Neil Smith has travelled far in cricket – and travelled well.
During a 16-year professional career he helped power Warwickshire to numerous trophies, hit perhaps the most famous six in the club’s history (off Simon Hughes in the 1989 NatWest Trophy final) and was an integral part of the all-conquering team of the mid-90s. He played seven ODIs for England and later captained the Bears.
Yes, Smith has enjoyed a long and fruitful cricketing journey. And now he is right back where it all started – and very happy about it.
Smith’s first fledged as a cricketer in the Under 8s at Leamington Cricket Club. Four decades later, having always maintained close ties with the Arlington Avenue club, he’s more involved there than ever. And in a very interesting project.
After 12 years as groundsman/coach at Warwick School, Smith left last year in search of a new challenge. He found one on the doorstep.
“I really enjoyed it at Warwick School,” he said. “It’s a great environment with a high standard of sport but I gave it up because, closing in on 50, I needed a break.
“Now I spend a lot of time at Leamington Cricket Club. I played there from the age of seven and we used to live backing on to the ground so I’ve been involved all my life really. I’m chairman of cricket, on the committee and do a bit of coaching. I’ve also taken on the roles of cleaner and barman!
“It’s a very interesting time to be involved. There are good things happening there and we’re striving to do something special at the club. I think cricket has an issue with paid players at the moment so were creating an ethos at Leamington where we give an opportunity to players who want to win, of course, but also to play just for the love of it. We haven’t paid anybody for a while know and are trying to get amateur sport back where it should be.”
A lot of big projects take time to come together, of course. Sometimes a step backwards is required before advancing again and so it was for Leamington last season with relegation from the Birmingham League Premier Division.
“We lost a lot of players the year before for various reasons and had to throw a lot of youngsters into the Premier Division and we struggled,” Smith said. “But now we’re looking for players who want to play in an environment where everybody’s equal and we’re not paying anybody.
“It’s challenging, and we are contemplating making an exception for an overseas player because you can’t lose nine players and not feel it. But we have some very talented youngsters coming through our academy and it’s a nice project to be involved in.”
It is an intriguing new chapter in Smith’s cricket journey. From young ‘un with Leamington, to key and perhaps rather unsung off-spinning all-rounder for Warwickshire (would the Bears have won the championship in ’94 without Smith’s 435 runs and 49 wickets?) to coach and mentor at Warwick School.
And his involvement in cricket today stretches beyond Leamington. He is on Warwickshire’s cricket committee, maintaining a family link with the club which, his father Mike having made his Bears debut in 1956, stands at 60 years and counting. Smith also does some coaching of the spinners in the county’s Emerging Players Programme.
“It was nice to be asked to join the cricket committee and keep that involvement with the club that I have had all my life,” he said. “All along I’ve been very lucky.
“Nowadays the PCA do a lot of work preparing players for life after cricket but there was not so much advice around when I stopped playing in 2003 and I left not really knowing what I wanted to do. I quite enjoyed coaching but didn’t want to coach in the professional game because it’s a very difficult, 24/7 job with a lot of intensity.
“I wasn’t really sure what lay ahead but chatted to Geoff Tedstone, a former Bears team-mate and an old schoolmate from Warwick School where he was director of sport and he said: ‘What are you going to do?’. I said I was going to talk to Shrewsbury School about a groundsman/coaching position and Geoff rang bank three days later and said he’d spoken to the headmaster at Warwick and there was a job there for me.
“I was groundsman in the morning and coached cricket and rugby, my two favourite sports in the afternoon. Things just fell into place. I was really lucky!”
It’s always good to be lucky, of course. But good luck is nothing without the skills and application to exploit it. Neil Smith has those attributes. Interesting times ahead at Arlington Avenue…
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