Saturday, 7 May 2011

My deep and abiding love for Robin Smith

1. The fear
The first cricket book I ever owned was Robin Smith's Batting Skills (Hamlyn, 1994). This was one in a series of two glossy editions - the other being Malcolm Marshall's Bowling and Fielding Skills - and they were both wonderful books. The editors had given both cricketers free reign in their production, and how much better they were for it. Both were beautifully illustrated with step-by-step photos from the Hampshire ground in Southampton (and there in the background was CC's coach, making the dream seem tantalisingly attainable). But it wasn't the production values that made them so special.

In terms of technique, the Marshall book was perhaps slightly less helpful - the product of an awesome natural athlete ('To get ready for a game I do 150 sit ups a day' - well, that didn't last very long for the CC, even as a bright eyed, bushy tailed, 14-year-old) and unconventional bowling talent (he explains his action in detail, but the truth is that 90% of people find a chest-on action hard to carry out, and those that do find it extremely hard to move it both ways like he did, never mind the 90mph pace).

It was the Smith book I turned to the most. In terms of technique it had little to say that the MCC manual didn't. But what made it fascinating were the personal touches. Smith's career was on the verge of ending when the book was written. He was honest about his struggles against spin, showed himself a keen student of the game (there were even little snippets of Cardus in there), was honest about some of the technical mistakes he had made in his career, and above all, he talked honestly about fear.

Now 'fearless' is the word most commonly applied to Smith. This video is something of a YouTube favourite for many a CC:

He describes it as his favourite session in bat. How on earth could anyone enjoy that? A broken jaw, bruises left right and centre, barely a run off the bat - it's more trench warfare than batting. Is the man mad? How could he not be utterly petrified?

Well now, here's the thing. As he explains in the book - he is. In fact, he says, he's as scared as you or I would be. But as he writes, the difference between Robin Smith and you or I (besides the supreme talent, natch) is that he's learned to use the fear positively. He talks about the psychological process by which he does so. He has a choice between fight or flight - and he manages to direct his thoughts towards the former. He talks about visualisation, but doesn't go into much detail as to how he achieves it.

Despite the lack of detail, it's something I've always tried to copy. I have many flaws as a batsman, but on the few occasions I've faced really quick bowlers I've done ok. Between every ball, I remember as many past failures as I can. This makes me feel angry, and somehow the nervousness shifts to something else. It's a subtle form of self-kidology. It's a tigthrope - it only takes a slight shift in thought - and getting hit by the ball is enough to do it - for those thoughts to become something entirely less positive.

This goes hand-in-hand with a technical point - if the bowling's really quick, I force myself to get in line as early as possible. It's a little like skiing - if you don't lean towards the danger (in that case the ground whizzing by at speed), then the danger comes to you. In terms of batting, you have far more time if you move into the ball early - either front or back foot - than if you decide late, or worse, back away to square leg.

As Smith also points out, the fast bowler is like a shark. You might be scared, but it's not just yourself you're deluding - it's vital to hoodwink the bowler too. If you don't, he'll see a weakness, and you'll get one of the two balls you're probably most dreading - a nasty bouncer or a yorker. Hook him for four and he's less likely to try the bumper again. And that's why body language and swagger are as important as silly Ian Bell said prior to the last home Ashes. It might sound ridiculous to boast to journalists about 'working on your body language', but it's all part of an elaborate, vital, double deception.

The other interesting point Smith makes is that a scary time at the crease can come when you least expect it. Who was the bowler who bowled him the most terrifying spell? Bishop? Ambrose? Walsh? No - the answer, and I'm not making this up - is hitherto-not-very-scary 90s trundler Mark Illott. Smith faced him on a dodgy pitch, and like many left armers he had a hard-to-pick bouncer. I suppose the lesson to take is that you shouldn't make assumptions about what it'll be like in the middle. I've definitely felt more fear on the skiddy indoor Oval nets against people bowling in the 70s (and the run-ups are shortened) than facing proper quicks outdoors.

Now this is all deeply relative. What I learned from Smith's book has worked half a dozen times against guys bowling low in the 80s. I've seen Brett Lee and Wasim Akram bowl live, and I can tell you without doubt: if I faced *that* shit, I'd run away. But the important point is this. If Robin Smith was scared of the quicks, it's ok for you to be. It's what you do with the fear that matters.

2. The man
From day one, Smith gave the impression of being a serious batsman. 'Stocky' barely begins to describe his build. He had forearms like York hams. Rather like Gooch, there's no doubt that he was at his very best playing raw, unsophisticated fast bowling that fed the hook, pull, and above all the cut - most famously, he demolished Merv Hughes at Trent Bridge in 1989 (Hughes: 'You can't fucking bat.' A great many fours later: Smith: 'A fine pair we make - I can't fucking bat and you can't fucking bowl').Unlike Gooch, he had a more orthodox technique and the swinging ball posed him less of a problem.

The story goes that, despite all the heroics against the Windies pace attack, Smith couldn't play spin. To which I reply: bollocks. Smith couldn't play Shane Warne. That hardly put him in unusual company. '93 was a bad year for Smith. Prior to coming up against Warne for the first time, he had gone to India and struggled against their triumvirate of spinners. But again, so did everyone else (with the bizarre exception of Chris Lewis, who hit a most improbable century). The most deadly was a lanky, young, bespectacled whirler called Anil Kumble. Coach Fletcher's appraisal prior to the series? 'I didn't see him turn a single ball from leg to off. I don't think we'll have a problem against him.'

No, Smith fell foul of coming up against two bowlers who would go on to be the world's best spinners in quick succession. Batsman learn and adapt - I have no doubt he'd have played Kumble better second time around, at least. There was a falling out with the management too - he was accused of 'having too many fingers in too many pies'. Well, no doubt he did - he'd opened an equipment firm (which still does great business in Hampshire) and was, I think, a shareholder in a number of other companies. He shared the entrepreneurialism of many South Africans, but was it affecting his performance? Didn't seem so to me.

I only saw him bat live once. It was at Taunton. The pitch was very good. Somerset's bowler's, it's fair to say, weren't. The ball vanished with a crack like a shotgun blast. No ground was big enough for him, on his day.

Robin Smith was a great player. That is all ye need to know.


  1. Three things:

    1. The hook at about 02:30 on the second video is inhuman. No man should be able to move a heavy bat through the air that quickly.

    2. How the fuck did Azharuddin catch that? It was clean out of the middle and must have been approaching light speed.

    3. In a box somewhere I still have a scorecard signed by R.A.Smith from Durham v Hampshire at Gateshead Fell Cricket Club (this was about 1992, long before the Riverside was built) which was for a while one of my most treasured possessions.

  2. 1. Yes. Fucking massive boundary too.

    2. Stunning catch. Let's not take anything away from Prabhakar, who in CC's head is almost the model Test player.

    3. I don't blame you; for my part I once got told to 'leave me alone' by Courtney Walsh after I tried to get his autograph in '94 just after Gloucs had lost. That look of slightly annoyed disdain is something I treasure to this day.