Paul Smith; ‘sport can change things for the better’

pasmith

Paul Smith. It’s a name most have heard of, but generally only in the occasional ESPNCricinfo piece detailing cricketers banned for recreational drug use. The story is always the same, along the lines of:

‘Paul Smith was a Warwickshire fast-bowling all-rounder who never made full use of his talents. He played between 1982 and 1996, before being banned for cocaine use for two years.’

That narrative is not merely incorrect – it does a sincere disservice to a man who was a dedicated, selfless clubman who has turned his post-cricketing life into one of service for the less fortunate and privileged among us.

It’s a shame that one fraction of Smith’s remarkable life has been blown out of proportion and misrepresented, because it overshadows all he achieved before and since.

“As a person I have always explored!” Smith says of those much discussed days. It may have been that explorative character that led to him pursuing his love for cricket – but the majority of his earliest passion for the game came through his father, KD Smith, who played for Leicestershire in a couple of seasons, and Northumberland for more than a decade, in the years following World War II.

“My father was a very good cricketer. He played professional cricket for Leicestershire for a couple of seasons after being in the RAF – he felt he could earn better by pro-ing in the leagues and playing Minor Counties cricket – in addition to this he could do a day job. The three lots of income took him and my mom back to Northumberland. Because of my dad’s love of cricket it meant I was around cricket fields from the day I was born.”

The impact of Smith senior didn’t end there. A “brilliant communicator and coach”, it was through his father that Paul Smith began to immerse himself in the game. Or, as Smith himself put it, “…my love of the game came through him”.

One other person impacted hugely on Smith as a youngster – Bob Willis, perhaps England’s finest fast bowler since Trueman.

“Because my eldest brother was at Warwickshire we would occasionally get visits to the house by Bob Willis. It was because of Willis that my eyes were opened – I wanted to play in the same team as he.”

It didn’t take long for Smith to jump into contention in the Warwickshire set-up. Indeed, his second-team debut, in 1980, came at the age of just 16. Smith didn’t find the environment imposing, however.

“I had spent the school summer breaks from school at Edgbaston when aged 14 and 15 so I had a fair indication of the standard of player. If the first XI were in town I practised with them, and, if the second XI were at Edgbaston I’d be with them.”

That experienced, combined with playing for the Second XI, taught Smith what would help him make the grade at the higher level.

“It taught me if I bowled the ball in the right place I would be treated with respect, and if the ball was off target it would be dismissed for runs. Batting wise, the experience taught me that there were far fewer slack deliveries bowled at that level. Obviously the pace was a notch up from what I was used to.”

He hit the ground running in Second XI cricket, however. He was run out just after bringing up his half century on his debut, helping guide Warwickshire seconds to a 158 run victory over Lancashire.

To prove the quality of that particular knock, it game against a bowling attack who went on to take 974 First Class wickets between them.

He also had other experience of top-flight cricket in those days, playing for the Young MCC under the illustrious coach Don Wilson, and it led to representation for Young England. The latter was representation that Smith, to a degree, expected.

“Playing for Young England was something I expected as I rated myself when in form.”

As for the experience of playing at Lord’s for the Young MCC, it helped develop Smith to a huge degree, especially with the sheer quantity of cricket played.

“Don Wilson was my coach at Lord’s. He was a good coach who helped a lot. I lived with Martin Crowe during this time, and he, like myself, was away from home for the first time. The sheer volume of games we played will have taught us a lot. Facing new opposition in different conditions will have helped things like tightening technique and playing to a strategy.”

His brother, David Smith, also helped him adjust to the life of a professional cricketer.

“Possibly there was an advantage by having a brother in the first team – a type of security blanket. After hours of play or practice it meant I didn’t sit in a hotel by myself. I tended to be dragged along to the pub, or, any function which may have been going on. I got a better insight into the professional game this way, and learned about the circuit before I got to be part of it.”

All these things combined to align Smith’s stars, and in 1982 he stepped into the Warwickshire firsts. It made him the second Smith brother to represent Warwickshire, and at 18 was a particularly young pick for the Bears.

“I expected to be in the first team mix because from my early days I knew I surprised my coaches at Edgbaston. [Bob] Willis was very good to me, he kept an eye on me, he encouraged and advised. So I wasn’t surprised when I played quite a lot from the word go.”

He indeed played a lot – he was a regular in the first team from the very first game of the 1982 season, until a serious injury halted his progress.

