Steve Smith’s bat is not responding well and that’s why the Australian batting was found wanting in Durban and Port Elizabeth. The tail would not wag every day and that’s why Smith must come back to his scoring mojo.
It goes without saying that Steve Smith is a fantastic batsman and has led his side from the front on many an occasion. A couple of months ago, he seemed invincible with the bat. He scored 687 runs at a mammoth average of 137.40 in five Tests. Prior to that, he left his mark on the Indian soils too. Conditions where the likes of Australians, South Africans and English batsmen tend to struggle, Smith top-scored in the five-Test Border Gavaskar Trophy 2017 with 499 runs at 71.28 including three centuries.
Smith has played eight or more Tests against three teams – India, England and South Africa. While Smith has done well against India and England, his numbers do not replicate the same when he faces the Proteas. The Australian side at present is in the Rainbow nation playing a four-Test series. Australia won the first Test in Durban by 118 runs before the hosts equalised in Port Elizabeth with a six-wicket victory. In the series so far, Smith has reached fifty only once. In the two Tests, Smith had scores of 56, 38, 25 and 11. Smith averages 62.89, overall, the second best after the legendary Sir Don Bradman. When it comes to playing against Australia’s major rivals, India, England and South Africa, Smith averages 56.27 vs England, 84.05 vs India but his least average is against South Africa, 47.
Ever since his debut, Smith has played eight Tests against South Africa and in his first Test against these opponents, Smith had recorded a hundred – 100 (Centurion) in 2014. Four years and 14 innings have passed since then, Smith is yet to reach the triple digits against them in the longest format. Not scoring a ton in the recently ended second Test in Port Elizabeth has earned Smith a record he would not like it very much but that has given a clear perspective of the status of Smith in the current Test scenario.
Not scoring a century in three consecutive Tests – big deal? Not really.
It is when Smith is being discussed.
Smith took around three years to get to his maiden Test hundred after he made his debut for Australia in 2010 at the Lord’s. When Australia handed him the Baggy Green for the first time, he was taken in as an able replacement of Shane Warne. After Warne announced his retirement in 2007, Australia were in a fix. Their hunt ended when Smith gradually rose to fame in the domestic circuit for having an action similar to Warne’s. In the first 10 innings of Smith’s Test career, he had only two fifties. However, with time, Australia and Smith realised that the latter possessed potential of a regular Test batsman and not just a mere all-rounder.
In the final Test of the Ashes 2013 at the Oval, Smith clinched his maiden Test century where he remained 138 not out. Since then, Smith has added another 22 centuries. He has averaged 72.76 and nearly a hundred every two matches. No player has scored more than 17 centuries in the same time-frame.
There has been a significant detail in Smith’s career post his maiden Test ton in 2013. Prior to the South Africa tour, Smith went without a Test hundred in three consecutive matches only on two occasions (2014 and 2016). However, by the time the Port Elizabeth Test ended, that record went one step back. Smith has not scored a hundred in his previous three Tests now – Sydney (Ashes 2017-18), Durban and Port Elizabeth.
In both the Tests, Australia have reached the 300-mark only once, batting in all the four innings and that is making a lot of difference for them. The line-up is filled with talented batsmen, with Smith right on the top, but none of them have delivered to their potential yet. Smith’s failure is hurting Australia the most right now. In the four innings, he has batted, he has got out to a left-arm spinner three out of the four occasions and that has to stop soon if Australia wants to keep their fine record in South Africa intact. Although Smith has suggested recently that he does not have issues against left-arm spinners, his dismissal against part-time Dean Elgar in the second innings of the Durban Test added fuel to that.
Out of the 44 dismissals to spin so far in his career, Smith has been dismissed 21 times to left-arm spinners. Talking specifically since the start of 2016, slow left-arm bowlers have dismissed Smith a total of 14 times in 41 Test innings. Eleven of those came in the subcontinent which included Australia’s forgettable Sri Lanka tour where they were whitewashed 0-3. Sri Lanka’s veteran Rangana Herath had troubled Smith throughout the series. Apparently, Smith had averaged poorly 15.8 against Herath that tour and has managed an average of just 21.92 against all left-arm spinners 2016.
It could be safely said that South Africa are well aware of that fact and they clearly are using that as a weapon to keep Australia’s run machine quiet. So far, the plan has been quite effective. Smith, on the other hand, has suggested that he has no issues at all playing spin and he considers himself as one of the good batters against spin.
“I guess when you’re playing outside of the subcontinent, playing spin is a lot easier than anywhere else in the world and maybe you can relax a little bit and perhaps not get that big stride in that you need to get in India or think the ball isn’t going to spin as much and get a bit lazy. So perhaps I got a little bit lazy at times and didn’t have the same concentration levels that I had in India at the start of last year,” the Australian skipper said recently.
The third Test is in Cape Town where Australia have won 10 out of the 13 Tests they have played there. In order to put themselves in the position of 2-1, Australia need their captain and best batsman, Smith, to play the way he had been playing in the last one year or so.