Steve Smith is the leading run-scorer in Tests in 2019, despite giving the rest of the field a 9 month head start. Steve Smith has 9 consecutive 75+ scores in Ashes test (the next best is 4). Other than Don Bradman, Steve Smith has the most Test centuries against England.
The superlatives about Smith following his first innings double century against England, followed by a rapid fire 82 off 92 balls in the second innings, in the fourth Test at Old Trafford have come thick and fast.
However, following his feats at Edgbaston in the first Test, England may have been thinking they had found his kryptonite. Before the second Test at Lords, England dropped Moeen Ali in favour of the left-arm finger spinner Jack Leach; left-arm finger spinners apparently having marginally better success than other types of bowler (a tactic that has been tried before against a dominant batsman). Then, during the Test Jofra Archer felled him during a fiery spell, resulting in Smith’s absence from the second innings and the third Test.
The evidence from Old Trafford suggests that whatever England thought would work actually doesn’t (or didn’t). Smith looked largely untroubled against various short-pitched assaults by Archer (who was looking increasing ragged and even sulky during a long first innings) and, although nicking one to slip off Leach during this first innings when he was on 118 (later given not out due to a front foot no-ball), similarly against Leach (albeit Smith was out to Leach in the second innings, when pushing towards a declaration).
So what does the data say about how you get Smith out?
Certainly, left-arm finger spinners have had a measure of success against Smith. Of his 105 dismissals in Test cricket, 18 (18.17%) have come when facing left-arm finger spinners. Further, Rangana Herath (5 dismissals) and Ravindra Jadeja (4 dismissals) are 2 of the 8 most successful bowlers (measured by wickets taken) against Smith.
However, all of Herath and Jadeja’s dismissals of Smith arose in Test matches played in the subcontinent. Herath also ranks 10th in terms of the bowlers with the most Test wickets, with Jadeja (198 wickets in 43 Test matches, and aged just 30) likely to climb well into the top 20. So, if you are a generational left-arm finger spinner playing against Smith in Asia you are likely to have a measure of success. If you are not, the data does not endorse the strategy of selecting a left-arm finger spinner to play against Smith.
The data also does not bear out any real weakness of Smith against express pace. Umesh Yadav (4 dismissals over 14 innings), Steve Finn (3 dismissals over 9 innings), Morne Morkel (3 dismissals over 10 innings) and Kagiso Rabada (3 dismissals over 12 innings) have had a measure of success, but the real insight to be had is the mode of dismissal that gets Smith out at a relatively higher rate.
Across all dismissals in Test cricket, catches by the wicket-keeper accounts for 16.27% of all dismissals. However, Smith is dismissed as a result of catches by the wicket-keeper 22.9% of the time.
Bowlers ranging from Yasir Shah (2 caught behind dismissals over 6 innings) to Chris Tremlett (2 caught behind dismissals over 8 innings), and Kagiso Rabada (2 caught behind dismissals over 12 innings) to Tim Bresnan (2 caught behind dismissals over 14 innings) have had success against Smith via this method.
Particularly revealing is the success that South African fast bowlers have had. Smith has been dismissed 12 times in Tests by South African fast bowlers, on 4 occasions (33.33% of the time; i.e. double the historic mean) via catches by the wicket-keeper. Smith’s average (mean runs) is also a relatively modest 41.53 against South Africa, less than 2/3 of his overall average.
Smith is not the type of batsman who takes the game away from the opposition via rapid scoring. His strike rate (mean runs per 100 balls) is a relatively sedate 56.21, which is not at the level of say a Brian Lara (60.51) or Matthew Hayden (60.10), both of whom also average over 50 in Test cricket (albeit not close to Smith’s average). In short, Smith grinds you down, but he doesn’t decimate you in a session or two.
The take away? No one is suggesting it is easy getting Smith out, or that the chosen tactic is likely to work all the time. However, the data tells us that disciplined fast bowling on or about off stump with appropriately set fields is likely to give yourself the best chance of getting him out, nicking off behind or perhaps elsewhere in the cordon, while remaining relatively safe from having the game taken away from you at rapid pace.
All data used in this post was obtained from the following websites: