Smith’s survival mode gives Pakistan a window

The removal of distractions has become something close to an obsession for Smith, here demonstrated by his irritation first about the tracked camera at deep midwicket, then about a Pakistan national flag fluttering at the very edge of a big sight screen.

But the most persuasive case for why Smith has found himself getting out in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s has less to do with distraction than something like paralysis.

Repeatedly, even on days where he starts as fluently as he did in Lahore to be 19 from 26 balls with four crisp boundaries, Smith has become preoccupied with mitigating risk and emphasising survival.

Pakistan celebrate the wicket of Steve Smith.Credit:AP

His strike rate since late 2019 has been little more than 40 runs per 100 balls, as against a career rate closer to 55.

In trying so hard to keep batting, Smith has perhaps lost some sight of something that the best players over many generations have all excelled at: balancing risk and reward to reduce the size of the area in which bowlers can confidently land the ball.

This is a conundrum many a great player has faced. Some of Sachin Tendulkar’s least productive years, between 2003 and 2006, were also those in which he survived more often than he dominated. When Tendulkar surged again later in his career between 2007 and 2010, it was at least partly because he went back on the attack, improving his strike rate from around 50 to 55.

Admittedly, that sort of approach can be less challenging to take on pitches with a little more pace and bounce, so seamers float full or drop short to allow for drives and pull or cut shots. In Pakistan on low, slow surfaces, the in-between length has required vigilance to protect against any skidders bound for the stumps.

Nevertheless, Smith’s posture looks too conservative when examining how he fared against individuals. Should a batter of his class be backing himself to score a little more freely against the likes of Hasan Ali (8 from 37 balls), Naseem Shah (3 from 29 balls) or Sajid Khan (13 from 40) on a first day pitch?

Khawaja by contrast, struck a better balance between defence and attack, outstripping Smith’s scoring rate against all comers except Shaheen. There was some irony to this given how, for most of the past 10 years, Smith has been seen as the master manipulator while Khawaja was perceived as someone who could be tied down.

As it was, Smith’s exit to a hint of reverse swing from the lively Naseem was followed by Khawaja’s dismissal to a Sajid delivery that spun sharply from the line of middle and leg stumps – certainly not out of any rough – at an enticing 80.5kph.

On day two, which will again be more vital than this one, Smith will discover if he should have asserted himself more, or if the hard graft of the first afternoon was reasonable in setting up a more modest platform than Australia provided their bowlers last week.

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