After one of the many times Steve Smith was beaten by a ripping delivery from Ravindra Jadeja on his way to his first century on Indian soil, the Australian skipper just smiled back at the Indian left-armer. It was an admission that he had no chance of laying bat to that ball and was defeated comprehensively by the pitch and the amount of turn the spinner was extracting from it, but it also gave an indication to the methods he was employing to counter the threat of spin in India.
Ahead of the Test match at Pune, Smith said he had “learnt quite a lot out of playing in Sri Lanka” last year when his side was swept 0-3 by the Lankans on turning tracks. Smith, to his credit, did exceedingly well, matching his stature as one of the leading batsmen in the world, scoring 247 runs in the three Tests, averaging 41 with a century and a fifty.
Smith discussed the difficulty of playing spin in the subcontinent in the pre-match press conference. “I think that’s one of the big challenges of playing spin bowling in Asia is the uncertainty of what the ball’s sort of going to do off the pitch… It’s here where there is uncertainties that we can become unstuck as a batter.” His words, built on the experience of playing in India and the series in Sri Lanka, clearly showed that he had developed a plan to counter Jadeja – in particular – and R Ashwin. Jadeja with his ability to take the ball away from the right hander was always going to be the bigger task than the off-spinner Ashwin whose stock delivery would be coming in to the right handed batsman. The opposite is, of course, true for the left-handed batsmen.
The plan involved conceding one side of the bat to the bowler while, with incredible discipline, protect the other side of the bat from the ball. As Smith pointed out, it is almost a concession to the spinner that if he could exploit the outside edge, then, well, credit to him but he is not going to allow to be beaten on the inside edge. If the outside edge is taken, the mode of dismissal is to be caught by the wicket-keeper or slip fielder(s) whereas getting beaten on the inside edge opens up at least three different modes of dismissal, dramatically increasing the odds: LBW, Bowled and Caught.
This was a very sound plan especially on the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) pitch that took turn from the start. It meant that the spinners would find it hard to bowl deliveries that would not deviate and it would be difficult to restrict the amount of turn on the deliveries.
“It’s making sure that you have a plan in place for getting out a certain way almost. You have to be willing to give something up and take out one side of the bat. That’s my view of playing spin bowling”, Smith said ahead of the Test match, “Everyone’s different but the guys have worked hard to develop plans.”
The ball-by-ball commentary on ESPNcricinfo for the third delivery that Smith faced from Jadeja was just a sampler of things to come. “31.3 Jadeja to Smith, no run, wheeeeww, flat delivery outside off, draws Smith forward and gets that to rip past the bat prodigiously. No chance for Smith”.
During the course of the 95 deliveries that Smith faced in the first innings, he was beaten comprehensively on the outside by Jadeja, however, he fell to Ashwin as he tried to flick an off-break through mid-wicket but failed in keeping it down. He had made 27 runs. That seemed to be appropriate returns for the batsmen on this wicket against quality spinners.
In the second innings, Smith came to the crease much earlier than in the first innings, and the pitch had added more wear since the first morning, and batting on it was going to be a lottery. It was going to require a fair bit of luck to survive on it. On the second delivery he faced from Jadeja, he made the mistake of playing outside the line while on back foot, violating his own plans but survived. He immediately corrected for it, and three deliveries later he was beaten from another delivery that ripped past the outside edge, but he could live with it.
He was dropped by M Vijay at leg slip off Ashwin when on 23, again a reasonable individual score on that surface. The off-spinner would suffer further more as Abhinav Mukund would drop Smith at mid-on, forward short leg, and by Ajinkya Rahane at leg slip. Smith was also the beneficiary of Indian captain Virat Kohli’s impetuosity and frivolousness in using the DRS challenges as he was beaten by a straight delivery by Jadeja but the umpire disagreed. He was eventually dismissed playing across the line to the Saurashtra all-rounder.
Smith was beaten 26 times in the 202 deliveries he faced in the second innings, 19 of which were against Jadeja and six from Ashwin. While the plays-and-misses against Jadeja drew excitement around the pitch and in the stands, Smith’s plan meant that he would continue to battle on. “I obviously rode my luck throughout the innings, had a few lives. But you need a bit of luck on a wicket like that” said Smith after Australia emphatically won the match by 303 runs in under three days, “I formulated some different plans for problem solving on the spot. So from that aspect I’m pleased with myself.”
Kohli, who along with Smith, is amongst the best batsmen in the world, however, was dismissed edging Mitchell Starc’s wide delivery (Imagine getting out to a pacer on a wicket where spin accounted for 31 of the 40 wickets) and was bowled while shouldering arms to Steve O’Keefe in the second innings. Kohli, it would appear, did not have plans like Smith, of not getting defeated by the straight delivery that threatens the stumps.
When the deliveries from Jadeja went past his bat, Smith smiled, shrugged and moved on to face the next delivery. With a crushing victory, and an unexpected 1-0 series lead, once again it is Smith that is smiling. No shrugging needed but he, I’m sure, has already moved on to the next Test.