SMITH UNDERSTANDS THE PERILS OF BATTING BETTER THAN MOST
Ian Herbert 07/06/2018
However uncertain the summer looks for Joe Root’s side, it can be said without fear of contradiction that England possess the most erudite head of selectors they have ever known. Ed Smith’s ‘On and Off The Field’, his diary of the season he briefly broke into the Test side 15 years ago, is one of the best books you’ll read about the interior mind of a sportsman. Smith is honest and articulate enough to tell just how it is to be out there in the middle and what a tortuous, introspective process this sport can be. It’s rare to get such insight. And that is why the apparent philosophy behind some of his selection decisions is curious. Smith has made it clear that a buoyant exterior is among the primecriteria for him, when assembling a team to salvage some self-respect out of wreckage of last winter.
It was the ‘character and philosophy’ of Dom Bess and a capacity to rise to a challenge which saw him edge out Amar Virdi and Moeen Ali after playing just 16 first-class games, Smith said. The same went for Mark Stoneman, selected on the basis of his chemistry with Alastair Cook, despite James Vince’s double century across the course of two hours for Hampshire.
Well, exuberance does not always translate into excellence. It is sacrilegious to say so at a time when even T20 is being abbreviated into the much discussed ‘The Hundred’ but introspection and anxiety do have a place in the loud, brash, new world of sport. As Smith’s writing goes to show, they can be very much part of the process of finding touch and form. ‘Above all, today was an internal battle,’ Smith says of a day at the crease in which he finally reaches the century – against Surrey – that had eluded him for weeks. ‘I see batting as a battle between two competing voices, one weak, the other strong. Your weak voice tells you one of your team mates will get runs if you don’t… your strong voice tells you someone has to get the runs and it might as well be you.’
He continues ‘The best players do not always time the ball better than the norm; they do not always have excellent techniques; they are not always exquisitely gifted. What they all have, I suspect, is the capacity to make that strong voice drown out the weak voice with more consistency than great players.’
Smith’s description of the interminable hours after getting an England call-up in that hot summer of 2003 will strike a chord with many players. ‘Anxiety makes us risk averse,’ he writes. ‘Risk aversion means we arrive early – can’t afford to be late! Being early means having dead time on our hands, dead time fosters introspection. It is the vicious cycle of concern.’ He allows himself eight hours to drive from Kent to Trent Bridge… and then manages to break down on the M25. Smith collected 64 in his first England innings, partnering Nasser Hussain to his own 108 not out at close of play, though the BBC’s report provides a hint of the mental challenge it was. ‘Smith overcame his initial nerves to make a solid 40 not out at the close,’ it reported.
In the second innings, Smith was out first ball, plumb lbw, to Andrew Hall and having accumulated only 23 in four innings he was dropped for the subsequent tour of the subcontinent. He did not play for England again. To read his words back now, 15 years on, is to wonder what might have been had an individual with such a deeply analytical approach to the game only been given another chance.
As head of selectors, his gamble on airlifting Jos Buttler straight from the Indian Premier League has worked, with that a classy 67, largely compiled standing outside his crease at Lord’s, and the unbeaten 80 at Headingley. Smith spoke of Buttler as a ‘competitive presence, a dynamic athlete, someone playing with such confidence.’ His potential ‘to be a really positive force.’ His own experience tells him that success at the crease is more complicated than that.
Ian Herbert is a sportswriter at the Daily Mail. He is on twitter @ianherbs Ed Smith’s ‘On and Off the Field’ (Penguin Books) was Wisden Book of the Year 2004
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