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The walking leg-before wicket who drives bowlers to distraction

I have a friend, who, before he leaves home for work pats his hips, his shirt pocket, jacket pocket intoning as he does so: travel card, wallet, glasses, keys (it sounds lyrical in his native Bengali).

It is a ritual I am reminded of when watching Steve Smith settle into his stance. Pad, box, pad, helmet; everything in place, a short walk to the edge of the crease, a bending of the knees; are the pads in place? Check. Trousers on? Check. Have I paid the electricity bill? Did I switch off the lights before leaving home?

I exaggerate. But Smith, like fidgets everywhere, draws you into his routine. If he misses a step, you worry for him. It might be tempting fate.

How to get Smith out?

As Smith was moving towards his second century in the Birmingham Test, the commentator David Lloyd asked spectators: “How do you get Smith out? Yes, you in the blue cap…” Those with commentary earpieces looked as helpless as the English bowlers.

The point is, everybody knows how to get Smith out. He is a walking leg-before wicket as he squares up in front of the stumps, having shuffled his way outside the off. At least, that’s what the coaching manuals tell us.

Smith has no business being the second most successful batsman of all time with a technique that renders irrelevant these manuals. But there it is. He can pull the ball he converts into a short-pitched one and drive when the bowler overcompensates. And he has been dismissed leg-before only 18 times in 119 innings. Greatness comes in many forms.

It is not often that a player builds, furnishes, and inhabits a monument all his own with material no one else has used, and tools which in anybody else’s hands would simply not work. Uniqueness is not mandatory for greatness, but in Smith’s case they go together.

With a mind as strong as his — he returns from a one-year ban into an Ashes series and scores two centuries straightaway — and an obsession with the game from his schooldays when his father finished work early so he could bowl to him, how did he allow the sandpaper scandal under his watch? Is it part of the contradiction of being Steven Smith? He has reduced batsmanship to a two-point programme.

He keeps his head in line with the ball and keeps it perfectly still while playing it. You cannot simplify further.

All in the head

Forget footwork, forget that cricket is a game played side-on and all those things coaches tell us. It’s all in the head.

It might see him finish up facing the bowler with his feet pointed down the wicket; he challenges the bowler to hit his pads. He moves so far across that he knows anything outside the line of his nose misses the off-stump, and if anything comes in, he is confident enough to find gaps on the leg-side. Smith is an excellent example of an unorthodox player left alone by the authorities.

When he made his Test debut, he was a leg-spinner who batted at No. 8. It was only after his first century in his 12th Test that his batting average climbed to 34. His bowling average, meanwhile, was 49. But he was persisted with, rather like Steve Waugh was.

Doesn’t play by the book

For a purist, Smith is a difficult man to embrace. He doesn’t inspire love and admiration so much as ambivalence. He doesn’t play by the book. It is as if someone taking a math exam shows the workings of a problem that is all wrong, yet somehow has found the right answer.

No other sport lays such stress on both the methods and the results. You can accidentally deflect a header into a goal and become a national hero, but a Test batsman who makes a 50 scoring mostly off the outside edge is mocked. It is a conceit of the game that it’s better to make a perfect 30 than to score a scratchy century. Smith’s batsmanship evoked the ‘U’ word — ugly — before it inspired the ‘G’ word – great.

It is tempting — and many have fallen for the temptation — to see a century in each innings as redemption for a man who was banned from cricket for cheating, or at least allowing his players to cheat.

If you stretch that argument, does making, say, 10 in each innings fall short of redemption by 180 runs? It’s apples and oranges. Smith should be feted for his brilliance at the crease, but to conflate two separate issues while finding in one what should follow the other is simplistic.

Sure, everyone deserves a second chance, and Smith has grabbed it with commendable mental strength and rare skill. But his misdeed occurred a little over a year ago. Redemption will come with a clean slate between now and the end of his career.

Meanwhile, English bowlers ask, like the nuns in the movie: How do you solve a problem like Steve Smith?

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