‘We’ve worked out ways we can challenge him’ – England prepare to target Smith

As Steven Smith struck his 31st Test hundred against India on day two of the World Test Championship final at The Oval, England vice-captain Ollie Pope could only but admire the Australian’s class.

Ominous signs ahead of the Ashes? No doubt. But for a player with a Test average of 59.55 in these conditions – now 61.60 – who has 11 centuries against England, the hosts did not need a reminder of Smith’s qualities ahead of next week’s first Test at Edgbaston.

“He loves batting in England,” Pope said. “It’s obvious he knows these conditions, knows his game inside out. So there’s a lot of respect for him.”

Even with the 2-2 scoreline, the gap between the two sides four years ago was Smith-sized. As such, there are plans afoot to avoid a repeat.

Though Ben Stokes has preached about England solely focussing on themselves and carrying forward their expansive methods, plenty of analysis has gone into combatting Smith this time around. The onus seems to be on matching the batter’s unorthodoxy with similar tactics with the ball and around field placings.

“There’s also a lot of talented bowlers in our changing-room who have worked out ways we can challenge him – both edges as well,” Pope said. “So, I think that’s probably going to be the main thing for ourselves. Can’t say too much but there’s probably slightly different plans this time.

“He’s been an amazing player for a long time and had a lot of success in all different conditions. But what we’ve been good at as a team is we’ve used different approaches, not necessarily hitting the top of off the whole time in getting wickets and finding ways to get 20 wickets in a match, whoever’s batting.

“Steve Smith is a highly-skilled batter and scores a lot of runs. But I think, for him, we might be looking at even quirkier ways to challenge him, test him out and make him as uncomfortable as we possibly can to try and get his wicket.”

There is hope England’s style itself might prove a distraction. Speaking last month, Stuart Broad relished the idea of Smith dancing down the track and chipping to long-on through enticing him into some Bazball of his own.

“That’s exactly the bubble that we’ve got to try and get him out of,” Pope said. “He’s got his routines – his slightly longer routines – before he faces each ball, and he won’t be ready until he’s done all those routines. And that’s, again, what’s made him successful is that stubbornness.

“We know exactly how he’s going to operate, how he’s going to want to score his runs and he’s not going to move from that during this five-match series whether he scores runs in the first two or three matches or not. It’s just knowing how he’s gonna approach it and try and sit and negotiate that as best as we can.”

Even with the focus on taking out Smith, Pope could not help but state his admiration for a rival. Particularly one who has his game down to a tee.

It is a state of being Pope is reaching. The 25-year-old believes his batting is “a lot better” than it was when he last played Australia on the 2021-22 tour. Pope averaged just 11.16 across three matches in the 4-0 defeat, and looked set for a spell out of the team coming into the 2022 summer.

But with Stokes taking over as captain and preaching a more positive approach, reinforced by head coach Brendon McCullum, Pope has thrived at No. 3. A maiden double-century last week against Ireland was his third three-figure score under Stokes, taking his average to 43.25 since the last summer. The career average after 36 caps is now a healthier 35.27.

He hopes that upward trend continues over the next couple month. And it will be no surprise if he takes a few cues from Smith given how highly he regards Australia’s No. 4.

“Watching him go about his stuff other than when it’s against us, I really enjoy watching him bat,” Pope said. “I find it intriguing the way he does his angles and the way he changes his trigger for different bowlers – the way he negotiates different challenges in different conditions.

“From a pure cricket fan point of view, he’s someone I respect. A player who averages 60 in recent times in Test cricket – it’s amazing what he’s done. I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a fellow batter.

“Hopefully he doesn’t score too many against us. But what he’s done in however long since his debut has been seriously impressive.”

Ollie Pope was speaking on behalf of Radox, the Official Shower Gel of England Cricket #FeelRefreshedWithRadox

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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