Squaring up to test of his life

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Ian Stafford talks to Robin Smith about the bouncer (left) that could have wrecked his career, of his return to South Africa this week and of the night Mike Atherton drank all the wine

Last week a small but crucial test took place in-the misty solitude of Southampton's county ground. One of the best attackers of pace bowling in world cricket privately took guard and prepared to ask himself if he still had what it takes.

It is two months since the West Indian fast bowler, Ian Bishop, smashed a bouncer into the face of England's Robin Smith. The subsequent mess which was once the 32-year-old's cheek meant the end of his productive summer, and nearly his career.

Two depressed fractures later, plus an operation to insert, and then later remove, a plate, together with 14 stitches, resulted in an apprehensive Smith padding up for the first time since the injury in the Hampshire nets.

By his own admission, his exploratory batting session did not work well. The next morning, Smith returned to the nets, swallowed hard and took the plunge.

"They say that if you fall off a horse you should get straight back on it again," he said, constantly stroking the side of his face as if ensuring that it really is back in place. "So I got the bowling machine on fast and short. The balls kept flying at my face at tremendous speed, but I played well and never found myself in difficulty. In the space of 24 hours my confidence returned. Now I know I'm ready."

By this he means ready for the first England Test series in South Africa for 25 years. There is no one in the England squad, which leaves tomorrow, who was more determined to make this particular tour. For Smith, born and brought up in Durban, will be playing in front of what was his home crowd, in a country he left 15 years ago for a new life in England.

We are in the Hampshire dressing-rooms, presently enjoying some badly- needed decorating, where his brother, Chris, and perhaps the greatest South African batsman of all, Barry Richards, once sat. Talk of the tour makes Smith's whole face light up.

"Of course, when I left for England in 1980, nobody could see how South Africa would be accepted again in world sport," he said. "But as soon as South Africa were re-admitted, it became a dream of mine to play there for England. To go and play in my own backyard, where I learnt my cricket, in front of my former home crowd, will be more special than playing anywhere else in the world for me. I want to play in all five Tests, of course, but the third Test in Durban is the match I've got to be playing in."

What kind of a reception Smith will receive remains to be seen. Married to an English woman, with two children and a house in Salisbury, Smith sees himself as a fully-fledged Englishman, having lived here for 15 years. This may create some adversity. "When I became eligible to play for England in 1985, there were headlines in the South African newspapers saying: `Smith turns his back on South Africa'. Since I left for England, I have been the subject of far more media coverage back in South Africa than any other English cricketer.

"I still don't know whether some people may think that I should be playing for South Africa against England, and I'm sure that, because of my reputation as a good player of pace, plus my origins, the South African bowlers will be especially keen to claim my wicket.

"I haven't got a clue how I will be treated when I'm over there. I hope I'll be met with a lot of enthusiasm, but I realise it might go the other way. I would feel sad if that's the case, because I honestly feel that I did not turn my back on my country. I was a 17-year-old kid, who was desperate to play cricket at the highest standard possible, and when Hampshire contacted me through my brother, it was too good a chance to turn down."

Starting out a sporting career so far from home, and at such a tender age, was daunting enough, but Smith also had to contend with the sudden discovery that life outside the pro-apartheid South Africa was entirely different. "In South Africa I believed what I was told. We all did. I was taught about the Boer War, and about the Afrikaans, but never knew that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island.

"As a result, I was very naive. I had no idea what really went on outside the little world which was the former South Africa. There was no reason why I should have known, because when you're a kid you accept what you are taught at school and at home. Once I arrived in England I quickly realised that the rest of the world had a different view of life. I read about what the world thought of South Africa, and about my former country's problems.

"It was a bit of a shock, but I adapted pretty quickly, as most young people do. I was made to feel very welcome at Hampshire and got on with what I love most - playing cricket. Looking back I, together with everyone else in South Africa, should have been made aware of everything at school.

"Now I'm delighted - together with the vast majority of South Africa - at how things have worked out over there. Mandela is a truly great man. To bear no grudges after what he lived through is remarkable, and I only hope that the country comes through the present teething problems as quickly as possible."

The next hurdle for Smith, if his dream is to come true, is to secure his position in the Test team. An absolute certainty in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he has endured some difficulty in holding his place in the England team in recent years.

Dropped before the final summer Test against Australia in 1993 - "Mike Atherton was staying at my house. He drank all my red wine the night before, and than told me I was out of the team over cornflakes the next morning"- Smith bounced back that winter against the West Indies, before a run of poor scores against New Zealand in the summer of 1994 resulted in him cruelly missing the three-Test series against South Africa, and then last winter's tour to Australia.

He accepts that form has, from time to time, deserted him, but not the criticism he received from within the England camp. "Keith Fletcher's remarks during the Antigua Test in 1994 were a real setback for me," he admits. "I was 68 not out overnight, and he calls a press conference to announce to the world that too many outside interests were affecting my game. He accused me of being more concerned about making money off the field than being a dedicated cricketer.

"I like people to be honest with me. If someone comes up to me and tells me to my face, that I'm not playing well enough, then fine, but to rather tell the world's press what's wrong with my batting was, to say the least, disappointing. I went on to make 178, my highest Test score, the next morning. Perhaps if I hadn't been thinking about business, I would have made 250."

Point taken. Smith concedes he was not as dedicated as he should have been, but for very different reasons. "I'd been playing virtually full- time cricket for 13 years, and felt burnt out. As a result, I wasn't practising as much as I should have been. I was in Australia last winter, watching the Test series while on business with my travel company, and I realised how much I missed cricket and that I would rather have been out there with the England boys. Being dropped gave me the kicking I needed, but I resented the accusations. It led to quite a bit of stick. I remember walking out at Southampton, and hearing a few people shouting out: `Shouldn't you be in the office?' or `Here comes the millionaire'.

"When things go slightly wrong, people always look for excuses, and I have always felt, as an outsider who's come in, that I have to do a little better than everyone else. Lamby (Allan Lamb) has gone through the same thing. You don't quite seem to get as many chances. The point is that my cricket career could end tomorrow. It nearly ended when Bishop hit me. I have every right to try and feather my bed for when I finally quit the sport, but it seems that I will never lose the tag of being South African."

Speaking of tags, Smith's final problem is his so-called difficulty with spin. Even the tribe of hitherto unknown tree people, recently discovered in Sumatra, have probably debated this issue over the years. "Tell me about it," Smith adds, wearily. "Even when I play in local benefit games I hear a fielder shouting to his captain: `Put me on, skip, I can bowl leg spinners and Smith's batting'."

There then follows a well-prepared case for the defence. "I've scored 20,000 first-class runs at an average of 46; 4,000 Test runs at 44, and an average of 41 in one-day internationals. I average 64 against India, the best spinners in the world. Come on, I can't be that bad, can I?

"When I play Sussex, they always put on Ian Salisbury. I've scored 10 centuries against that lot. When I played Northampton last summer, Lamby immediately put on Anil Kumble. He bowled 70 overs in that innings, and I scored 184, and made a point of reminding Lamby later. The bottom line is that I never think `Oh shit, they're bringing on a leg spinner'. I admit to being more comfortable against pace, look better and play with more command, but the end result is no different."

Now even Johnny Cochrane would have been proud of that defence. All that is left, then, is a successful tour in South Africa. "I'd be disappointed if people didn't think I was one of the best six batsmen in England, and I'm very confident of being picked for the team. That's not being arrogant, just honest."

I make the point that he would be the first South African to play for England in his former home. "Yeah, you're right," he answers. "That would be something, wouldn't it?"