lies in that very preliminary movement.
“Back in 2013, I used to have no prelim movement. I used to stay very still with my backfoot,” he said in an interview with Mark Taylor for Channel 9. “It was actually in the middle of a game, during the 2013-14 Ashes and at the WACA, where they were bowling quite short at me…so I decided to do a prelim movement, back and across, to get out of the way of the ball. And everything sort of clicked into place and felt really good.”
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That back and across movement is what sets everything up for Smith. He is on the balls of his feet, like a boxer, ready to transfer weight in any direction needed. His spread feet straddle the entirety of the stumps, creating a solid base, and giving him full control over the most dangerous area of the pitch for a batsman—“the corridor of uncertainty” (the channel just outside the off-stump, where fast bowlers tend to nick batsmen off).
Now his eyes are in line with the off stump, and a ball coming down the “corridor” is almost directly under his sightline instead of being at a sharp angle.
Till the beginning of his ban, Smith found immense success with this change. When he came back from the ban, Smith took the move to its logical extreme. Now when he moves back and across, he takes a giant step that takes his back leg beyond the off stump.
Smith has closed the “corridor” down.
“I found middle and leg to be most serviceable,” wrote Bradman. “It means your legs are stationed originally some 5 cm more towards the leg side than they would be if you took middle stump. In this way it is easier to be sure that a ball travelling towards your pads is outside leg stump.”
This precise judgement of the direction of the ball is honed by Smith as well. But he couldn’t care less for the safety of his leg stump. His open stance and strong on-side play, especially square off the wicket, has made him focus all his energies on his off-stump.
“Back in 2013, I used to bat on middle stump. I sort of knew where my off stump was but I could be drawn a little bit wider (in the corridor) and be nicked off. And I used to get out like that a little bit,” Smith said in the Channel 9 interview. “I’ve sort of moved things a little bit across to leg stump (initial guard) and now I’m (back leg) going just outside off stump.”
The movement within the crease is massive and no orthodox coach or manual would advise it.
But here’s the secret to Smith getting away with it: the movement is triggered before the ball is released by the bowler. Once the leather is on its way, Smith is absolutely still and ready for his shot.
“I am all in favour of a straight bat… but technique must be the servant not the master,” writes Bradman in his introduction to how a bat must be held at the time of the ball’s release.
But the great Don too did not have the ideal backlift (which he noticed after watching footages of himself and wrote: “then it was clear my initial bat movement was almost invariably towards the slips”), so expecting unorthodox Smith to possess one would be expecting a bit much.
If Bradman’s bat went up towards second slip, Smith’s lift extends even wider—towards point. This upswing allows Smith that fraction of a second extra to play square off the wicket, the bat ideally positioned for the cut and the drive on the rise and his firm bottom hand ever prepared to work the ball through square leg. And these are the areas Smith tries to score almost all his runs, leaving or defending most anything that cannot be played square.
“To me, anyway, the important thing was where the bat went on the down swing,” writes Bradman and Smith will agree. Smith’s downswing is obviously not straight for the pull or the cut. But the bat drops down straight, like an anvil obeying gravity, when he does decide to drive a fuller ball.
“I doubt if one could truthfully say there is any single key to batsmanship, but footwork is certainly one of the keys to unlock the inner-most secrets,” writes Bradman, on the most important of the foundations to his art. “Correct” footwork demanded a mix of optimal speed and precise judgement in the transfer of one’s weight onto one’s back or front foot.
Smith doesn’t believe in any of that. “I’ve almost got all my weight on my backfoot before the ball is bowled,” he told Taylor. “For me, I trust my hands, I trust how they work outside my stumps. So, I play quite a few [through the off side] even when my feet haven’t moved too much, because I am confident in hitting through the ball.”
Technique, according to Smith, is what you can trust blindly in a match situation. And if you can’t trust it, the books must be overrated. “That’s batting,” he added, with what could well be Smith’s version of The Art of Cricket in one line, “You want to minimalize the ways you want to get out.”