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Robin Smith: A fearless batsman against the fastest of bowlers

Robin Smith: A batsman who was sturdy against the fastest of bowlers

Robin Smith © Getty Images

English cricketer Robin Smith, born September 13, 1963, was a destructive batsman who, with his signature square-cut, took the best of the fast bowlers to the cleaners. With strong forearms and blessed timing, he powered his way to 62 Tests and 71 One-Day Internationals, before surprisingly being axed from the setup in 1996. Karthik Parimal looks back at the career of this fearless-yet-loved cricketer from Hampshire.

 
At the first sign of marginal width, his colossal forearms smashed the ball unforgivingly through point. Pitch it a little too full and it would race past the covers and thud into the fence before the bowler approached the end of his follow-through. Robin Smith meted out this treatment to the best of the seamers in the circuit during the late 1980s and early 1990s. West Indies’ fear-inducing speedsters, Pakistan’s best swing bowlers at times couldn’t help but admire the dexterity of this middle-order batsman who, for his long hair, was aptly nicknamed ‘Judge’. He was an asset in the line-up during England’s sombre period.
 

Early years

Smith was not the first (and certainly not the last) South African cricketer to represent England. Born to English parents in Durban, he was roped in for Natal at the age of 16. One year later, he moved to England and was duly signed by Hampshire to begin a four-year qualifying period. It was the beginning of what would eventually be a fruitful bond with the side.

Smith’s reputation as a hard-hitting batsman grew roots here. Apparently, looking at the force he packed in every shot, his team-mates dared Smith to hit the ball to Portsmouth while he was batting in the nets. In his first two years at Hampshire, he recorded over a thousand runs in each of the seasons. At 19, he thwacked a century in his first Championship match and compelled others in the arena to take notice of his fearless approach against the pacers. Nonetheless, it was not until 1988 that the powers to be called for his services.
Smith’s first series was against the West Indies, but it was the Ashes of 1989 that propelled him into limelight. Against expectations, the Australians were breathing down England’s neck in almost every fixture, and Smith was the only batsman who looked composed, yet sturdy, against a bowling attack led by Merv Hughes. The two were entangled in multiple duels in the years to come, with Smith, arguably, edging ahead. He scored 553 runs, inclusive of two centuries — the most by an Englishman during the series, at an average of 61.44.

That performance earned Smith Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year award in 1990. “One of the more satisfying sights in a disappointing summer for English supporters was Smith down on one knee, crashing the ball square of the wicket on the off side, or standing up to the quicker bowlers and pulling them to the fence with awesome power. Particularly of interest was the way he faced up to the intimidation offered by the Australian fast bowler, Merv Hughes, which made for colourful cricket,” Wisden Almanack noted.

The defining phase

From 1990, Smith’s graph was on the ascendancy. He stood up to the fast, meanest of bowlers like few other batsmen in the international arena. He was often the recipient of “chin music” and, even though helmets with a protective grill were beginning to be widely worn at the time, he preferred to guard only his skull. Several blows therefore landed on his jaw, but Smith stood his ground, unflinching and seldom intimidated. After collecting two centuries against the touring Indians, Smith took the West Indian bowling line-up to the cleaners a few months later. Despite several gruelling sessions, he averaged 83 in that Wisden Trophy of 1991. His unbeaten 148 at Lord’s, especially when the rest of the batting around him crumbled, neatly underlined his class.

Just two years prior to this knock, in his first away tour, he was bruised and bloodied after Courtney Walsh unleashed a barrage of bouncers (11 in 12 deliveries), one of which was in-cutting and pinned him on the jaw. After a negligible halt in play, Smith returned with a smirk on his face to resume his innings. The fact that he ripped through a similar attack despite the battering, fresh in his memory, is what made him one of the most courageous players on the circuit.

He was relentless in One-Day Internationals (ODI), too, striking a purple patch in 1993. At Edgbaston, the full house was treated to a spectacle as Smith scored an unbeaten 167 — a knock inclusive of 17 fours and three sixes, the highest score for England in limited-overs cricket (a record that stands even today), in just 163 balls.

