Trent Woodhill, who coached Australia's Ashes colossus early in his career, talks about why unconventional approaches are harder to get away with down under than elsewhere. Listen to the podcast with Woodhill here.
As a coach, seeing Steven Smith when he was very young, I was always just amazed at his capacity and the joy he derived from batting. Nothing surprises me about his prolific run in Test cricket. He was always talented, he was always successful.
His biggest challenge, even back then, was being able to maintain his technique in the face of others not understanding how it works. Young players need protection from both themselves and others who don't like difference. A cricket dressing room can be a brutal place for a young player, who might be forced to conform - more so in Australia than any other country I've been in. In Australia we struggle with things that are different. We like a sexy Shaun Marsh thirty, made with a conventional, attractive technique, rather than an unconventional Steven Smith hundred.
If Steven was Indian, his technique and mechanics and the strategy around his batting would just be accepted. We see Kohli, Gavaskar, [Rohit] Sharma, Ganguly, Sehwag - all these players have unique techniques. The Indian system is all about output, about scoring runs, "We don't care how you do it as long as you do it", whereas in Australia we wanted you to score well and we wanted you to look good. I recently had a Facebook conversation with Greg Chappell about top-hand dominance. I've never had a conversation with an Indian cricketer about top-hand dominance.
That's all in-built in a conservative cricketing nation. Other nations just find a way to accommodate such players. Like a Rashid Khan, who holds the ball like an offspinner but bowls legspin, an Anil Kumble - seam-up, wristspin, predominantly wrong'un. Australian cricket likes to pass the baton on: this is how you do it, this is how it's always been done. Steven's come along, and to some extent, David Warner's come along and said, 'No, we're gonna do it this way now', and they've had a lot of success.
His bowling is a good way of looking at where his batting could have gone. To me, young Steven was an Anil Kumble-style, Rashid Khan-style bowler, with unconventional technique, who used to run in, was all right-sided, all right shoulder. But he was accurate, spun the ball, had a really good wrong'un, bowled a flipper. But then the Terry Jenners of the world, the spin doctors, got involved, and had a theory that everybody had to bowl like Shane Warne. Likewise, when it came to batting, it was a cookie-cutter mentality. If you want to succeed, you had to bat like Greg Chappell, Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke. This mentality has been to Australian cricket's detriment. Unconventional techniques and uniqueness should be celebrated, and young coaches and players should work out what style suits them.
Jacques Kallis and Damien Martyn were unbelievable off-side players. They could have no leg-side play and still score at an amazing strike rate because they were that good on the off side. VVS Laxman, Mohammad Azharuddin, Steven Smith and Virat Kohli are all unbelievable leg-side players. That doesn't mean their off-side game is not good. It's just working out where your dominance lies.
With someone like Steven, I saw him and went, "Wow, I don't really understand this. But, I know that it works, so I need to understand why it works, so that I can help if something goes wrong."
The old guard, the older Test greats, still can't understand how it works. So they still think, especially bowlers, "Well, if I was bowling, I'd sort this guy out." And that's the thing with cricket, especially in England and Australia: "If I can't understand how it looks, it can't work." Steven has proven them wrong. He's the best since Bradman; this is not even an argument anymore.
He was a little bit fortunate that in Peter Smith, his father, he had a really good mentor in terms of his batting. When I came along, it was all about protecting what Peter and Steven had created. Then he moved to Michael DiVenuto [Australia's batting coach at one time] from around 2012. Diva taught him about day-to-day batting, getting up, getting better, how to graft out an innings, how to take down bowling day in, day out, to the point where, when Diva left, Steven became the best coach of himself, and he understands his game better than anyone else does, including all of us.
Someone just told me that Steven has scored 17% of his runs in the V between mid-off and mid-on since 2013, which is unusual compared to most conventional batsmen. I'd like to know Viv Richards' stats for runs in the V. As a coach, I feel playing straight is overrated. If you play with a straight bat in England consistently, and if you take [seriously] that old adage of playing in the V early on, you'll nick off for fun. The ball moves too much.
"The old guard, the older Test greats, still can't understand how [Smith's technique] works. So they still think, especially bowlers, 'Well, if I was bowling, I'd sort this guy out."
I think players that are able to target the square boundaries to balls of all lengths are the players that are going to have the most success, especially in England, and in India as well, where the ball doesn't bounce so much. It's so difficult to beat the bowler, mid-off and mid-on by playing straight, and not only that, the ball only has to move an inch and you're out. Or you play and miss. That stat backs up why Steven Smith is successful - it's because he doesn't play in the V.
In England or Australia, targeting the top of off stump is always spoken of by bowlers and teams; I'd set up batsmen to dominate balls targeting top of off. That's where IPL and T20 cricket has come to the fore. In the early days of the IPL, you could bowl top of off stump and trouble certain batsmen. Now batsmen are set up to hit those balls, whether it's with a front-foot pull or a back-foot slash-drive or cut over cover.
I see a lot of similarities between Kane Williamson, Virat Kohli and Steven. They all have the ability to change their grip on the bat without it affecting their performance. In my experience with all the great players around, whenever there's a slight grip change, it affects them massively. But those three guys, they are able to change their grip depending on what format they are playing. And I think that's because their focus isn't so much on convention but to go with what works for them.
Somewhere along the line, in Australian and English cricket, the word "technique" was embedded into the commentary, the preparation, the coaching, the senior players. The beauty of something like the IPL is that it has changed that chat. Because the cricketing world has come closer together, there's more conversation between players of unbelievable talent across nationalities, and the focus is now on performance.
I don't think England bowled well to Steven this Ashes. I agree with Nasser Hussain: to Steven, you have to bowl full, fifth stump - not fourth stump, not top of fourth stump - with an off-side field. That's the best way, if you want to be conventional. They could have gone to more white-ball bowling to him with defensive fields as well. Players like Kohli and Smith like to set the batting tempo, they like bat on ball, as good as they are at letting the ball go. But there's a rhythm that they like to play red-ball cricket in, so you should try and take that rhythm away from them. In the first Test, in Birmingham, they focused on Nos. 10 and 11, rather than bowling to Steven. So he got away. They kept bowling in the channel to him and he was able to score easily. That was the time they should have bowled a lot more slower balls.
And later on in the series, Jofra Archer bowling change-ups, bowling three of those an over to Steven, just so he couldn't get into rhythm, would have been worth a go. It doesn't mean you'll get him out right away, but you're affecting his rhythm. I think Jasprit Bumrah would be a good match-up with Steven, when they face off in Tests next year in Australia.
Listen to the podcast with Trent Woodhill here