Cricketer, author, thinker – Smith revels in role as true all-rounder
Latest book from arguably the most unusual and clever man to play for England confirms sport matters. By Stephen Brenkley
Sunday 16 March 2008
In the end, it may be luck that conquers all. In sport, in life. On a sunny morning at Maidstone in July 2003, Ed Smith had a slice of it. He had yet to score when he clipped a ball in the air towards square leg. There, the fielder dived but the catch was narrowly out of reach.
Had Smith been out, it would have been his fourth duck in five innings, professional disaster. Instead, he went on to score 149, and three more hundreds in the four innings after that, in all five hundreds in eight Championship innings, professional triumph. He was picked for England.
On a mild afternoon at The Oval almost two months later when light drizzle threatened occasionally, Smith had a stroke of ill luck. He attempted to play a ball which was slightly short of length through midwicket. He missed and although, in terms of a valid leg-before appeal, the ball was about as high as an elephant's eye, he was given out. It was his third Test, his fifth innings that had now yielded 87 runs, professional disaster.
Smith has not played for England since. That match will always be remembered as Alec Stewart's valedictory Test, his 133rd, and the fact that it may also turn out to have been Ed Smith's final appearance as an international player might struggle to make a tiny footnote.
Without the good fortune, of course, he would not have been there to experience the misfortune, as he has contemplated – though the passage of time helped the balance. He is now the captain of Middlesex, but any assessment of Smith's cricket career, however its way wends from here, should contain those two moments as symbolic.
Somehow, he manages to avoid referring directly to either of them in an utterly enthralling reflection titled What Sport Tells Us About Life, published last week. It is a series of thoughtful, diverting and pertinent essays which might equally have been called What Life Tells Us About Sport. Some, perhaps most, sections are compelling, some blindingly obvious, some contain self-evident truths, some contain highly entertaining cod psychology, some furnish deep and original thought on how and why sport should be played and how and why it matters. One of the most vivid of the 15 self-contained, yet linked compositions is the one on Why Luck Matters – And Admitting It Matters Even More. All Smith advocates is that acknowledging the role luck plays makes people more generous. Maybe it can also make people better players.
But he leaves nothing to chance in affirming the role that chance plays. He does not believe, he writes, that he is either lucky or unlucky, but statistics do not tell when you get your luck.
As he points out, to be wronglygiven out in a pre-season trial hardly matters, to be mistakenlyjettisoned in a crucial Test match makes a difference to the match and your life. Smith must, he simply must, have been thinking of The Oval, 6 September five years ago when that sentence came out. Possibly, it was oneof the minor catalysts for the book, three-and-a-half years in the crafting, though he said: "I have absolutely no bitterness about not having played more for England, but I am ready to play for England and I want to play for England."
But it is not all about luck. Not by a long chalk. Smith brings a fresh perspective to the sad cli-max to Zinedine Zidane's career, a calculating insight to why amateur sportsmen may still have brought something to an ultra-professional sporting world, attempts to tell us why there will never be a sportsman so dominant again as Don Bradman, examines the contradictions surrounding cheating, stresses the significance of learning from history, and talks fascinatingly about the fear of failure, which one or two of the current England squad may like to peruse.
Of all professional sportsmen around today, Smith is the most unusual. He is probably the cleverest man to have played for England since Mike Brearley, with whom he now invites more direct comparison because, like Brearley, he is now captain of Middlesex. It does not happen often when talking to cricketers, or any other games players, that he or she quotes Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Auden, or that when they get round to Waugh by way of light relief, they are talking of Evelyn, not Steve.
Smith has played cricket for a living – his main living, that is – since 1999, when he graduated with a double first in history from Cambridge, though he initially played for Kent in 1996. And he has done so seriously. For seven successive seasons, he has not missed a first-class match for which he has been available. The only Championship matches he did not play were during his (so far) brief Test career.
In that time he has also written three well-received books, of which this latest may be the best and most enduring. Itmay easily encourage others to expand on Smith's themes. It has been a purging, a catharsis.
"I think having written it Iwill definitely become a better player," he said. "Look at Mark Ramprakash and Strictly Come Dancing. I am proud of the book; it's not about me, it's about ideas, and I believe in the ideas.
"Insofar as I had self-doubt, it was about whether I should be playing sport. Now I feel whatever has happened I have done that, I'm proud of it, it was worth it, now I feel a burden has just been lifted, I just want to go and play. In sport you get stripped naked a little bit, and the bigger the stage the more naked you're going to be. At some level what gets found out is the need to cover up and hide, and the fear of being stripped naked, but I feel indifferent towards that. All I want to do now is win. It has freed me."
He probably had a chance to get out of sport and on with the rest of his life in 2004 when his lifelong love affair with Kent ended in acrimony. He had not been everybody's cup of tea as stand-in captain that summer (particularly not that of Andrew Symonds, the county's overseas player, who virtually and disgracefully mutinied), and while he might have wanted a more cosmopolitan lifestyle by then than was automatically available in Kent, the move to Middlesex was made easier.
If it is still possible to wonder what the heck he is doing playing cricket, his passion for it is obvious. He tries to be dispassionate in the book but fails at times, talking almost sentimentally of the lure of the dressing-room banter.
And the pride in the book is matched by his pride in his record as a professional cricketer. "I have played 120 games in a row, never been injured, never been dropped, never cried off. I have played from 2000 to 2007, I have averaged 47, the only person who has made more runs is Mark Ramprakash.
"I think I have shown you can do other things, and not only just turn up but turn up with resilience. If there was one word written on the inside of my coffin it would be resilience. I would probably have it written down three times."
A few years ago every thinking professional sportsman carried around a copy of Lance Armstrong's book It's Not About The Bike. They may find similar but different truths in Smith's often-understated caveats.
Talking to somebody as obviously considered and clever as Smith helps to reaffirm the importance of sport in the world. He is just ever so slightly dismissive of sport in his musings on what it tells us about life, but that is the detached Smith coming out. All his thoughts now, he insists, have turned to Middlesex, to get them out of the Second Division championship doldrums (though he did lead them to Pro40 League promotion on the last day of last season).
It will be fascinating to watch and see if he has the natural leadership attributes of Brearley, a man who knew how to bring the best out of the people under him (not all of them, you understand, but enough to count). Smith seemed at his most animated when he talked of his hopes, his dreams, for the county.
"It's a sensational slice of luck that I was able to play sport the way I have," he said. "It's given me a blend. You want to have a full life, and without sport and the friendships I've made in the dressing room I'd have had a much poorer life. Far from having stopped me doing something more interesting, it has given me a wealth of experiences."
It may be that detailing what sport tells us about life has helped Smith to come up with a reason for playing it. It helps to tell all of us spectators why we watch.
Life and times
Name: Edward Thomas Smith.
Born: 19 July 1977, Pembury, Kent.
Height: 6ft 2in.
Family: Son of teacher, novelist and radio dramatist Jonathan.
Education: Went to Tonbridge School and read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he obtained a double first.
Cricket career: Century on first-class debut for Cambridge University; Kent (ex-captain), Middlesex (captain) and England.
County statistics: 185 first-class matches, 315 innings, 12,392 runs, highest score 213, average 41.86.
International career: Three Tests v South Africa in 2003; 5 inns, 87 runs, HS 64, avge 17.40.
Off the field: First book 'Playing Hard Ball' looks at the mythology of baseball and compares it to cricket. His diary of the eventful 2003 season at Kent, 'On and Off the Field', was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year. His latest tome is 'What Sport Tells Us About Life'
Read 'What Sport Tells Us About Life'by Ed Smith (Penguin Books, £14.99)
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