Cricket: Family values of a demolition man: Glenn Moore traces the influences that combined to make Robin Smith the scourge of Australia at Edgbaston

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The Independent Online
IT IS 22 years since the brothers Smith took turns facing the bowling machine in their Durban garden. Years in which they have grown up to share a cricket pitch with their schoolboy hero, Barry Richards, to mix it with the best at Test level and forge a bond that 12,000 miles cannot diminish.

Thus Chris Smith spent Friday evening in his Perth home swelling with pride as he watched the Channel 9 coverage of brother Robin's 167-run demolition job on Australia's bowling attack. Smith, now chief executive of the Western Australia Cricket Association, knows Robin's game better than anyone. It was he who shared his youthful dreams of greatness, who brought Robin to England while he was still a schoolboy, and who has helped his younger brother hone his game and his mind to the point where he stands on the threshold of realising those dreams.

'I watched it from start to finish,' Chris said. 'I was delighted. I have seen him play a few innings like that at county level but never seen quite that type of fluency at international level. I always said that he would be at his best in about three or four years' time and I expect those innings to happen a lot more in the future.'

Robin's best brought glowing accolades from three of the biggest names in the game. In making him man of the match Sir Richard Hadlee - whom Robin Smith regards as the best bowler he has faced - spoke of the power and placement of the innings; Allan Border, the most experienced one-day player in the world, said he had seen only one innings, by Viv Richards, to compare with it; Graham Gooch felt it had no peers. But none of those tributes will mean as much as the knowledge that his brother's faith is being rewarded.

They were born to be batsmen. Their grandfather was a provincial South African cricketer, their English-born father a keen tutor, and Barry Richards a family friend who would stop by and coach them. Natural sporting talentbrought honours at athletics and rugby as well as cricket. But their rise - Chris appeared in eight Test matches and was unlucky not to play more - has involved much hard work.

'We always had a very dedicated work ethic,' said Chris, at 34, five years Robin's senior. 'We would practise for a couple of hours a day when we were eight or nine and, in the Eighties, after I joined Hampshire and brought Robin to England at 16, I would be surprised if you could find anyone who did more batting practice than we did.'

It has not been undiluted success. While Robin has always made runs for England at home he has struggled overseas. 'He does not appear to be a good traveller,' said Chris, who spent hours with him in the nets when he failed in Australia two years ago. 'He is very family orientated and is probably missing them and not being totally focused.'

It showed again in the World Cup - when, strange to recall, England felt able to leave Smith out of the final - and in India this winter, when he showed an alarming lack of technique against spin. But by sheer application he transformed himself from rabbit to rock, eschewing his barnstorming style and selling his wicket dear, with the reward of a first overseas Test century in Sri Lanka.

'I'm encouraged to hear he is still working hard,' said Chris. 'India would have been fantastic experience and part of the process to be the best. Mental strength is the last aspect of batting to develop. It takes time. I was playing my best when I retired two years ago and I expect him to reach his peak in about four years. He is already mentally stronger, more relaxed, and altogether a much more complete player than when he first played for England.'

One aspect of his mental game that has required plenty of work is controlling his pre-innings nerves. David Gower relates how, on Smith's England debut against the West Indies at Leeds in 1988, he sat 'with him on the balcony while he was waiting to bat attempting to calm his nerves'. Smith went on to make 38. His county captain, Mark Nicholas, says that the problem has eased. 'He is always a bit nervous but is now more authoritative.'

But Smith can still look so jittery at the crease that at times it is hard to see how he ever made a run, let alone eight Test centuries for England. But the appearance is misleading, created as much because Smith, with his bulging blacksmith's forearms and wardrobe shoulders, looks more comfortable crashing some fearsome speed merchant to the square-cover boundary than prodding forward with bat and pad clamped together to some tricky tweaker. The portion of his Test innings where he has been dismissed before reaching double figures is, at 27 per cent, similar to that of Mike Gatting (29 per cent) and Graham Gooch (25 per cent).

His failure rate is notably higher outside England and his poor form on tours appears incongruous given his overseas background - for some he will always be 'South African-born Smith' - but he has settled to English life with enthusiasm. The accent, while noticeable, is regarded as English by Afrikaners and, as Nicholas says: 'He loves it here, his home, the country. He is very much a 'quiet pint in the local' man and he'll be here after his career is over.'

That view is supported from South Africa. Colin Bryden, sports editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times, says: 'He is regarded here as English. Although he was clearly a good player when he left here he was not a star like Tony Greig, who everyone felt was South African even when he played for England. Smith is seen as making a clean break; he has far fewer links here than Allan Lamb, for example.'

Sometimes shy with strangers and wary of the press after what some perceived as one or two bad experiences, he prefers to seek his headlines through his performances and admits to an affinity for similar sportsmen, like Stefan Edberg and Bernhard Langer. There is also the fierce competitiveness, as his celebrated adversary, Merv Hughes, for one, recognises and relishes.

Smith was touched that so many Australians congratulated him after his innings on Friday, saying: 'I have had my differences in the past with one or two of the Australians and I really appreciated them coming up and shaking hands.' They may be doing much more of that this summer - if they are not still wringing them in pain.

(Photograph omitted)

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