To say that former Warwickshire and England captain Mike Smith wears his achievements lightly is the under-statement of this or any century.
Ask ‘MJK’, as he is known throughout the cricket world, to reflect upon his time in cricket and he dwells at length upon the attributes of others.
He recalls the great bowlers he has faced or seen: Frank Tyson, Brian Statham, Derek Underwood, Allan Donald. He speaks with admiration of great batsmen he has played with and against or watched: Len Hutton, Rohan Kanhai, Viv Richards, Brian Lara. He recalls with enormous warmth the fielding brilliance of Trevor Penney and Dominic Ostler and the wicketkeeping skills of Keith Piper.
The praise is offered generously and genuinely, much of it for Warwickshire players, as is to be expected from a man who played 430 matches for the Bears between 1956 and 1975, captained them in 11 seasons and was club chairman for 12 years from 1991.
But if you are waiting for MJK to start banging on about his own record: his 50 Tests for England (25 as captain), his 39,832 first-class runs and his post-playing life as a hugely-respected administrator (England tour manager, international match referee, county chairman) then you’re in for a disappointment. Here is a man not remotely interested in self-regard.
It probably sums it up that from half-a-century in high-level cricket, MJK must have an ocean of memorabilia – trophies, caps, awards, sweaters, bats.
So where are they? “Oh, I think one of the kids has got some in bags somewhere,” he muses.
So let’s ask directly. What about his own career and the batting which earned him a highly impressive career average of 41.84 from 637 first-class matches on notoriously batsman-unfriendly uncovered wickets?
“Well,” he says, “they weren’t all sticky dogs, you know! Some of the pitches were difficult but not all of them. I suppose you could say if you averaged 40 you were doing a pretty good job. But that was my job.
“When I look back at my career I just feel very lucky. I played with and against some very fine cricketers and met some wonderful people.
“Professional sport is a very nice way of life and I have been very fortunate in that not only did I enjoy a long career but then my son Neil followed on afterwards and did the same sort of thing.
“I was always treading a little bit warily when I became chairman of Warwickshire because of Neil’s situation. But it was not a problem because he went on to become a very good player who fully justified his place in the side.
“It’s funny to think that of the regulars in the squad which had all that wonderful success in the mid-1990s, there were two players who the club showed no interest in when they first became available – Andy Moles and Neil.”
Ah, the ’90s! The five trophies in 1994 and 1995. More than 20 years later, the memory still brings a smile to the face of MJK, as it does to all Bears fans who were lucky enough to witness those astonishing seasons.
And it is worth pointing out that, for all MJK’s considerable achievements on the field, none was greater than his pivotal off-field role in building that golden era.
After his playing career ended in 1975, he bought Wootton Court Country Club, just outside Warwick, and ran it for 20 years but remained involved with the Bears on the general committee.
In 1991, as the club and the team sought to move on from an Eighties decade which brought mostly discord and under-achievement, Bob Evans was forced to stand down as chairman. It was a difficult, turbulent time requiring calm heads to look to the future.
And MJK, as befits a man who took 593 catches in first-class cricket, was viewed as a safe pair of hands to take over.
It was a position he neither craved nor sought. But he accepted it – and quietly, calmly and diplomatically set in place the strategies which would lead, three years later, to the unique treble.
“I was pitchforked into the job of chairman really,” he said. “But I had some excellent people around me and, importantly, we had some really good players coming through.
“A good team runs itself. Everybody knows what great players Brian Lara and Allan Donald were and what a contribution they made, but overall the success came as a result of having so many good players. If you look at the bowling, when A.D was there we had Donald, Gladstone Small, Tim Munton, Paul Smith, Dermot Reeve and Dougie Brown and then a slow left-hander in Ashley Giles and an off-spinner in Neil. Any captain would love to have those options.
“With the bat, again there were a lot of contributors. You expected big runs from Lara but a lot of others chipped in, including down the order. Very often from seven down would add 150-odd and that turned a lot of matches.
“We were also the best fielding side in the country with Dominic Ostler and Trevor Penney who were absolutely brilliant. Dominic was as good an all-round fielder as I ever saw. I remember one semi-final against Kent at Edgbaston when Neil Taylor slog-swept and Dominic ran about 20 yards then dived to take the catch. No-one else would have got near it – except Trevor, of course.
“I’m sure a lot of people will remember the NatWest semi-final at Cardiff when Trevor ran out Matt Maynard and David Hemp. I spoke to Matt after the game and he was tearing his hair out. He said ‘we talked about this last night and said if it’s Penney, you don’t go. But he was even faster than we thought!”
Penney, Ostler, Lara, Donald, Munton, Reeve. Bob Woolmer, Phil Neale, Dennis Amiss – there were so many components to that unforgettable and, it’s safe to say, never-to-be-repeated-by-anyone, success. So many architects of that glory.
And high on the list is MJK Smith whose astute management of the diverse and at times difficult characters in the squad kept the juggernaut, which that team became, on the road.
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