“…I got a serious back injury, I was put in plaster for six weeks, the cast went from my chest down to my waist. After that I was eased back into cricket and think I played a few games at the seasons end.”

In that first season, Smith played ten First Class matches (and nine List A games) averaging 25 and a half with the bat, and picking up ten wickets.

“Because of my performances Warwickshire sent me to South Africa on a scholarship for 6 months that off season.”

He managed a great array of Warwickshire records in those earliest days – 1982 saw him take the record for the youngest Bears player to make a half-ton, and 1984 saw him as the youngest Bears’ centurion, and youngest Warwickshire batsman to make 1000 runs in a County season.

Despite his success in 1984, when he had the opportunity to open the batting, he was shunted back down the order for 1985. It was a decision which hurt a young cricketer trying to make his way in the game.

“The season after 1984 I was moved back down the order and told my time would come again. The decision affected me a lot as it was taken so Andy Lloyd could get back in the side rather than any failure by myself. Lloyd was clearly not the player he’d been prior to being hit on the head by Malcolm Marshall. I had to sit and watch, I probably wasn’t in a great frame of mind, it will have affected my performance.”

Smith feels that, in those days, the team environment in the Warwickshire set-up had changed from what it had been before Bob Willis’ retirement.

“The spirit at Edgbaston was never short of laughter. Often we needed to laugh as there was a clear gap in ages between the young players and those that had played for years. Once Bob Willis retired in 1984 we didn’t have a figure head to challenge those that played for themselves. There was a lot of selfishness which stopped us competing when it mattered and senior players tended to be batsmen meaning we always played on flat, unresponsive pitches at Edgbaston. Many times senior batsmen would bat the bulk of the overs and then expect the young ones to go out and throw the bat for bonus points. I personally felt may times that we were rudderless.”

That was perhaps best exemplified with the Dennis Amiss example. Amiss remains, perhaps, the best Bears batsman of all time, but towards the end of the career Smith believes the man started to be placed ahead of the team.

“Warwickshire also had Dennis Amiss still playing, he was nearing his mid 40s and playing to try and reach 100 FC hundreds, a fantastic achievement, but… This fact stopped the team moving forward and in effect, it was a conundrum, it was a pointless distraction, serving no purpose except a one dimensional statistic. In a way it typified where the club was at the time. There was too much selfishness.”

In 1986, Smith once again opened, and once again proved why that slot at the top of the order was right for him.

“The following summer, 1986, I got the opportunity to open again, and scored 1500 runs (still the youngest ever to do so), I became a world record holder as an opening batsman, I hoped it proved a few wrong. However, the following season I was moved down the order again as Dennis was still short of 100 100s, and Lloyd was trying to get back in the team.”

It impacted on Smith in a huge way.

“At this stage,” Smith says, “I lost interest in first class cricket.”

Things changed around in 1991, when Bob Woolmer became the Warwickshire coach. The impact Woolmer had on Smith was huge, and perhaps best displayed in how Smith felt after his departure.

“Bob Woolmer was golden. He made a difference in us, both as people, and as sportsmen. Once he left to coach South Africa, it felt like the world we loved fell apart. It was devastating, and there was no support mechanism. Personally, I felt lost.”

Woolmer’s influence went on to develop Warwickshire into a great side – for a few years in the mid-1990s, they became one of the great County sides.

“Bob Woolmer had come to the club at a difficult time in 1991. Our previous coach (Bob Cottam) had walked out because he said captain Andy Lloyd wasn’t good enough to play. Warwickshire backed Lloyd, Cottam left, and our Chairman Bob Evans, who’d publicly backed Cottam, was out the door also.

“Woolmer came in and was clearly a fantastic coach, however, we were going to have to shuffle the cards and learn a few tricks before everything fell into place. Somewhat ironically, Woolmer realised that Lloyd wasn’t worth his place in the team he was leading.

“I believe that things really fell into place when the club acknowledged that fact, and that Dermot Reeve was a better bet to lead the team. This also allowed Roger Twose to go up the order and open. The balance of the team grew and we knew that with the best team on the park, we could challenge anyone.

“Our belief in ourselves started in the 1993 season, we had had injuries which meant we rarely had our best XI on the park due to injuries, but people were patched up so they could play in the NatWest trophy. September 1993 we beat Sussex in the NW final when we chased 322. This game was our turning point. We had won the semi-final and final without our overseas player (Allan Donald). The Lord’s final victory upped our belief.

