How Smith combines convention and ingenuity to ace Test cricket

It was born out of expediency. In the middle of the 2013 Perth test, Smith began a sort of trudge across his stumps in order to evade the relentless barrage of bouncers unleashed by the English pacers. Still nascent, this approach lacked some of the intricacies that we associate with it today. For one thing, the movement across was tempered; for another, the bottom hand did not choke the bat shut. From these simple beginnings, the story of this technique has been one of ever-increasing complexity.

Smith takes his stance on leg stump with his flexed legs scantly parted. In general, this is thought to be the most classical element of his game, with this ABC article describing it as, “ about as orthodox as it gets [for Smith]”. Although most elements of his stance are made irrelevant by the ‘second stance’ that he takes upon the culmination of his trigger, the flexed knees, with their orientation toward point, end up being a highly appropriate antecedent for Smith’s amble across the stumps; mimicking as they do the direction that this movement will take.

Moreover, his slight lean forward at this stage enables him to remove the body’s weight from the back foot, thereby facilitating its smooth move across. The importance of the batting stance in his technique is also underscored by its very closed-off variant, which he uses sparingly to sustain the side on position for longer. Having said that, the benefits attributable to these characteristics are tenuous at best—Smith starts his trigger so early that it can be executed even without such facilitators.

Smith’s stance is classical in every respect except the lean forward, which goes against the MCC’s prescription of ensuring an equal weight distribution.

Early theories of sporting biomechanics postulated the existence of a positive correlation between expertise and mechanization. As constant repetition is a requirement for gaining proficiency, so the reasoning went, skilled players would inevitably end up attaining machine-like constancy in their sporting actions. Variability was thought of as unwanted noise that had an adverse effect on sporting performance. The idea of athletes consciously altering aspects of their game was out of the question.

With the accumulation of more studies and a more thorough incorporation of interceptive and inherently more volatile sports such as cricket, this theory has fallen by the wayside. The consensus in the literature now appears to be that athletes vary some aspects of their technique while keeping others constant. In the cricketing domain, the synergy produced by this mechanism has been investigated in this paper by Junita Weissensteiner and colleagues. Specifically, the authors found variations in the back swing (the upward movement which takes the bat to the point from which it will descend), but no variations in the act of coming down on the ball. Essentially, the back swing was dealing with the variations in deliveries so that the downswing did not need to. Variation in one aspect was enabling constancy in another.

Smith’s trigger movement sees the reversal of this chain of causation. Instead of going from variation to constancy, Smith uses his initial movement with the backfoot as the constant anchor; overwhelmingly planting it at or slightly past off stump. Conversely, he utilizes the front foot element of his trigger as the aspect which varies, and in turn deals with the diverse set of challenges that the bowler throws at him.

One major utility conferred by this consistency is that it serves to demark the boundaries within which the irregular iterations of the front foot must occur. After all, the prudence of the front foot position varies with where the back foot is planted, with a back foot on off stump—as is the case with Smith– allowing for lesser leeway in how far across the front foot can be planted, since this combination is apt to bring the blind-spot in line with the stumps.

Smith tends to vary his front foot’s orientation while keeping the back foot relatively constant.

The precise nature of the variation that Smith’s front foot will undergo depends on what he is expecting. On the whole, if he anticipates straighter lines, he will keep it slightly open; if the circumstances require strokes through the off-side, he will close himself off; and in case the situation merits general defense he will widen his base.

“It depends on who’s bowling, how is the wicket playing, how I [am] gonna score and stuff like that or how people are trying to get me out, probably that determines how open I am or otherwise how closed I am”, Smith said in a podcast hosted by the Rajasthan Royals. 

When commenting on the back foot aspect of his trigger, he hints at its constant nature, but adds another reason for using it, “But my general stance where my back foot is going to almost off stump or maybe even outside at stages, I know that anything outside my eye line isn’t hitting the stumps”. This knowledge, of course, enables him to leave deliveries.

The reasons for executing an open alignment or closing it off are well-known: the former allows the bat access to the ball unhindered by the pad, with the latter deriving its utility from the fact that it aligns the batter towards the off side—enabling strokes in that direction. In contrast, the widening of the feet alignment in response to tough bowling or conditions is an idea that has remained obscure and thus merits a more granular explanation.

Foremost among the advantages bestowed by the wide base is that it can eliminate the necessity of taking a big stride in response to the delivery. Encapsulating this point, the former Indian cricketer Akash Chopra writes, “If you have to take a forward stride eventually, why not get into that position even before the ball is bowled, or at the very least, reduce the distance to cover?”. From this, one may easily adjudicate the recurrence of this wider base as a device that enables a forward enough position for good length deliveries—a length pervasive in tougher conditions.

The movements of ascent and descent that the bat undergoes prior to coming down on the ball are divided into three phases. First comes the back lift, pertaining to an aloft position of the bat maintained by the batter in their stance; then we have the slightly esoteric concept of the back swing, which is simply the upward motion from the back lift to the downswing initiation point; and finally, the batter gets to the downswing phase wherein they bring their bat down to meet the ball.   

The standard coaching literature advocates that a straight orientation be maintained in all these, arguing that beginning with a straight position is the surest way of culminating in that vein. However, as shown here, to do so is to lift the bat in the heaviest way possible. The biomechanics of this is multifaceted, but a major reason for this is that the classical grip of two Vs down the back of the bat, which tends to underpin a straight orientation of the blade, just doesn’t give enough leverage to ease the bat’s ascent. 

As such, it is not surprising that even the likes of Tendulkar and Kallis—batters who began with a straight back lift— jettisoned it at a later stage in this process. Empirically, this fact has been documented by Habib Noorbhai and Tim Noakes, who write in their 2016 paper, “more than 70% of the greatest batsmen of all time did not adopt the traditionally taught straight batting back lift technique.”

Smith’s method of lifting the bat is just an exaggerated imitation of so many that came before him. Starting with an orientation towards gully and sometimes point, his backswing primarily adds height to this configuration for leg-side strokes. Conversely, the bat first reaches the aforementioned point for off side shots, but then reorients itself into a straighter position that is more amenable to such shots.

When playing on the leg side, Smith brings his bat down from the position seen in the top frame, but realigns it for strokes on the off side into the orientation seen in the bottom frame.

Another source of convention in Smith’s game is the presence of the back swing. Unlike some of his contemporaries who delegate the back swing’s functions to a higher back lift, Smith keeps his bat fairly low in the back lift phase before initiating a back swing. The effect of this is to create an upward motion that merges the backswing into the downswing; a fact which, according to biomechanics, produces a higher bat speed.

Emerging from these facts, then, is not a hipster hell-bent on upending every tradition, but a technician who has calibrated his way to the acme of test batting.

Broadcast Schedule

India v England 2024 Test Series
IND v ENG 5th Test, Dharamsala
7th March to 11th March
Start time: 4:00 am GMT