Steve Smith's hands, form, runs and stuff

The bowlers have changed how they attack Smith, and for a while, it worked. Not today.

"There's a difference with being out of form and being out of runs."

Steve Smith, SCG, 2021

One of my notebooks has a collection of fielding plans for Steve Smith used between 2014 and 2017. Two leg slips to a pace bowler was one of my favourites. I also enjoyed the leg side umbrella. Teams were convinced that Smith would be caught on the leg side, but he wasn't.

It was around 2015 Ashes when teams started hanging the ball wide outside off stump after England had some success on helpful surfaces.

Why bowl to his strength was the idea. Keep the ball away from him, make sure the slips are still in the game. Usually for much of Smith's batting they are not. He wants to hit to leg, so make it almost impossible. There was sound cricket thinking in all of it - but it didn't work. Smith looked like the best Test batsman since Bradman in this period.

Smith averaged 97 against pace between the 11th of September 2014 and 11th of September 2019.


And there is a reason for these dates, it's because I felt like England in the final Ashes Test of 2019 bowled at the stumps more than usual. And since then Smith has averaged 29 against pace.

From Bradman to a handy nightwatchman.

So, whoa, we need to go back to that Test. Smith made 80 and 23. Not his best effort, but a decent return. In the first innings Chris Woakes bowled the ball at the stumps, Smith missed a straight one and was given LBW. He was bound to miss one, right? The following innings, Stuart Broad bowled to a leg slip plan.

But something went off in my head that England were just a lot straighter. More at him.

This was a fairly unconstructed thought in my head for a long time I would bring up half-formed in bars. So it was about time I actually looked into it.

We need to disregard five of the dismissals. One was a declaration slog against Shaheen Afridi. Colin de Grandhomme took one with some stuff outside off. Yasir Shah took him once. And Ravichandran Ashwin has him twice in this series. But we're leaving all these alone.

But these are his wickets from the fast-medium and above men when he was batting normally.

Dismissal 1 - Straight, length. Smith misses a Chris Woakes one trying to turn it to leg.

Dismissal 2 - Down leg, length ball. Smith tried to flick it Broad and found leg slip.

Dismissal 3 - Bouncer, straight. Smith defends but finds leg gully from Wagner.

Dismissal 4 - Hard length, straight. Smith pulls out to a three-quarter deep square from Wagner again.  

Dismissal 5 - Bouncer, straight. Yes, Wagner, he gets on the handle and it ends with gully.

Dismissal 6 - Short, straight. One more time for Wagner, and he pulls it to the sweeper.

Dismissal 7 - Length, leg stump. Finally Bumrah comes in for one, Smith walks across the stumps and tries to tickle it fine, and is bowled around the leg.

There are three strong patterns in this tiny sample size. Neil Wagner. Neil Wagner and the bouncer. And bowling straight. But seven dismissals doesn't mean that much. And there are some flukier wickets here. The leg gully tactic will always be lucky; batsmen can't really control the ball on that side, but it's still a toss-up because of the two men behind square law.

Before that random Test, I could only find three times they have caught him behind square in Tests from seam. In 14/15 at the MCG, Umesh Yadav had Smith caught at leg slip. Chris Tremlett had the old Smith caught down the leg side at the WACA in 10/11. Wagner (I know, right) had him pulling in Christchurch back in 2016. So Wagner is a very common denominator.

In fact, New Zealand is, twice in ODIs New Zealand have got him out with a catcher behind square on the leg side. Boult in 2016 was one. Then the it-really-shouldn't-count Martin Guptill leg gully catch off a full-blooded hook at Lord's in 2019. In the same World Cup, Sheldon Cottrell caught him with another stunner from a hook off Oshane Thomas. So it's not just New Zealand, but somewhere around 2019 the kiwis worked out the best place to bowl at Smith was straight. And short.

After that World Cup, Jofra Archer hit Smith in the first Test of the 2019 Ashes. So let's look at a before and after. Disregarding yorkers and full tosses - cause there's not much to see there - there is basically four lengths, full, good, short of a length and short.

You can see length hasn't changed. Full I have actually cheated on, because he hasn't been dismissed off a full ball since Archer concussed him. But against back of a length and short balls his average has fallen off a cliff. And teams are bowling it a lot more.

After is previous five years before the concussion.

The green is the full balls, and you can see how many there were before. Now it's down to just over half the balls. It's been a 27% increase to back of a length and shorter. So they're bowling it more, and he's averaging less. But it's worth looking at the scoring rates per over as well.

Oh. My. Golly. Gosh. Look at what has happened to him scoring off bouncers. He used to score at over two runs an over quicker than average, now he scores at two runs an over slower. Smith used to be dismissed every 67 balls from the pull shot from an incredibly small sample, it's now every 22.5.

So clearly the short ball is a problem. But the line has also changed. I looked from my magically random fifth Ashes Test, and made a before and after looking at what seamers have done to him. And there are changes. You can see straight away that the pattern is different.

Before is 11th of September 2014 and 11th of September 2019

Let me break this down a little more for you to make it really clear. Let's start with the channel balls outside off. They've basically not changed.

There, that was easy.

But what about all those wide hanging balls way way way outside off stump.

70% of them have gone. This is a tremendous change. This, on its own, would be extraordinary. And it shows that other than in certain situations, perhaps when he already has runs, they just try not to bowl wide to him. So what do they do?


They bowl a lot more straight, a 28% increase. Which feels like a lot to me.

And perhaps as a follow on, or just completely separate, there's also been a change in down leg.

Again, another 33% chance. It;s not a lot of balls, but clearly again something has changed. Teams started bowling differently to him. And he's been dismissed by it.

And so this is the basic difference from before and after.

He wasn’t dismissed off balls down leg at all before.

It's as clear as anything. The kinds of deliveries that bother Smith now didn't before.

And then today he makes 131. Run out.

India bowled 50% of their balls from their seamers shorter, but the pitch was so slow, it didn't matter. They probably didn't use the bouncer enough, but perhaps that was just because the pitch was like that. But when they went short he very nearly feathered a pull shot behind, and another one took his glove and would have gone to a leg slip if they had one.

They bowled 60% of their balls outside off stump in the channel. They did bowl a little at the stumps, but certainly not enough, being that they had two fairly good shouts for LBW, and both were too high.

Cricviz put this up as well. So there's that.

Now, let's be clear, I don't know if Steve Smith was out of form, I never even know where his hands are these days.

But Steve Smith was out of runs, in specific ways, and as good as this hundred was - and it was fantastic - I am not sure this means all these other problems are gone forever. I mean, maybe they are, this could be one of those magical knocks that changes everything.

The way teams have bowled to Smith has changed, and so far, he's not made as many runs. Today he made 131 of them, and it's clear Smith hasn't dropped off a cliff. The game has just changed for him - before he was clocking cricket. Maybe he'll get back to that, or he goes back to being normal everyday Test star.