19/04/2024

Coming off his leanest Ashes in years, questions are starting to be asked about Smith (Photo: cricket.com.au)

After dominating Test cricket for years, Steven Smith seems to have finally lost a bit of form. What are some of the reasons why he has fallen back to the pack?

Steven Smith’s 2019 Ashes was one of the best individual series by a batsman in Test match history. Ask anyone who watches cricket, and they will say the same thing.

Whether it was his consecutive hundreds in his first Test back from his layoff in front of a vocal Edgbaston crowd, his 211 after recovering from a concussion, or a series average of over 110, it felt like we were seeing the best version of Steve Smith.

Just two and a half years later in the next Ashes, Smith averaged just 30.5 runs across eight innings. He would manage only two fifties, a high score of 93, and would end an Ashes series without a century for the first time since 2012.

It wasn’t just this series, we haven’t seen the all-dominating world-beating Smith since he stepped off The Oval on September 16th, 2019.

He has averaged just 37 since that day, scoring one century across 22 innings.

For a regular batter, these statistics may be okay, but for Smith, they symbolise a steep decline over a remarkably short period of time.

It isn’t just in generalised statistics where he has dropped off recently either, rather also elements that were once Steve Smith’s bread and butter.

He averages a remarkable 84.95 in the first innings of test matches; it became almost routine for the Australian to stroll out to the crease and take a match away from the opposition on the very first day.

Since September 2019 this has dropped to just 41, and in this Ashes series, it was just 38.

Smith was also known for the regularity that he turned fifties into centuries, with a conversion rate of 49% from his first Test until The Oval in 2019.

Since then, it has been just 14%, scoring one hundred and only six half-centuries in 22 innings.

The statistics are clear, this is currently not the same Steve Smith that regularly single handily destroyed the world’s best bowling line-ups.

But this brings up the question, why? What has happened to him over the last two years that has caused this run of poor form, one that we never thought would come along. 

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One theory revolves around that ball from Jofra Archer at Lords. Which on a separate note introduced the world to current number one Test Batsmen Marnus Labuschagne.

Since September 2019 Smith has gotten out to back of a length deliveries at an alarming rate. New Zealand targeted him with short deliveries to great success during the 2020 summer, with Neil Wagner getting him out four times in a similar fashion.

The message at the time was that there was no problem. However, the fact that both summers since he has struggled to control deliveries bouncing above waist height may prove otherwise.

Whilst he is still able to play the short ball well, it seems that sustained pressure short of a length is now a blueprint for success when bowling to Smith.

Another theory is that teams have slowly begun to work out the weaknesses present in his game.

Since that Ashes series in England teams have begun to steer clear of their old technique of attempting to bowl away from his attacking areas.

Instead of trying to make him move away from his body to collect balls, there has been a clear change towards bowling at either the off-stump or at a fourth stump line.

This plan when working in tandem with short deliveries for multiple nations has worked brilliantly, and it wasn’t any different for England this Ashes.

Smith found himself regularly getting caught behind the wickets or bowled throughout the series, with wicket-taking balls nearly always finding themselves within the area of fourth stump to off stump line.

Especially early on in his innings, before he has had the opportunity to get set, this has been a key tactic used to great avail.

Lords 2019 was a big Test for numerous reasons, none more apparent than Marcus Labuschagne’s injection into test cricket as a result of Smith’s concussion.

Since then the Queenslander has had a meteoric rise, going from a left-of-field selection in the Ashes squad to the best test batsman currently playing cricket.

With this, many have questioned whether the diminished pressure on Smith to consistently deliver to save Australia has actually been to his detriment.

Smith has scored 17 percent of Australia’s runs since he first entered the Test side. Compare this with 15 percent for Kohli and 16 percent for both Root and Williamson, it is clear that for a sustained period of time the Australian Test side relied heavily on him.   

Whilst his runs are obviously still crucial, the rise of Labuschagne, the continued development of Head, and the emergence of Cameron Green has all meant that the pressure on him to deliver is less.

In Labuschagne’s 23 tests he has scored 19 percent of the teams’ total runs and considering it took him four matches to score his first 50, for much of his career he has had to regularly carry the burden.

Labuschagne and Smith walking off after another solid partnership (Image: cricket.com.au)

Some athletes live for the pressure that if they don’t succeed there is no fallback option. In the case of Steve Smith, this was the reality for a long time. If he didn’t score big runs especially in the first innings Australia often went into the second innings with a deficit.

This isn’t the case anymore, and Smith is now potentially suffering as a result.

Ultimately there isn’t just one answer as to why Steve Smith’s form has dropped off so dramatically over the past couple of years.

Whether it is to do with his struggles with short-pitched deliveries, Marnus Labuschagne, new tactics against him, a combination, or none of the above, it has been a strange last few summers.

Whilst calls for him to be dropped only came from a small minority, it is important to dismiss those ideas straight away.

Smith has the runs on the board and years of domination on his side, you would be brave to bet against him recapturing at least some of the form that saw him reign supreme for numerous years.

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