In 1990, Paul Smith took a hat-trick for Warwickshire in a county championship match against Sussex at Eastbourne. He dismissed Tony Dodemaide, Peter Moores and Tony Pigott – his second hat-trick in successive seasons – to advance his side towards victory as spectators at the genteel Saffrons dozed, did their crosswords and munched their egg and cress sandwiches.
Nine years later, Smith was in a makeshift marquee beside a municipal sports field in inner-city Los Angeles. In this rather less genteel location, a cricket match was about to begin so the valuables bag was sent round. As any club cricketer in England will testify, normally, such a bag is filled with watches, wedding-rings, etc. On this occasion it contained ten guns.
In that game in Los Angeles, when ten guns went in the bag, between them the other ten players on my team had 57 bullet holes in their body. And some of these kids were only 14.Paul Smith
You rarely see that in the county championship. And almost never at Eastbourne.
Smith was in Los Angeles on a project to use cricket to educate kids about life. About teamwork, discipline and respect. Since his cricket career ended in 1996, he has devoted much time to such projects in the USA, South Africa and South America as well as much closer to home, in Birmingham and around the UK. In 2017, using cricket as a vehicle for education and lifestyle improvement in young people remains his passion.
An all-rounder for Warwickshire from 1982 to 1986, Smith famously entitled his autobiography Wasted – a dual reference to a cricket talent partially unfulfilled and a lifestyle which erred, to say the least, on the side of lively.
Well, it’s fair to say that talent was, in cricket terms, not maximised. But wasted? Not entirely.
Everyone is the product of their past experiences. Some people use them to good effect, others don’t. Smith, now 52 and still living in Birmingham, is among the former. He chooses to give something back.
“Sport can be a brilliant force in education and cricket more than any other sport because the game teaches you so much about life,” he said. “I have worked a lot in America, where cricket is not even a major sport, and you can see the different it makes.
“In that game in Los Angeles, when ten guns went in the bag, between them the other ten players on my team had 57 bullet holes in their body. And some of these kids were only 14.
“That’s what we had initially and none of them had even heard of cricket, but they got into it and learned so much. They learned that if the ball hits you on the leg and the umpire says ‘out,’ you have to go. You can’t stand there and say ‘I’m a kid in a gang, I’m not going.’
“Most of those kids now are married with kids of their own and steady jobs. Some have their own businesses and employ a lot of people. Cricket helped put them on that path.”
Smith still works hard with organisations, including the Prince’s Trust, Cricket Without Boundaries, Coachright and the Active Black Country, to put young people on that right path. And he has plenty of relevant experience to call upon, his playing career having been affected and ultimately truncated by drugs and drink. In Wasted, he recalls going out to bat at Bournemouth against Malcolm Marshall “three sheets to the wind.”
“We were young men,” he said. “We played cricket in the day and went out at night. Looking back on it, most of all I think; where did I get the energy? At 52, I’m usually in bed at ten o’clock whereas in those days I was out at ten and probably going to be out for another five or six hours. But it rarely affected me on the field. When I was prepared for the next day, then I would go out, knowing I’d be ready.
“I don’t have too many regrets from that angle, but you wise up to certain things as you get older. I have a very different take on alcohol now.”
Smith’s first-class career figures – 8,173 runs at 26.44 and 283 wickets at 35.72 – are decent but fail to do justice to his talents as an at times genuinely fast bowler and an aggressive batsman who, when sent in first with Andy Moles in 1986, shared in eight successive half-century opening stands (still a world record) and scored 1,431 championship runs before being bizarrely dropped back down the order.
He shaped many limited-overs matches, scoring 15 half-centuries and taking 234 wickets at 28.57, but persistent knee trouble hampered his bowling, especially in first-class cricket. Also unhelpful was that much of his career was spent in a struggling team throughout the 1980s.
We played cricket in the day and went out at night. Looking back on it, most of all I think; where did I get the energy? At 52, I’m usually in bed at ten o’clock whereas in those days I was out at ten and probably going to be out for another five or six hours.Paul Smith
“I look back at my career as a great education,” he said. “The system I came into was quite set in its ways. Even as a young player I thought one championship division didn’t work – why wasn’t there promotion and relegation? If you scored 1,000 runs you were going to get another contract. It was all a bit comfortable.
“At the start I had a fantastic coach and mentor in David Brown and, for me, Bob Willis was brilliant. Some people have a very negative take on Willis but he was always dead straight. You might not like what he said but he was straight. He would teach you to identify key moments in games and watch how players responded to them. Then Bob Cottam came in and was a fantastic coach. He toughened us up a lot which put us on the path to the success of the ’90s.
“In the first half of my career I broke a lot of records individually but as a team we didn’t play the sort of cricket to challenge for trophies. We weren’t a team to fear because some people played in a way which might look statistically impressive at the end of the season but day-to-day, where every ball and session counted, didn’t deliver what was needed.
“Later in my career, I was one of a group of senior players who had just got sick of losing and turning up at grounds where you could see that opponents didn’t really take you seriously as a group.
“Bob Woolmer came in and was excellent in telling us to go out there and play with freedom. Woolly told us to stop fearing failure, just go in there and express ourselves. He got us all singing from the same hymn-sheet and that was music to my ears because at times I felt I had been playing a different style of cricket and been criticised for being inconsistent.
“Add in Brian Lara, who was just a genius, and Allan Donald who could bowl at the speed of light and was growing not only as a performer but as a person, and everything fell into place.”
Smith contributed plenty to the mid-90s glory. In ’94 he played in 11 matches in the championship triumph and was man-of-the-match in the Benson & Hedges Cup final win over Worcestershire at Lord’s, taking three wickets (including Graeme Hick) then easing the Bears home with 42 not out.
Two years later he was back at Lord’s for a championship match against Middlesex. In a rain-affected draw he took one wicket (Jason Pooley, caught by Dominic Ostler) and scored 23. It was his final first-class match.
For Smith, as a professional cricketer, that was the end. But, in many ways, for this ultimate cricketing maverick, it was just the beginning.
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