Smith's centuries speak volumes

County Championship: Tale of an author, a cook and a batsman and it could end with a belated England call-up
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The Independent Online

Ed Smith was once known as a promising young cricketer. Now he has turned 26 and has been reinvented as an interesting professional cricketer in the middle of a vivid purple patch. Four hundreds in five Championship innings for Kent made him first to 1,000 runs this summer. Very good, but good enough to propel him into contention for the place he aspires to, which is in England's team against South Africa? Evidence of the passing of the years is thinning hair and growing self-awareness. He talks in complete paragraphs, and when he writes, it is at book length.

He is E. T. Smith, author of a book about baseball and cricket called Playing Hard Ball, released in paperback recently. Last week, during a break in the Championship, he cooked breakfast in his comfortable house outside Canterbury, and explained himself.

Smith is conscious that his skill as a batsman is now taken for granted by his team-mates. What they expect is something more difficult. They want him to play the match-winning innings that defines a game, like the one against Nottinghamshire at Maidstone early in July. Smith was in soon after play began, and had scored a hundred before lunch. "It was one of those days when everything went right, nice to watch but not a test of character," he says.

That would come in the second innings. His father is a constant adviser and critic, and when they spoke before the second innings he had said that people would be expecting some extravagant shots - rather like the one Smith had played in the second innings against Surrey, when he got a duck after making 135. "Don't do it," said father to son.

Smith did not practise any shots in the nets; he practised leaving the ball. "When I went in I probably left no more than 10 balls, but six of them were in my first 10 balls. Leaving them meant I didn't nick them." He scored 113. "I was very pleased with the second hundred at Maidstone. It was quite good to look at, but it showed a bit more character," he says.

Last season he scored eight fifties, although only two became hundreds. They were pretty but rarely match-winning - they adorned the game instead of defining it. He told himself very firmly that this year he must score more hundreds. The tally so far is five, with only one fifty-only. In one-day cricket he has passed fifty twice and gone on to score 120 and 99. This is the new Ed Smith. "I do think something has happened and I don't think it's technical. I don't think it's to do with practice or with desire and determination. It's to do with settling down, knowing who you are as a player and being happy with it. It's taken me longer than I'd hoped," he says.

He was a fine cricketer at Tonbridge School, where his father taught English and cricket. He scored a hundred for Cambridge on his first-class debut and moved effortlessly into Kent's heavy-scoring batting order. His literary debut was well received. He is a precise cook who cleans up after himself. But he was underachieving at what counted most - his cricket.

"It was a frustration to me that it didn't happen earlier, and it was a frustration to other people." Perhaps it was Steve Waugh who made the difference. He played a few games for Kent at the end of last season, and Smith was impressed with a quality he describes as an " 'ideal performance state' - hideous words". It means that Waugh has established the fine balance of self-containedness, resoluteness, attention and concentration, and that he is not undermined by failure or success, by fear or conceit.

"Waugh doesn't adorn many games, but he defines quite a few," says Smith. "I think that's what happened to Michael Vaughan too. He's changed from adorning the game to defining it."

His own flush of runs has given him great pleasure. He received "a lovely letter" from his literary hero, the novelist Vikram Seth, who was a student of Smith's father. His sporting hero? "Steve would be close for his recognition that there's a life outside sport." Smith's outside life is writing, the theatre and the opera. (He caught Tom Stoppard's Jumpers at the National Theatre, but missed Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne - he is the first cricketing Wagnerian since Bob Willis.)

But are there enough runs to get him into the England team? That is his ambition and, as he says, ambition is not something he's been short of. Of course he wants to play for England, and is contemptuous of the notion that his age may prove a barrier, pointing to late-maturing Australians such as Damien Martyn, Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden. But central contracts tend to create a closed shop, and the conventional route to the Test team is now the Academy, for which Smith is a bit old. Besides, the next batting vacancy seems to have been reserved for Graham Thorpe. "I've no comment to make about selection," he says, "other than if anyone thinks you're too old at 26, then it's an eccentric opinion."

Maybe the weight of runs is not great enough yet, and a few more hundreds will be required before his case becomes pressing. That's an ambitious target for the rest of the season. Intriguing, too; maybe Ed Smith should write a book about it.