England looks to be hitting panic stations already, but then the mystery that is Steve Smith forces opponents to take drastic action.
The hosts dropped off-spinner Moeen Ali and brought left-arm orthodox spinner Jack Leach into the squad for the second Ashes Test at Lord’s as they look to rebound from a demoralising 251-run loss in the series opener.
Ali is out of form and devoid of confidence. He was inconsistent at Edgbaston and even sent down two accidental beamers, but he can count himself unlucky to be discarded after one poor match given he’s the leading Test wicket-taker in the world over the past 12 months.
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But in Leach, England has the closest thing to Smith’s Kryptonite. The former Aussie captain scored twin tons in Birmingham in a spectacular return to Test cricket after his ball tampering ban and talk immediately turned to how the home side can possibly stop the world’s best batsman.
One theory is left-arm finger spin is the way to go. Smith’s Test average against that type of bowling hovers around 35 — his lowest against any bowling style and much lower than his career mark of 62.96. When the ball spins away from Smith’s bat — as Leach’s deliveries will do — he averages 35.66, but when the ball spins into him, he averages a whopping 97.46.
These numbers were crunched by Ben Jones of CricViz, who said: “For whatever technical reason, there is something about the angle which disturbs Smith.
“More specifically, he’s disturbed by the direction of spin, because while it’s most notable when facing the left-arm spinners, it’s the fact that the ball is spinning away which causes the real trouble.
“You would always expect a batsman to prefer playing balls spinning into them, but you wouldn’t expect the difference in average to be so pronounced.”
According to CricViz, Smith’s scoring rate against left-arm orthodox bowlers is also lower than his scoring rate against any other bowling in Tests at just under 2.8 runs per over. Now, these aren’t exactly figures to suggest bringing Leach into the side will undoubtedly solve England’s Smith problem, but it’s a start.
South Africa’s part-time left-arm finger spinner Dean Elgar has dismissed Smith twice in 41 balls in Tests while the 30-year-old has also had troubles against specialists Ravindra Jadeja, Rangana Herath and Keshav Maharaj.
But it’s worth noting Smith’s issues against left-arm spin are far more prominent in Asia than elsewhere around the world. Fourteen of the 21 times he has been dismissed by left-arm spinners in Tests have come in either India or Sri Lanka.
Outside Asia, Smith averages 46 against left-arm spin, according to cricket writer Jarrod Kimber. So throwing Leach the ball and asking him to get rid of the man many are calling the best since Bradman isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Leach is inexperienced at international level but has made a respectable start to his Test career, taking 20 wickets in five matches at an average of 26.20. He will never have bowled to a batsman of Smith’s class though.
Sports writer for The Times, Steve James, says Leach’s inclusion for the second Test comes with a caveat given his recent lack of exposure to long-form cricket. With England’s domestic T20 competition in full swing, James notes Leach — a red-ball specialist — has bowled only three overs in first-class cricket in the past month, leaving him in danger of being “undercooked” for the Lord’s Test.
If the tweaker can’t remove Smith then England fans will be hoping the express pace of Jofra Archer can. The World Cup hero is almost certain to make his Test debut after being named in the squad for the Lord’s clash, replacing Jimmy Anderson, who will miss the match with a calf injury.
Aussie legend Shane Warne believes Archer could be the key to stopping Smith’s Ashes run-spree as “no one likes to face tall 90mph (145km/h) bowlers”.
Warne believes Archer’s extra pace, as well as the knowledge gained from playing alongside Smith for the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League, will stand him in good stead if he is selected.
“Steve (Smith) has been the star of the show so far but now we have Jofra joining his Royals (and England) teammates Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler,” Warne, a former Rajasthan player turned brand ambassador for the T20 franchise team, said after Archer was named in England’s 12-man squad.
“Obviously I would love to see Steve go on and score a hundred in every single innings for the rest of the Ashes but with Jofra coming in I think he’ll be set to face his biggest challenge yet and this could make the difference in the upcoming Tests.
“No one likes to face tall 90mph bowlers.”
Anderson only managed four overs before breaking down at Edgbaston and Warne said: “The loss of Anderson was such a blow for England and they will really need Jofra to step up but I think he has all the attributes to do just that.
“They (Archer and Smith) will have faced each other a lot in the nets so if anyone will have a plan, it will be Jofra.”
The local press is hopeful of Archer coming to England’s rescue. Writing for The Telegraph, Scyld Berry said: “Archer is needed to dismiss Steve Smith above all others.
“Smith, for certain, will no longer be allowed to camp on his back foot outside off stump and wait, as he did for England’s bowlers of lesser pace, not only at Edgbaston but in Australia during the previous Ashes series.
“Archer has used his time in T20 cricket to perfect his 90mph yorker for a start, while his bouncer has an almost unique quality in being so straight, bowled from wicket to wicket. Smith, however, will be anything but a sitting duck.”