Steve Smith will be leaning on lessons from Sri Lanka tours past as he looks to take a more aggressive approach to the hosts’ spinners in the upcoming two-Test series, all while adapting to new self-imposed restrictions on his obsessive training regimen.
Smith has been kept on ice for the back-end of the ODI series after he suffered a left quad issue during the second game of the five-match series, with the tourists not willing to risk the only batter in their group with a Test hundred to his name on the island nation.
That ton came in August 2016, right in the middle of Smith’s remarkable six-year stretch in which he scored 26 of his 27 Test hundreds while averaging 73.02 across 57 matches. Throughout that period, the right-hander seemed to have an answer for every question bowlers and their captains posed him, and the centuries piled up with relentless consistency.
This time around however, the 33-year-old arrives on the subcontinent amid a different set of circumstances, having managed just one three-figure score from his past 17 Tests, going back to the beginning of the 2019-20 home summer.
In Pakistan in March, he passed fifty on three occasions out of four in the three-Test series, only to be dismissed twice in the seventies and once on 59. Notably, in all three innings Smith’s strike-rate ranged from 33-39, which points to a broader trend; in that 17-Test window, his strike rate of 42.55 is some 15 runs fewer than he was operating at through that golden period, when it was 57.30.
It is something Smith himself has identified, and plans to address in Sri Lanka.
“I probably had three opportunities to get hundreds in Pakistan, I just didn’t quite convert them,” Smith told cricket.com.au’s The Unplayable Podcast. “I feel like my plans were in a pretty decent place, but I could’ve potentially been a bit more aggressive against the spin over there, and played a few more shots.
“But I was also batting at stages where the ball was reversing quite big and I know as a batter coming in next, it’s probably the toughest thing to face – a reversing ball on those kinds of wickets against some good bowlers in (Shaheen) Afridi and Hasan Ali.
“So it’s playing the game and being patient and playing the tempo, which we spoke a lot about in Pakistan; against the new ball you can play a few more shots, like I did in the third Test when I got in a little bit earlier, and got some boundaries away early.
“But then when the ball gets a bit softer, it’s reversing, you have to rein it back in until you get your moment to go a bit more aggressive.
“But against the spin, I know I’ve got a few more shots that I can potentially bring out and put a bit more pressure back on the bowler.”
Smith scored 119 in the third Test in 2016, teaming up with Shaun Marsh (130) at the SSC Ground in Colombo to help Australia to their highest score of a series they ultimately lost three-nil. On what is expected to be a spinning track in Galle next week, he will be utilising that experience.
“Having a plan, and trusting it from the start (is crucial) – not getting yourself to face 20 balls before implementing the plan, you have to do it straightaway, otherwise you can be sitting back in the shed,” he said.
“I think (I improved) my understanding of the (spinning) ball and the square seam and what the ball can do (on such surfaces). I probably learned most in my first two Tests there where I didn’t get any runs, and then got a hundred and (learned by) spending a fair bit of time out in the middle in that third Test.
“From there, I think my subcontinent form probably got better and better, so it’s a great learning experience, playing on these kinds of wickets.”
Despite his relative lack of runs since that 2019 Ashes (he is averaging 39.88 through that 17-Test period), Smith has also been encouraged by his ability to continue occupying the crease; percentage-wise, the ‘balls faced’ comparison between his golden years (108.69) and those since (90.26) is less significant than his drop in strike-rate.
He offered several theories behind the shift in numbers, before reiterating his intended solution.
“Obviously Marnus (Labuschagne, at number three) has come into the team and he’s been scoring a lot of runs as well, so I’m sitting back in the shed for longer than I potentially was beforehand, which is great,” he said.
“And there’s been some different fields set where at times I feel like they’re actually not even trying to get me out. So whilst it might not (result in) me scoring a lot of the runs, it’s still (opponents) bowling a lot of balls and getting some miles into (their) legs, and you might see someone else after me being able to come out and score a bit more freely when the bowlers are more tired. So it’s not the worst thing for the team’s point of view.