Sadly, that fine innings failed to take England over the line. In fact, Smith was certainly a tad bit unfortunate in this regard. He never tasted an Ashes Test win; this despite playing 15 matches, of which 11 were lost and four were drawn. When dropped for the last Test of the 1993 Ashes, England went on to win by 161 runs. It was something he rued for the rest of his life as a cricketer, although he averaged close to 40 in all of Ashes combined. Perhaps, Smith’s most momentous event at the Holy Grail was David Gower and John Morris flying over the Carrara Oval in a vintage Tiger Moth aircraft to salute him on smashing a hundred. The support pleased Smith, although it got Gower and Morris into significant trouble.

A pleasant personality

Smith was Michael Atherton’s ‘banker’ when the latter was at the helm. He, without a doubt, belonged to the ‘work hard, play hard’ category. He was always the last man to walk out of the bar after a night out, but the first to arrive at the nets and last to leave the training. Smith was also very meticulous in the way he prepared for a Test. Before a match at Perth during the 1991 Ashes, he practised in the nets by asking Devon Malcolm to bowl off 19 yards, and walked out of the session sporting several blows but happy and content nevertheless.

However, like everyone else, he had his share of lows. During the warm-up games before the series against West Indies, Smith was experiencing a trough in form. An unclear state of mind resulted in oversleep, twice, and, at one match against the Leeward Islands, he arrived fifty-seven minutes late. He was duly given a dressing down by the skipper in front of the team and was reminded of his responsibilities.

Atherton believed that off the field, Smith was more of a follower than a leader. Although he was strong, unforgiving and fearless at the crease, off it, he was a man who often seemed to be lacking in self-confidence and was full of insecurities and doubts. Shane Warne, too, in his book Shane Warne’s Century, writes the following about Smith: “Strangely, for such a good player, he lacked confidence and was a worrier. The uncertainty around England rubbed off on him.”

Nonetheless, very few disagreed on the fact that Smith was one of the most amicable personalities in the sport. “Trying to rank the cricketers I played with and against has been a near-impossible task, but choosing the nicest guy would be easy. No praise is too high for Robin Smith the bloke,” Warne further states.

 
Slump and axing

Although Smith faced the best of pacers head-on, spin was his Achilles’ heel. In the Ashes of 1993 — which surprisingly was his last of the genre — he was flummoxed by the spinners to whom he fell seven times out of 10, Warne accounting for four of those. At times, his tentative prod gave even the most average of spinners hope, and they were rarely disappointed. He scored 128 against Muttiah Muralitharan’s artistry in Colombo in 1992, but with each passing season, he appeared less comfortable.

Smith was also used as a floater, which perhaps contributed to his decline, and the infusion of young blood saw him warming the benches more and more. Despite averaging in the 40s, he was discarded from the setup in 1996, since the head honchos wanted to follow the example set by other Test-playing countries — to realise a player was past his best and drop him before it was too late. The man instrumental behind the decision, Atherton, shed light on Smith’s axing, in his autobiography Opening Up, as follows: “It could be argued that a man with such a fine Test record should have played more than he did, but difficult decisions have to be made and they are made in good faith and for the right reasons. In 1996 Smith was thirty-two years old and his average had dropped from low 50s to the low 40s and we decided to move on. Who can say whether it was the right thing to do?”

After playing 62 Tests and 71 ODIs, collecting 4,236 (average 43.67) and 2,419 (average 39.01) runs respectively in the process, he dropped off the selectors’ radar. He continued representing Hampshire in First-Class cricket until 2003, becoming the county’s most successful England batsman since C. B. Fry, before Kevin Pietersen was put on their payrolls since 2005. Smith scored 18,984 First-Class runs, inclusive of 61 hundreds. For a man with such courage, it’s a pity the way ‘Judge’s’ international career came to an abrupt end.

In photos: Robin Smith’s cricket career

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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