Cricket: Return of the one-cap wonder

Stephen Brenkley finds Mike Smith a happy man back on the big stage
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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE AMONG Mike Smith's souvenirs is a magazine photograph of his most memorable moment in cricket. It shows the Australian batsman Matthew Elliott looking round to slip where he is being dropped by Graham Thorpe. Smith, the bowler, meanwhile is dropping his arms, which, an instant earlier, had been raised in triumph.

Australia, who were 50 for 3 at the time, went on to make 501. Elliott, who was 29, went on to 199, Smith went wicketless and out of Test cricket after one match. The photograph in Smith's bag is not apparently accompanied by an effigy of Thorpe into which he regularly sticks pins. Had the catch stuck, who knows, it might have made an international career.

"I don't have any regrets about that, at least not really, but it's funny that I came out of that match with a worse reputation than I went into it," said Smith last week. "I know I didn't do myself justice but I think one game isn't enough. The ball didn't swing at Headingley in that match but funnily enough it did at Trent Bridge in the next one and I'm sure I would have done much better."

Smith returned whence he came, whence all one-cap wonders come, to the grind of the much-maligned county circuit, dreams of being an international glamour cricketer nipped in the bud by selectorial whim. Today, at least, he is back on the big stage. Lord's will be full for the NatWest Trophy final in which Smith and Gloucestershire, kings of the conventional limited- overs game this summer, meet their neighbours, Somerset. It will be passionate too - Gloucestershire's first final in the senior knock-out competition for 26 years, Somerset's first for 16 - and it will give the lie to the notion that nobody cares about county cricket.

"We were fourth in the Championship last year," said Smith, "and I can't remember the attendance at Bristol changing much, but this summer they've been coming in droves." This is an important and heartening observation. Any mention of county cricket tends to persuade the purist lip into sneering position - comfort zone of poor techniques and too many games and so on - but as Smith remarked, the good folk of Gloucestershire have been captivated by their local heroes.

"People like one-day cricket," he said. "I know it gets blamed for a lot, for producing bits-and-pieces players. What I would say is that you want specialists but not one-dimensional players. I think bowlers, for instance, should practise their batting much more. You just have to look at the England team - we play too much but mainly we don't get enough time to practise. I would love to have a slower ball like Chris Cairns but after two weeks at the start we don't get time to develop skills like that."

Gloucestershire have had their most successful season in years by deliberately aiming for progress in one-day cricket at the expense of the County Championship. (All right, it might not be to England's great advantage but it is also proof that there is cricketing life beyond England.) Without Courtney Walsh, whose 106 Championship wickets were so significant in their four- day fortunes last summer, they realised they might struggle. Enter the Australian one-day specialist Ian Harvey, the experienced Kim Barnett and the bits-and-pieces player (there have to be some) Jeremy Snape.

Last month the Glorious Glorsters won the Super Cup ("I know that's had some stick but it got us a good following and I quite enjoyed it," said Smith) with a sterling performance against Yorkshire in the final at Lord's, led by a wonderful hundred from their captain, Mark Alleyne. "What has really surprised me throughout all this is they way we've adapted to big games considering so few of us had experience of them."

They have done so largely by making a big score and then defending it. Smith has been prominent in the latter respect, usually going for fewer than three runs an over, sometimes delivering his whole quota at the start of an innings. To do this he changed his style in his ninth season in the professional game. It was proposed (actually, it was probably ordered) by Gloucestershire's New Zealand coach, John Bracewell.

"I have bowled slightly shorter in the one-day game than I have done before," Smith said. "This means that you don't get that late swing which can get you wickets and I was a bit rebellious at first." Their ability to restrict runs has also been helped by Jack Russell's extraordinary form behind the stumps, standing up to the seam bowlers as a deliberately limiting policy. "Marvellous," said Smith. "In the semi-final against Yorkshire I haven't seen him keep better. I haven't seen anyone else keep better.

"The NatWest final is the biggest game of our lives, the FA Cup of the game. I think it will be the hardest game so far, not just because it's the final but because Somerset are such a tough side who bat all the way down." A happier snap for the Smith photograph album would not come amiss.