Just like the Don: Why Steve Smith’s batting method is masterful

08/12/17 Category: Blog, News Posted by:

Reproduced from an article in The Sydney Morning Herald by James Buckley

Steve Smith is the closest thing to Sir Donald Bradman we have ever seen.

Not only did the Australian captain’s 141 not out win the first Ashes Test at the Gabba, it firmed up expert opinions both at home and in England that the world’s best batsman’s unorthodox method was eerily similar to the greatest cricketer to have played the game.

Statistically the Don will always prevail – his Test batting average of 99.94 remains about 66 per cent better than anyone who went before him, or has come since.

But technically speaking, the prolific Smith is a throwback to Bradman’s unique method of drawing his bat towards gully, and rotating the willow in a semi-circle before addressing the ball.

Statistically the Don will always prevail – his Test batting average of 99.94 remains about 66 per cent better than anyone who went before him, or has come since.

But technically speaking, the prolific Smith is a throwback to Bradman’s unique method of drawing his bat towards gully, and rotating the willow in a semi-circle before addressing the ball.

Smith’s superb innings last week, which produced a 21st Test century and boosted his average to 61.23, prompted ex-first class cricketer-turned-journalist Simon Hughes to vocalise the comparison with Bradman on his podcast The Analyst.

“He’s almost a modern version of what Bradman was in many ways,” Hughes told Fairfax Media.

“I looked at his method and there is this thing called the rotation method, which he’s famous for – it gave him flow. By taking the bat out to third slip or gully and then bringing it round in a semi-circle, it gave the whole body a kind of rhythm that he then brought into the stroke.

“That kind of method wasn’t necessarily ideal for defence but for playing attacking shots it was ideal because it got your body going and got you momentum to hit the ball, particularly on the leg side.

“He managed to adapt his game so obviously he could hit it through the offside and Smith is the same. He has this semi-circular loop of his bat, which goes out to gully and then comes round in a semi-circle, it gives him that rhythm and flow that he needs to play shots.

“It’s uncanny the resemblance. Somebody wrote once that Smith’s bat flaps around like a palm tree in a gale and in the bat lift it does waft around a bit more than Bradman’s did, but when it comes down, it’s exactly the same.

“Of course, he’s also got that insatiability and that ability to just bat endlessly as well. Bradman famously said I don’t care about style, I just care about runs.”

The beauty of Smith’s batting is in its intrinsic and natural technique.

So many young batsmen are taught to take the bat back towards the wicketkeeper, keep the elbow high and then play through the line of the ball.

But Smith was never coached like that. He was always allowed to pursue his natural bat lift, and from there his game prospered.

And it’s getting better with age. On home soil over the past three years he boasts an astronomical batting average of 93.5.

“Steve always had it, it was always there and I reckon it’s become more obvious and more ingrained as his natural style because he scores runs,” Smith’s former batting coach Trent Woodhill said.

“He literally does not care how he looks, it’s all about the contest each ball and that’s what separates him from the others. Steven enjoys batting, each ball is a gift whereas for others, the result is a gift or the score is a gift.

“Everyone enjoys scoring a hundred or a fifty or playing a good shot, but the thing with Steve is every ball is just as important as the one before. So whether he’s on 199 or whether he’s on nought, he still gets the same amount of enjoyment and determination onto every ball he faces.

“Everyone’s waiting for Steven to have a down series and it may never happen because he’s so comfortable with that technique and he’s not comparing it to anybody else’s. Even the Bradman comparison, that wouldn’t change Steven’s thought pattern.
“He wouldn’t then look at Bradman and see what he can mirror with his technique, he’d look at Bradman and see what he can mirror with his performance, or once again his commitment to each ball.”

Often it’s the sportsmen who don’t mirror the traditional teachings who enjoy the most success.

Tennis superstar Roger Federer’s method is somewhat ungainly, but he enjoys a similar natural flow that allows him to play perfect shots.

Golfer Jim Furyk, who won the 2003 US Open, also belongs in the unorthodox category. He has a floating right elbow but compensates for that with superb control of his wrists.

Batting coach Neil D’Costa, who has worked with some of the sport’s finest players, has long admired Smith’s technique from afar.

“The other thing that Steven does that is very different, he’s got a monkey grip on the right hand, like when you grab a monkey bar,” D’Costa said.

“Those guys generally with a monkey grip can’t hit the ball through cover. So what Steve has great control of is his right elbow, he brings the right elbow in and then he releases the bat through cover.

“If you look at that cover drive he played to bring up a hundred, that looked like a cover drive that 500 other players have played.

“One thing we do know is the bat face open and looking at point is critical to being a good short ball player and a good player through the leg side.

“If the toe of your bat is going towards the wicketkeeper and at bail height, you’re going to have problems facing the full ball on your leg stump. The stuff that Steven does is literally exactly what we’re looking for in a high-performance player.

“Something he does that is odd is his idiosyncrasies, he fidgets then he bounces but at the critical moment he’s in exactly the same position as other guys. At ball release, freeze frame, he’s there.”

It’s important to note that Smith’s technique is not identical to Bradman’s.

The Bradman bat lift was far more compact. And there was far less fidgeting and bouncing around the crease between deliveries.
But both players possess the same rotary arc in their bat lift, which puts them in a similar position when the bowler releases the ball.
Long-retired cricketer Tony Shillinglaw has been researching Bradman’s game for 35 years. The 80-year-old’s dying wish is that the Bradman method is not lost to cricket forever, and in Smith there is now a prototype to potentially propagate the unusual but super successful technique.
Shillinglaw has never seen a batsman resemble Bradman so closely. South African Hashim Amla is the only other player he says who possessed key similarities, but he rotates from the wrists and arms, whereas Bradman and Smith rotate the entire body.
“The whole thing about Bradman is his bat starts rotating, and that makes his whole body move,” Shillinglaw said.

“He does it differently, but the principles are the same. In other words his body is completely free to react to the ball. He can score through 360 degrees where orthodox techniques don’t allow you to do that from the first place.

“Bradman’s bat never stopped once it started. Because Bradman was rotating, his head was still, his feet were still, but the bat was moving.

“When the ball came out, the bat just reacted to the ball. He did the same thing for every single ball – once the ball came out, the ball dictated what shot he played. Steve Smith is the same.

“Smith’s wrists with this rotation, they’re like a ball bearing, they can rotate and they can react to the ball in any shape or form. The wrists are completely free to do whatever the ball, he wants to do.

“In the dictionary if you look at technique it says it’s the mechanical part of an art. Smith and Bradman with the motion, it’s not technique, the mechanical part of an art, but it’s the motion et cetera, which becomes the art. And that’s the difference between an average of 50 and an average of 99.

There is yet another similarity between Bradman and Smith. Both were ridiculed in their younger years by the English, Bradman as an unorthodox stroke maker and Smith as a No.8 batsman in the side originally to bowl some leg spin.

Both proved the traditionalists wrong. Bradman’s average will never be bettered, but Smith is improving with age and can certainly close the gap throughout the rest of his Test career.

“We must not let Bradman’s method go,” Shillinglaw said.

“It’s been ignored by the whole of the coaching establishment throughout the world for 90 years now. Cricket should be able to take advantage of it as Bradman’s gift to the game of cricket.”

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