Smith's runs trump aesthetics
He moves across the stumps and tempts the bowlers to target his pads but the moment bowlers take the bait, he whips them for runs. Steven Smith is a classic example of how batsmanship is essentially about getting bat to ball, keeping the good balls away and punishing the loose deliveries. The fact that it looks ungainly or unaesthetic counts for precious little in the real world. Smith is the only Australia captain to score two Test centuries in a series in India and, perhaps, has already played one of the finest knocks by a visiting captain.
Smith has an exaggerated back-and-across trigger movement that takes his back leg and his head outside the off stump, too. In theory such a movement should lead to the front foot falling across, and therefore the front leg blocking the path of the bat on the downswing. To complicate it further, Smith's back-lift also comes down from gully instead of coming down from second-third slip. While everything in conventional technique is stacked in favor of leg-before dismissals, Smith has made changes to rule out that option. Even when his back leg takes him on the off stump, he keeps his front foot firmly rooted on the leg stump, and therefore it never falls across. When bowlers see him covering the stumps, they see only his back leg and it's almost impossible to hit the back leg regularly. The most incredible and unconventional bit about his batting is that in spite of bringing the bat down from gully, he rarely misses the line of the ball. In 96 Test innings, he has only been dismissed lbw by a pace bowler five times.
Playing close to the body
With the head on top of off stump and the front leg on leg stump, there's a likelihood of staying too far away from deliveries outside off and, therefore, going only with the arms. Smith is exceptional in either leaving or allowing the ball to come close to him whenever the ball is full. He goes hard with his hands only to deliveries that are short and wide. Still, bowling a sixth-stump line while dragging him forward is the best form of attack for right-arm fast bowlers in the early part of Smith's innings.
Handling spin in different scenarios
In this series, Smith has shown his full range of responses against spin on two radically different surfaces. The pitch in Pune dictated an aggressive and adventurous tactic, and he came out striking from the outset. He started by using his feet to push the ball in the long-on region and the moment R Ashwin tried to cut that single by bringing the fielder to mid-on, he started sweeping and didn't mind playing the reverse-sweep, too. Like most aspects of his batting, his forward defensive stroke is also very unorthodox, for his front leg doesn't bend at the knee. He has managed this aspect by putting the bat in front of the pad and by going deep inside the crease at the first possible opportunity. Smith has also been exceptional in finding gaps off the back foot. Against Jadeja, he kept playing inside the line that allowed the straighter deliveries to hit his bat and the ones that turn kept missing the outside edge regularly.
Since the pitch in Ranchi was relatively flatter, he employed a very orthodox method to counter Ashwin and Jadeja. Whenever he played against the spin, he used his feet to get really close to the pitch of the ball. Not once did he play the sweep or the reverse-sweep, shots he played often in Pune. He did add the on-the-rise square drives against spin in the third Test.
By moving across in the crease and bringing the bat down at an angle, Smith manages to create really acute angles to find the gaps. He not only manages to drag the balls from outside off but also puts them on the right of the fielder at midwicket. Similarly, he walks down and across to spinners to place the ball on the left of the midwicket fielder. Unlike most batsmen, he manages to present the full face of the bat while playing it through the on side. And whenever it hits the inside edge of the bat, it invariably goes really fine, once again making it difficult for bowlers to set the field. He holds the bat with the bottom hand moved inside, which makes him a bottom hand-dominated player. But, for someone with that grip, he still manages to drive through the off side.
We are conditioned to appreciate the aesthetics of batting and therefore, we use it as an important guideline to judge greatness. This should not stop us from acknowledging Smith as a modern great, as his numbers clearly state.
Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash