Though Australia’s 2019-20 series against New Zealand was a comfortable victory for the hosts, it also featured some of the most difficult spells that Steven Smith has ever had to endure on his way to being regarded as the pre-eminent Test batsman.
Time and again, the irrepressible Neil Wagner zinged down precision bouncers at Smith, drastically slowing his scoring even as he played the supporting role in some critical partnerships with Marnus Labuschagne in particular. Never in his Test career had Smith scored as slowly as the strike rate of a little more than 34 runs per 100 balls he was corralled into by New Zealand, but ahead of his first Test match meetings with Jasprit Bumrah, he has challenged India to match Wagner’s unique array of skills.
Smith went as far as to say that resorting to a short-pitched attack was a form of “flattery’ in that it came with an effective admission that opponents have run out of either patience or method to dismiss him by more conventional means. Certainly the kind of exasperation experienced by England during the 2019 Ashes led logically to the New Zealand approach, and even some of the more lateral fields Virat Kohli set for India during a limited-overs series at the start of this year.
“Looking back at the last Test series, Neil Wagner got the better of me, he’s pretty good at what he does, he possesses a set of skills that not many people can do and he does it for a long period of time,” Smith said. “While I had some contributions, my strike rate was down, but Test cricket, that’s the beauty of it, you can bat for as long as you like and form partnerships and I was able to do that.
“So if others want to take that kind of approach then great. It’s not the same as what Neil does, the way he bowls it. I think what you’re alluding to is a short-pitched bowling sort of approach that others might take, and people can go for that. In a way it’s a bit of flattery if people believe that the only way they can get me out because they’ve exhausted so many more options, it gives me a lot of confidence to know that.”
Asked to explain Wagner’s method in more detail, and why it would be hard for others such as Bumrah to copy it, Smith said it came down to the left-armer’s ability to make subtle variations of pace, length and line without ever diverting far from a very awkward zone for batsmen. “You look at Neil Wagner’s career, the way he bowls, I think he’s the No. 2 Test bowler in the world or something like that [No. 3] and you see the majority of wickets he’s got are from short-pitched bowling and the way they set that field up,” he said.
“He’s really patient and he’s able to do it all day. There’s not too many quick bowlers who can run in and bowl bouncers all day, and I guess the way Neil does it is particularly special. He gets balls between shoulder and rib height, he’s incredibly accurate, and then he’s got an ability to change his pace. I think that was one of the hardest things the guys, not just me but some of the other guys as well coped with last year, was he’d bowl one ball at 135kph, next ball would be 128, the next ball would be 130 and then 135.
“It was just tough to get a real rhythm against because balls were coming out at different paces. So I think he’s got a pretty unique set of skills, the way he does it. He’s done it to not just me but to plenty of batsmen around the world. It’s different to when anyone else has tried to do it.”
Smith’s record against India is of the kind to cause plenty of additional planning meetings for the tourists: across the past two series he has played at home in 2014-15 and then away in 2017, he has scored 1268 runs at 97.53 with no fewer than seven centuries.
“I think big series, I try and stand up and try and get the best out of myself,” he said. “And whether it be an Ashes series or an Indian series. They’re the two biggest for us as Australian cricketers. Whether there’s just more inside me that comes out, I’m not sure.
“I think it also comes down to, and you can get into rhythms against bowlers. Quite often the first Test or the first game of the series, I’ve started really well against India and I’ve been able to get into a bit of rhythm and it’s probably helped me through the rest of the series. It’s something to do with it.”