From time to time around the Oval press box, little English-accented groans of annoyance burbled through the quiet. “Oh God. Here we go again.” Steve Smith was the cause, across the first two days of the World Test Championship final. Through the tinted windows placed just behind the bowler’s arm at the Vauxhall End was the perfect view of him, ball after ball: setting up outside leg stump, stepping across, nudging off his pads for a run on his way to 121.
For British scribes who covered their last home Ashes in 2019, it was simply Smith picking up where he left off. They saw him do exactly that to the tune of 774 runs last time around, and any time your tally equals an ABC radio callsign you’re doing well. They can’t believe that between that series and now Smith returned to the realm of batting mortals. They can look at the numbers – 28 Tests, four centuries – but they can’t quite believe what they weren’t there to see.
It was striking how much Smith’s hundred at the Oval resembled those from his last visit to England. There was the same bloodymindedness, a fully embodied determination that he was not going to accept anything less from his time in the middle. There was that scoring strike rate that spent most of the first day in the 30s before finally nudging up to 41. There were the 19 boundaries, only half a dozen of which went through the off-side between mid-off and point. Above all, there was a return to the technique that worked so well last time.
During the interim, Smith had taken guard more centrally in front of the stumps and stayed more still at the crease while waiting for the bowler to arrive. It worked for him in Sri Lanka in 2022, with his unbeaten 145 in Galle. That innings felt significant. For a six-year span between 2013 and 2019, he made 26 hundreds. After Manchester 2019, it was one century in nearly three years, a pandemic notwithstanding. Then came Galle, and soon afterwards a century against South Africa and a double against West Indies.
For those last three Smith used the new technique, where he tried to stay more side-on to the ball and not to move. Part of his explanation was that it kept his body to the leg-side of the ball, opening up the off-side so he could score more aggressively through cover. Especially against the generally faster pace of South Africa, that helped his scoring options. And with less movement off the surface in Australia, it was a safe method as well.
England, though, is a different situation, so his English method has been dusted off. Much discussed, examined, parodied, its manic ceaselessness is as striking as its unusual formation. Smith starts with a wander towards square leg as the bowler walks back. He taps left pad, right pad, box. Left, right, box. Faces up with feet almost outside leg stump. Tap the bat once, then twice quickly. Dip the knees. Tap. Dip. Then goes right across to the off-stump, standing almost outside it before the bowler arrives.
The technical implication is that the step across gives him momentum and switches him on for each delivery, while the eventual positioning helps protect against the persistent and later swing that a Dukes ball can offer. Once his foot reaches the line of off-stump, he knows that anything swinging away will miss the timber, and he can play the line while letting the ball move away if need be. Anything that swings back in becomes a ball on the pads rather than one threatening the gate, and he backs his eye to be able to play that ball away as he would any straight one.
The main question is whether his play off the pads is still as airtight as it was, if Jimmy Anderson and company are able to find appreciable movement with a useful set of Dukes. Up until 2019 he seemed almost impervious to lbw dismissals when the ball moved inwards from right-arm medium-fast seamers. Since then it has seemed to happen more often, including during his recent county stint with Sussex.
India did try that at the Oval, though, as well as the plan that others have used of attacking Smith’s ribs with a leg slip in place to get him fending catches while moving across. Neither worked this time around, as he helped Australia to 469.
Even with the host team not playing this match, you could anticipate them feeling some trepidation before the Ashes. To stop Smith going back to the future, England will need to do more than just reach 88mph.