That Steve Smith is a stickler for time was evident when he turned up for a press conference at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium scheduled for 10 am at 9.55 am itself. It led some of the seasoned Indian journalists, who were perhaps used to press conferences never starting on time, to gasp in surprise.
Playing in India, where the dry, often crumbling, pitches spout balls in different directions and heights, is a bit like playing the whack-a-mole game found in arcades. You don’t know where the mole is going to pop out from and you need to be on your guard all the time.
Smith first got a dose of this during his first tour to the country in 2013, when his team was whitewashed 4-0. It could be argued that the Australian batsmen failed to find the right balance between attack and defence at the time. The Aussies had won the toss in all four Tests and opted to bat, but managed to pass 400 just once in eight innings.
Returning to India for the first time as both a Test captain and the No. 1 batsman in the world, Smith knows that if his team is to stand even a chance of putting up a fight, it’s all about the time.
Balance between attack and defence
“For me, it’s about understanding different times in the game,” he said. “There are times in the game when you can attack a lot more and times when you need to defend a little bit and let the game take its course for a little while. Try and keep things quite tight and when you get a sniff, just go for it. I think an important aspect about captaincy here in India is knowing the right periods and timing the periods right – when to take the foot off the pedal and really go hard as well.”
Getting that balance between attack and defence right is not going to be easy for Australia, considering Smith has got batsmen like David Warner and Glenn Maxwell in his squad, whose instinct is to attack, while the captain himself is a big advocate of defence in spin-friendly conditions. However, Smith has no plans of dictating terms to his teammates, regardless of what approach he takes.
“You don’t want people to change their natural games,” he said. “It’s important to be positive and look to score. The moment you just start defending, then you’re probably in trouble. You have to have that mindset to look to score, but ultimately your defence is what helps you out when you are in trouble. It’s going to be important that our defence is strong – not only against the spin bowlers of India but they have got some great fast bowlers as well that present a good seam, can swing the new ball and bowl very good reverse as well. Defence is going to be incredibly important for us in this series with the bat.”
Staying in the crease
A recent change that can be observed in Smith’s batting when he plays spinners is that he stays in his crease. The 27-year-old admitted it wasn’t something that was happening subconsciously, but a tactic that he had been working on and one he plans to employ when facing Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
“Well, I did advance down the wicket once at the start of the summer and got out LBW [to South African left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj in Perth]. So I’ve decided to stay back in my crease a little bit,” he said, with a smile. “You can [come down the pitch and attack the spinners] in Australia, where the wickets are pretty consistent with turn and bounce. I have different game plans where I play and how I play spin. That’s going to change from playing at the WACA to playing the first Test in Pune. I’m pretty clear the way I play.”
As for the rest of his batsmen, Smith said that each one of them will have their own plan on how to play Ashwin, who took 28 wickets in the 2013 series and is India’s premier spin bowler. “All our batters are going to have game plans to try and counter what Ashwin brings. He’s obviously a world-class bowler and he reached 250 wickets just a couple of days ago and I think he’s one of the fastest to do so. We know he’s going to be difficult to play on this tour but the guys hopefully have figured out plans to play him.”
Simulating India in Dubai
The Australian squad arrived in Mumbai on Monday after a short stopover in Dubai, where they trained at the ICC academy, which has pitches resembling those in different parts of the world, including Asia. Smith said that his team worked on both the technical and mental aspect of playing in India by simulating Indian conditions as much as possible.
“Batting in Test cricket is about making good decisions and doing that for long periods of time,” he said. “We had some difficult conditions in Dubai where the balls were turning and there was inconsistent bounce and things like that. The guys were able to adopt game plans and try and find the best way to find success here in India. The conditions are so foreign to what we get back home, so the guys have worked hard to try and find what works for them and now it’s about implementing that and doing that for long periods of time.”
Australia will be going into the four-Test series on the back of a see-saw home season, where they lost to South Africa 1-2 before beating Pakistan 3-0. The last time Australia played in conditions similar to India, they were whitewashed 3-0 in Sri Lanka last year. Thus, by no means are Australia the favourites going into the India series, but Smith is still hoping for the best.
“I’ve learned a fair bit along the way,” he said, about the last eight months. “You probably learn more from losing games than you do from winning. The last year has been a bit of a roller coaster ride with regard to results. I think this team has come a long way. We’re learning a lot. We’re willing to put in the hard work to try and get the best out of ourselves and the best out of the team.
“I’m happy where everything is at, at the moment. Obviously it’s going to be a difficult tour but we’re excited by that challenge. All the guys are excited by the challenge of what’s to come in the next six weeks. We know that if we can pull something off and win a series here, we’ll look back in 10-20 years and it’ll be some of the best times of our lives.”