Given how often he has tormented England’s bowlers while forming the bulwark of so many vast Australian first innings, Steven Smith’s revelation about how much stem guards had irked him was somewhat surprising. For so hard wearing has Smith become at adapting to the many and varied challenges thrown his way by opponents, the fact that he revealed a tendency – prior to his heavy hit by Jofra Archer at Lord’s that ruled him out of Headingley – to cast away the guard without much in the way of persistence felt out of step.
But now that he has successfully added a stem guard to his protective measures, in addition to an arm guard in response to a blow he also suffered from Archer a little earlier in the same innings, it looks very much as though Smith is now even more impervious to opposition attacks than previously. That will be an ominous thought for bowlers, not only in England but all over the world, as Smith continues his pursuit of team victories and batting records.
“I noticed it a couple of times. I guess I got used to it pretty quick,” Smith said of the stem guard. “I never really gave it a chance in the nets. I’d wear it for 10 balls and if I got out or something I’d say, ‘nah this isn’t working’ and get rid of it. For me it was just giving it a chance and wearing it for a while and you get used to it.
“I walked in and I told the doc – I’m pretty superstitious with different things – I said the stem guards are good to stay now and my arm guard’s probably good to stay as well that I wore this game. I got a bit of a laugh from the boys out of that because they know how strange I am.”
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As for the short ball, which Smith was almost never troubled by during his 319-ball stay, the memories of Lord’s had faded beneath a more familiar sense of security, not only in terms of dealing with bouncers, but also knowing that the challenge of dealing with a moving Dukes ball is counterbalanced by bowlers intent on banging it in their own half of the pitch.
“I was just watching the ball and playing the ball. I’ve faced a lot of short pitched bowling in my life and haven’t had too many issues with it,” Smith said. “For a day-one, day-two wicket, then bowling up there, I said it before the game, means they can’t hit me on the pad or nick me off. And it softens their ball up as well. It played into our hands I think, and enabled that ball to get soft pretty quickly and for us to score some big first-innings runs.
“Lord’s was a tough wicket. His angle wasn’t very easy with the wicket being up-and-down. That was hard work and I said before the game that if they bowl a lot at my head then they’re not bowling at my stumps and trying to get me out lbw and caught behind the wicket. And I think that perhaps played into our favour a little bit in this innings.
“I think we saw when Stuart Broad came on with the new ball, he bowled some really nice lengths and beat my bat on the outside a couple of times and I got an inside edge to fine leg. He was quite challenging when he hit that length. For them to go as short as they did and as early as they did with the new ball, softened that ball up and played into our hands.”
Having missed the Leeds Test, Smith had a little more time to think about the approaches England were taking to him, and in the wake of his 211, a third Ashes double century, he offered an insight into how he thought his way through the traps laid for him. “I think and visualise before I play where people are likely to bowl to me and where I am likely to score and try to picture fields that are set and play things over in my mind, where I am going to get runs and how they are looking to get me out,” Smith said.
“Then out in the middle you have to adapt to whatever is thrown at you. You might have noticed when Overton was bowling really wide to me and I was just going a mile across and staying almost front on and felt like I was playing a bit of French cricket for a bit, just covering my stumps. If they got straight I was going to score, if not I was waiting on a half volley or a short one to put away, and just tried to stay patient.
“If you look at the best players around the world, they sum up what people are trying to do and adapt to it and are willing to change and have the confidence to change what they are doing to get the right outcome.”
This was an innings not without good fortune, Archer dropping a return catch in the second over of the morning, then Jack Leach dismissing Smith off a no-ball shortly after he made made his century. “I think you always need some luck when you score big runs. It fell my way today,” Smith said. “I lost a bit of concentration for around 20 minutes or so when Leach was bowling. I tried to hit one into next week and landed safely and obviously got a nick from a ball that spun and bounced a little bit, but probably didn’t need to play it the way I did.
“After I got caught off the no-ball I switched myself back on and got back in to where I needed to be. Generally when you score runs people try a few different tactics to you so you have to be switched on and adapt to those tactics that they’re throwing at you and get through them so I would say it changes throughout your innings.”