“Of course, I’d love to be scoring more hundreds, but I’ve still been batting some good time … (opponents) have bowled differently and a bit more defensive at stages, but you’ve still got to just play the game and adapt to whatever they’re coming at, which I don’t think I’ve done poorly, but maybe (I need to be) just finding some more ways to get off strike or get a boundary away to change what they’re thinking and where they’re bowling.
“As I alluded to, I can potentially put a bit more pressure back on the bowler at stages – I’ve probably been a little bit defensive at times. And whilst I’ve spent a lot of time in the middle in a lot of the games, my strike-rate’s probably not as high.”
Smith’s tweaked gameplan will also need to be implemented off the back of a modified training routine, with the vice-captain being forced to limit his famously lengthy net sessions due to his troublesome left elbow.
He is now also nursing a left quad complaint that has so far kept him out of the back-end of the ongoing ODI series against the Sri Lankans.
The tennis elbow issue most recently sidelined him last year and at one point had him in doubt for the T20 World Cup that Australia went onto win, and he revealed that it remains a concern for him to the point that he has been forced to adjust his batting preparation.
“I probably am batting less at the moment than I have before, just with my elbow and trying to ensure that it doesn’t get to the place where it got to previously, which is hard for someone like me,” he said.
“I just love batting and getting big volume and that’s how I kind of get in the rhythm, so it is a bit different, but I’ve got to strike the right balance to ensure that I’m giving myself every chance to play as many games as possible.”
– With Louis Cameron in Sri Lanka
Qantas Tour of Sri Lanka, 2022
Sri Lanka ODI squad: Dasun Shanaka (c), Pathum Nissanka, Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Charith Asalanka, Dhananjaya de Silva, Dinesh Chandimal, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Niroshan Dickwella, Wanindu Hasaranga, Chamika Karunaratne, Dushmantha Chameera, Asitha Fernando, Nuwan Thushara, Ramesh Mendis, Maheesh Theekshana, Praveen Jayawickrama, Jeffrey Vandersay, Lahiru Madushanka, Dunith Wellalage, Pramod Madushan
Australia ODI squad: Aaron Finch (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Matt Kuhnemann, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
June 24: Fifth ODI, Colombo, 7pm AEST
Sri Lanka Test squad (provisional): Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Pathum Nissanka, Kamil Mishara, Oshada Fernando, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya De Silva, Kamindu Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella, Dinesh Chandimal, Chamika Karunaratne, Ramesh Mendis, Mohamed Shiraz, Shiran Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Asitha Fernando, Jeffrey Vandersay, Lakshitha Rasanjana, Praveen Jayawickrama, Lasith Embuldeniya, Suminda Lakshan
Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
June 29 – July 3: First Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
July 8-12: Second Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
All Sri Lanka v Australia international fixtures will be screened live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports
Australia A fixtures
Australia A squad: Scott Boland, Aaron Hardie, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Henry Hunt, Josh Inglis, Matthew Kuhnemann, Nic Maddinson, Nathan McAndrew, Todd Murphy, Jimmy Peirson, Josh Philippe, Matt Renshaw, Tanveer Sangha, Mark Steketee
Sri Lanka A one-day squad: Dhananjaya de Silva (c), Niroshan Dickwella, Lahiru Udara, Lasith Croospulle, Oshada Fernando, Pabasara Waduge, Kamindu Mendis, Ashen Bandara, Janitha Liyanage, Sahan Arachchi, Pulina Tharanga, Dunith Wellalage, Dananjaya Lakshan, Shiran Fernando (will not play due to injury), Dilshan Madushanka, Pramod Madushan, Nishan Madushka, Ashen Daniel,Nisala Tharaka
June 8: Australia A won by seven wickets
June 10: Sri Lanka A won by four wickets
June 14-17: Australia A won by 68 runs
June 21-24: four-day match v Sri Lanka A, Hambantota