“Over the winter of 93/94 we signed Brian Lara as our replacement overseas player. Donald was touring the UK with South Africa. Lara signing was a massive boost. He had just scored 375 v England, and we knew him as a person from previous encounters. Lara was a good guy, he’d fit into our changing room, and having someone with his genius amongst us was going to put fear into all opponents – and so it proved.

“With BC Lara, and a coach as good as Bob Woolmer, we took on all in front of us. Bob had been with us for three years and taught us so much, we knew all the tricks that would unsettle opponents, our skill levels were tip top, and we had a belief that others did not. The treble season was in the middle of a spell where we won six trophies in 24 months.

“Phil Neale replaced Woolmer as our coach in the winter of 1994, history tells us that we won a double in his first year as our coach – but I believe we could have achieved that feat without a coach. This time was also the start of a dismantling of what had brought success, the management of several issues was poor, and so it proved in results. One can’t replace the most inspirational coach in the world, nor can one pluck out the air, and replace, the sort of skill and atmosphere our team had brought to the field.”

It led to Smith’s decision at the end of the 1996 season to call it a day, with regards to the First Class game.

“Some people think I was released from my contract in 1996, I wasn’t, I went in and spoke to the CEO and said I quit.

“We’d broken all sorts of records as a team in the previous seasons (1994 and 1995), and things were only going to go downhill. I felt I had achieved everything I set out to do when I had started out at the club, which was to turn around the fortunes of the club.

“I’d represented England as a youth, and played in two overseas competitions for my country (Hong Kong and Singapore Sixes). I’d scored the best part of 12,500 runs and taken 520 wickets at first team level. At this time I wasn’t strong enough to fight, and my eye had been turned to a life away from bat and ball.”

For many cricketers, suggesting that the player’s sole intention was to help the team can often sound hollow – but in Smith’s case, it is a sincere comment on his dedication to his team. He didn’t try to put himself in front of the team cause, and that was shown throughout his career.

He took over 280 First Class wickets, at an average in the mid-30s (including two hat-tricks), but doesn’t overstate his own role with the ball.

“I played a lot of cricket when I was young and then had a lot of knee surgery in my mid 20s, which meant the volume of bowling I did had to be monitored. I was a real effort bowler who was hard on the knees.”

This meant when Allan Donald was signed to the side, to open the bowling with Gladstone Small, “…I could be used in short bursts. Willis always said to me that my job was to bowl less balls to get wickets. If you look through score books you’ll see I regularly took wickets in my first few overs, I wasn’t meant to bowl long spells, it would have been counterproductive.”

As for those hat-tricks…

“The first hat-trick was at Eastbourne on a flat deck. Wed been in the field all day trying to bowl Sussex out. Our skipper threw me the ball and in the first few deliveries I split my left boot wide open. I left the field and borrowed a team mates boot, smoked two Marlborough lights, I then returned to the field and continued my over, taking the hat-trick with the first three deliveries! We then chased down the Sussex run advantage and won.

“The second hat-trick was the following season against Northampton. Again, we were struggling for a breakthrough and I was given the ball. I took four for nine including the hat-trick. It finished off the game. Hat-tricks were nothing new to me, from the time I first started playing as a kid till the time I hung up my boots I’d taken lots.”

As has been discussed early on, Smith was a spectacularly talented batsman – setting a number of Warwickshire records in his youth, and becoming a devoted Bears clubman. He played over 200 First Class games, scoring over 8000 runs, making four centuries and adding 48 fifties to boot.

“Batting wise, I believe statistics don’t tell the true story. For example you state I scored 48 fifties. A good number of those scores were nearer 100 than 50. Bob Woolmer was the first coach at Warwickshire who wanted to know what the 50 plus scores were, and when they were scored, did they benefit the team, and did those runs lead to bonus points?”

As mentioned, after 1996 Smith decided to move away from the professional game. It was, strangely, after his professional career had ended that the English board decided to slap Smith with a ban. The circumstances leading up to, culminating in, and following that fiasco are – in my view – almost irrelevant to the Paul Smith story.

Sadly, however, it remains what Smith is notable for – so it’s right to try and get some clarity over it all.

