Justin Langer, Steve Smith, cricket news 2021

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It’s the question every Australian cricket fan wants answered — what’s happened to Steve Smith?

Just 18 months ago he was being compared to Sir Donald Bradman, having averaged 110.57 in the 2019 Ashes series.

He seemed to be making up for lost time, returning from his ball-tampering ban with one of the best solo performances by a batsman in the modern era.

But since returning from England, the 32-year-old’s form in the Test arena has been well below his usually impeccable standard.

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Smith has passed 50 only twice in his last 11 Test innings, averaging 26.40 with that bat since October 2019.

He has registered scores of 1, 1*, 0 and 8 in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy — even Mitchell Starc has survived more deliveries at the crease this series.

This is now the longest three-figure drought of Smith’s Test career since before his maiden century in 2013.

So what went wrong for the blonde powerhouse?

The Black Caps unearthed a potential flaw in Smith’s technique last season, which was exploited primarily by New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner.

The left-armer consistently peppered Smith’s body with short-pitched bowling while a cluster of fielders stood in waiting on the leg side.

Wagner dismissed him on four occasions last summer with the unorthodox tactic, but Smith still mustered two half-centuries in the three-Test series.

Even though he was considerably overshadowed by teammate Marnus Labuschagne, there was no great cause for concern.

However, India has perfected the strategy this season, denying Smith the opportunity to get off strike with a ring field on the leg side.

By repeatedly bowling at his leg stump, Smith seemingly does not feel confident enough to flick the Kookaburra off his pads with catchers in position.

As a result, we’ve seen a cramped Smith caught at leg slip off Ravichandran Ashwin and bizarrely bowled around his legs by speedster Jasprit Bumrah.

“I think they’ve really found a worrying weakness,” former Australian captain Allan Border told Fox Cricket last month.

“He walks across the stumps to get to that onside, with those two fielders they had today, it worries him that he is going to chip it to them if he’s not careful and the bowling is high quality.”

Smith’s lack of time at the crease last year also could have contributed to his form slump — before the first Test against India, Smith had not played any first-class matches since the New Year’s Test against New Zealand in January.

He went 346 days without an innings in the game’s longest format.

Instead of competing in the Sheffield Shield this season, Smith was pummelling boundaries in the Indian Premier League.

Bubble fatigue has also been identified as a potential concern, with Smith trapped in hotels for more than 150 days in three separate continents.

He has been abiding by strict biosecurity protocols since travelling to England for a white-ball series in August.

“I haven’t seen the wife for four and a half months I think it is,” Smith told SEN Radio last week before they were reunited at New Years. “It’s a good stint away.

“Those things can have an impact on people’s mental health and preparations and all things like that. I’m not making any excuses by any stretch of the imagination.

“It’s certainly very different times at the moment.”

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Regardless, Australian coach Justin Langer is not fazed by the apparent form slump, adamant his star batsman will rediscover his mojo in Sydney.

Smith averages 67.88 in Tests at the SCG, where he has hammered two centuries and five fifties in seven matches.

“Imagine how good we’ll be when he does start batting well,” Langer told reporters on Tuesday morning. “That’s how I look at it.

“He hasn’t had the best of series so far; I’ll be the first to admit that. My gosh, what I know about great players — the longer they miss out, the sooner is they’re coming good again, so that puts a big smile on my face.”

Langer said he’s leaving Smith to work through his form slump in his own way.

“I don’t coach Steve Smith. Steve Smith coaches himself, and I’m sure he’s going to work it out,” Langer said.

“He’s a great player, and I can’t wait to watch him bat this Test match and the next Test match and hopefully for as long as I’m coach.”

The third Test between Australia and India will commence at the SCG on Thursday.



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