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Steve Smith and his pace attack

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Steve_Smith_Australia_cricketIn every great sportsperson’s life, there comes a period in which invincibility becomes his servant. Steve Smith is currently going through such a phase. Unlike the cigarette smoker stuck in Freud’s oral stage, Steve Smith’s phase of supremacy has come through hard work and a deeper understanding of his own game. “Understanding of his own game” is a euphemism for the development of his hideous technique.

Analyzing his movements, he starts outside leg, takes his backfoot to off stump, brings his left foot to leg stump and waits for the ball. In doing so, his left foot is so much more free than the conventional technique would allow. If the ball is on the stumps, he doesn’t have to take his foot anywhere and therefore does not run the risk of playing around the pad. If the ball is outside off stump, he can simply bring his foot across. If the ball begins to dart back in, he stops his left foot on middle and leg, once again allowing him to play straight.

Sometimes, he is caught on the move when the ball is outside off. But in Test cricket he counters that by letting the ball go. Since his weight is already on the back foot, he has very little trouble playing the short ball.

His technique seems awry but perhaps it is the better technique and we have failed to acknowledge it because of tradition and our instinct to deride anything new. The acknowledgement will have to wait till he plays out his career without hitting a bad patch, or till he bounces back from a bad patch. The monotony of greatness can only be interrupted by the variance of failure.

But Australia’s Ashes dominance was not just because of Steve Smith. It was the result of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood performing with ferocity the physically toughest discipline in cricket: fast bowling. Without undermining the role of Nathan Lyon in their victory, let’s just focus on the three quicks.

Josh Hazlewood, as any cricket-watcher would say, is a line and length bowler a la Glenn McGrath. But unlike McGrath, Hazelwood bowls at 140 kmph. The pace makes his short ball much more threatening, which thereby makes his fuller delivery a tad more difficult to play. On a flat wicket he can toil away and bowl economical overs and on a helpful wicket he can run through batting line-ups. In the entire series, he did not have a bad day.

Mitchell Starc on the other hand, sprayed it around in quite a few sessions. However, as contrarian as it may seem, that is his strength. Unpredictability. He has a mean swinging yorker, a fast bouncer, and because he’s not quite as consistent as Hazlewood, he teases you out of your comfort zone.

At 145 kmph, not many batsmen relax when facing him and none can form a game plan against him. You can’t press forward to try and make that uncomfortable length into a nice full ball. You can’t always be stuck on the back foot for fear that a toe-crusher might be coming - Alastair Cook will attest to that. Starc made a mockery of Cook’s footwork and technique throughout the series. The one match that Starc did not play, Cook scored a double-century.

Pat Cummins is a rare breed. He has the pace of a tear-away fast bowler and the consistency of a line and length bowler. Granted, he tends to bowl a little shorter than that good length, but he hits the pitch hard and often extracts something out of it.

If he can stay fit long enough, he will be among the greats of the game. He doesn’t swing the ball a lot but knows what he’s doing with the ball. Steve Smith used him as the executioner of the short pitch plan, which shows that Pat Cummins is a captain’s bowler, a dream player for a captain.

If Australia can shore up their middle order (perhaps the Marsh brothers) and find a good partner for David Warner, the cricketing world might be in for another decade of Australian dominance. The only thing that will be able to stop them is injuries.

 

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