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Cricket news - The joy of watching a Steve Smith net session
The Derby county ground was rendered half-empty for a strange 45-minute period on Friday (August 30). For, hundreds of spectators who'd paid 20 quid each to watch the cricket had left the arena. They'd instead made a beeline towards the practice area to the far corner behind the ground. Ironically, they were leaving to witness what they'd originally come to the ground for - to watch Steve Smith bat. And in a way they did get their money's worth, considering Smith ended up spending more time in the nets than in the middle following a bizarre knock where he seemed keener on getting out than staying in.
For the half-hour or so that Smith did bat in the tour match, you would have thought he was there to practice his golf-swing. That's what he seemed keener on anyway whenever he was at the non-striker's end. Perhaps he was inspired from what he saw his Rajasthan Royals teammate, Ben Stokes, pull off at Leeds last week. For, each time he got off strike, all Smith was seen shadow practising were a variety of violent strikes over the straight field with a full-fledged swing of the bat or the occasional reverse sweep. And eventually, it was to an attempted inside-out heave to a loopy offering from leg-spinner Matthew Critchley that he succumbed, slicing it tamely to the fielder at deep cover-point.
But did Smith really fancy being out there considering he was in the nets within 5 minutes of getting out here? This was after all his first hit in a match scenario after he was ruled out of the final day of the second Test at Lord's and the third Test at Leeds subsequently. You would have thought he'd want a long hit out against the Derbyshire bowlers. That's pretty much what the contest was built around to start with - an opportunity for Smith to come out and make up for lost time with the bat and for the Derby crowd to soak in the presence of the world's best batsman much like their predecessors must have when Don Bradman walked out at the same ground some 72 years ago.
The pivotal moment of the game, Smith's arrival to the crease, came about when Usman Khawaja's impressive vigil was brought to an end by a full delivery from Anuj Dal. There was an understandable sense of anticipation as he animatedly shimmied his way to the centre. For some reason though, Derbyshire captain Billy Godleman was keen on letting his best bowlers have an opportunity to bowl at Smith.
Australia's leading batsman only got to face five balls of medium-pace, from the fifth-change Dal, which hardly bothered him before Godleman turned to a double spin attack pairing Hamidullah Qadri with Critchley. And while Mitchell Marsh freely swung away at the ineffective spinners at the other end, Smith looked restless and edgy, like he'd realized there wasn't much to gain by being out here. There were two boundaries for Smith. They both came off full-tosses, a cover-drive first followed by a slog off Critchley through mid-wicket before his dismissal.
By the time Matthew Wade had faced a couple of deliveries, Smith was already heading towards the back with Sridharan Sriram and David Warner in tow with multiple side-arms.
The game didn't literally stop for Smith. But it might well have. Suddenly the only cricketing action in Derby that mattered was taking place in the nets away from the actual match. Unlike most of Smith's stints in the nets, this one seemed to be a lot less intense. It was also unique in terms of the massive crowd that was on hand to see it live.
A few days ago Smith had explained what he looks for in these lengthy net sessions. It wasn't about the number of balls he'd said despite his insatiable appetite to face them.
"I actually forget how I hold the bat. So I actually try and find that. Sometimes it takes me 10 balls, sometimes I go in straight away and it's fine, sometimes it takes me a couple of hundred balls," he'd said.
Here, he seemed more content on just getting bat on ball without being too fussed about a particular intricacy or potential kink. There was a focus on trying to meet the ball as close to under his nose as possible-which was his focus even before the Test at Lord's-but that was about it. At one point, he ended up defending a delivery from Sriram with his bat held nearly parallel to the floor, similar to how one of his fellow members of the Big Four of modern-day batting does it. And for good measure, Smith even shouted, ""Kane Williamson".
Since one of the two members of the Aussie camp chucking balls at him with a side-arm was Warner, there was a light-hearted feel to the nearly hour-long session. The opener kept challenging Smith's defence, appealing loudly after Smith shouldered arms to a delivery and being hit on the pads only for Sriram to turn the appeal down. And then came the most unexpected moment of the summer when a bunch of English fans cheered for Warner as he cleaned up Smith, knocking out his off-stump. Warner to his credit even took a bow to acknowledge the plaudits.
With Graeme Hick, the batting coach who Smith generally prefers to face in the nets rested for the Derby tour match, the former captain didn't have to face much of a short-pitched barrage. There was but one short ball that the diminutive Sriram managed to deliver throughout the session, and Smith comfortably swayed out of the way. The only time he did lose his cool was after being hit on the pads by Sriram while attempting a flick and missing the ball, even lambasting himself with a cuss word. The only time he took a break was to change gloves. And just when you thought Smith was getting warmed-up for a characteristically endless session, he pulled the plug on it. Warner and Sriram weren't the only ones surprised as Smith walked away, but not before posing for pictures and signing autographs on his way out, maybe ensuring the 20 quid they'd paid was more than worth it.
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