Ed Smith's future lies in his past, in the instinctive grip of an infant clutching at one of life's first objects, in this case a miniature cricket bat presented to him by the Australian cricketer John Inverarity, a family friend. "I've still got it upstairs," Smith confesses.
It turned out to be a prescient symbol of his life. Success at school was followed by selection for Cambridge University. He scored a hundred on his first-class debut for the Light Blues against Glamorgan in 1996, topped 1,000 runs last season playing for his university and for Kent, and has a current career average of 44.59. Now 20, Smith is in his final undergraduate year at Peterhouse College, studying history.
While first-class cricket beckons he also looks destined for a first- class degree. He is certainly not at Cambridge solely because of his sporting ability.
It is not surprising to discover that Smith applies his formidable brain to pretty well everything he does, be it academic, social or sporting.
"One phrase encapsulates my approach to everything," says Smith, whose father Jonathan is an author and teaches English at Tonbridge School.
"The poet WH Auden wrote, `The one necessary prerequisite for all works of art and for scientific innovation, no matter how great or small, is intensity of attention; or, less pompously, love.'
"That phrase, `intensity of attention', applies to everything I do. It is because I care about it that it becomes easy for me to spend time doing it. I care about it.
"It enables me to do the little things, the net sessions, the fitness runs in the winter mornings, when they are the last things I want to do.
"Obviously there are moments when you are submerged in drudgery, or when you come in from a terrible away game and you wonder why the hell you did this or that. But those moments do not last for very long with me. I remember about intensity of attention and I manage to get my head above the parapet again."
The remarkable thing about Smith is not his age, nor his ability, it is his comprehension of something which ordinarily takes people a great deal longer to come to terms with - that hard work on the basics is fundamental to success in anything.
The bare statistics of his brief cricket life do not interest Smith, he is in pursuit of something quite different; the quest for self, the discovery of his limits. Already he has mapped out roughly in what direction he would prefer his life to go, and not all paths lead to the crease either.
"I want to be as good as I can possibly be," he states, with not a trace of arrogance or big-headedness, "do everything to become better." Smith admits to being hugely self- analytical, "I'm probably my harshest critic." But he is also prepared to take criticism and to act upon it.
"I am very lucky," he says. "I have been helped by a succession of very good coaches in cricket, John Inverarity, then Chris Stone at Tonbridge, Derek Randall at Cambridge and lastly John Wright at Kent.
"Those four people are good by any standards, but they all offer very different perspectives. Someone like Derek Randall is a very instinctive person, very emotional and he'll just say `Ed you need to work on this a bit, don't ask me why, I've got a feeling it's a problem.' Chris Stone on the other hand would say, `Ed I've watched you for the last five hours and this is the exact problem, your foot is going there, your hands are going there and you need to go into the nets and sort it out.' His is a very much more precise approach.
"The thing to do is not take every bit of advice that is thrown at you, but to extract the best, but equally always remain responsive and open- minded, but ultimately be true to yourself."
However, Smith has the humility to admit: "When I was about to rejoin Kent last summer after finishing the term at Cambridge, Derek Randall pointed out a technical flaw in my game which he thought would be a problem when I started playing against professionals.
"It was a minor point, which unfortunately I didn't address straight away, and by the end of the season I realised that what he had spotted in June had actually turned out to be true and John Wright had later confirmed it to me. It was a reminder that if you listen to people you can trust you can prevent an awful lot of pain from having to learn the hard way."
By the time Smith had rejoined Kent he had already topped the national batting averages for a good part of the early season. But the professional game is light years away from the free and easy world of the Varsity amateurs. And Smith is all too aware of the differences.
"The most obvious is that those who play Championship cricket are professionals and as such it is their job to make sure they are perfectly prepared for every game of cricket," he said.
"In university cricket that is simply not the case, students have to be appealed to to find extra time to prepare for matches. Sport is secondary, however important it may be."
Smith now has 25 first-class matches behind him, he has already scored four hundreds (top score 190) and has passed fifty on 10 further occasions.
Much of that can be put down to the influence of Inverarity in Smith's formative years, as well as Wright. "Invers has a clear, clinical approach to sport," Smith explains. "It's not heartless, it's just simple. Don't muddy the issues. He taught me what concentration is, and it is not about trying too hard, it's about the elimination of unnecessary thoughts and just letting your body react to the ball. John is a great demystifier. He is inspirational because he is so clear."
And Wright at Kent? "He understands the concept of mental strength. He understands it because he was one of the strongest competitors and one of the most gritty batsmen of the modern era. He understands what is demanded of a player when he is told to maximise his potential. He doesn't care how a player goes about that, whether they are overtly aggressive or introverted, quietly confident or brash, whatever, as long as they behave properly."
But, for Smith, his ideal batsman is neither of these. "If I had someone in mind whom I could follow it would be someone who had a cool, balanced, aloof body language, Greg Chappell, Martin Crowe, Mike Atherton, people like that."
Of course, he will end up being his own man, setting his own (very high) standards. But, as to his prospects, Smith is too wise to make any declaration of intent, although he does permit himself to say: "I'd like the challenge of Test cricket. I look forward to the highest challenges."Reuse content