“As a person I have always explored! I believe the biggest killing drug is alcohol. Check the facts and you’ll see I’m right. I drank quite a bit but I was very fit, and my recovery rate was very good. I travelled far and wide through sport. I saw a lot of things. However, I’d never had a problem with drugs.

“I was fully aware of them being around in a lot of the places I went, but it was never an issue, it had always been the case. Then, for a number of reasons, things changed. The 1990s saw a big change in culture, and attitudes changed. Cricket was, and is, a safe place to be from a drug point of view. It wasn’t a secret that the odd player might have a dabble, but it was, in retrospect, it was a tiny fraction. My problems arose through social interaction. Once my eye was turned, I was rooted. Then it got worse.”

But Smith turned his life around – he got on top of the issues he faced, and (excuse the cliché) returned to the straight and narrow.

“I took myself away from all environments in which I thought drugs would be, I hardly left home. I had several meetings with a councillor which proved to be a space to discuss the situation I’d found myself in. But there were things I was unable to avoid when I left those meetings. I needed to leave the country to start a clean sheet, and at that time, I was some way away from being able to do that.”

It was after Smith had turned his life around that he got the call from a journalist that changed things.

“I received a call from a journalist which unnerved me. There was too much information.”

He took the route that he thought was best. Sadly, it didn’t work.

“I spoke to two friends who edited newspapers. The advice I got was conflicting. I had written for a few newspapers during my career so I wrote down what I thought was a fair reflection of my circumstances. I met a freelance journalist and based on what I’d written, and our meetings, I thought I’d killed the problem. What appeared in the article wasn’t, in my opinion, a fair reflection. If it did anything, it only protected people. I had retired due to the position I’d put myself in, so I thought I’d be OK.

“I got a 22 month ban from a sport I’d retired from.”

A lot of the problem in those days was the conservatism shown by the English board. It’s something that Smith doesn’t believe changed until the tragic death of Tom Maynard.

“I believe you can only seek help if the right support mechanisms are set up, and in 1995/6 it wasn’t. My issues would only have been addressed correctly by the sort of system put in place very recently. And it took the loss of Surrey cricketer Tom Maynard to wake people up. This is a cast iron fact, rather than a criticism.”

But following that interview, and the disciplinary hearing that followed, the tabloid media proved the exact point Smith made earlier, regarding the end piece being not truly reflective.

“When I left that disciplinary meeting I was offered 80,000 pounds to speak, and then it was increased to 100,000. I declined.”

Smith clearly doesn’t hold grudges, where many of us would. It would be easy for Smith to use certain adjectives to describe the motives and actions of the media, but he doesn’t.

Instead, he’s simply moved onto the next stage of his life. In my view, it’s the side of his life Smith can be proudest of. An outstanding Bears cricketer has turned his life into one of service for the least fortunate members of society. It was out of the turmoil of those years that his greatest work has emerged.

Outside of his issues with illicit substances and tabloid media, Smith was going through a breakdown in his marriage, which resulted in divorce. The prism of professional sport and the public attention that attracts certainly didn’t help that situation.

“My divorce had taken place by the time of my ban. People divorce, it’s a fact of life. However, sport, changing rooms, journalists, all these things make a divorce more difficult, than say, if I’d worked in an office all my life. I’ve only ever been divorced once, it taught me a lot. From this time my only interest was my two boys from that marriage. It proved a long, hard, journey.”

“My daughter was born after my divorce. I was with her for the first three years of her life, at which point I lost regular contact. I lost complete contact with her from roughly ages six to 14, at which stage I received a message via Facebook that she wanted to see me.

“When she had been born I was in the middle of setting up a scheme in Birmingham which linked cricket to education. The scheme (Cricket Without Boundaries) ended up employing thousands of people who had been long term unemployed. This was achieved by linking Warwickshire to a recruitment company called Pertemps, the scheme ran for ten years.

“Also at this time I set up another company for Pertemps which was called Coachright. This company ended up training coaches to work in 150 schools. Despite this work I felt I needed to leave the country, both from a personal safety angle, and from a fresh challenge point of view. The decision was taken for me when Pertemps wrote me out the script. So on one level I knew my idea worked, but it was not going to buy me a house on the hill. And I still had bills.”

But this wasn’t Smith’s first involvement working in the coaching side of matters – that had started decades earlier, on that scholarship to South Africa mentioned earlier.

“In 1982 Warwickshire sent me on a scholarship to Johannesburg. It was the Apartheid era. Dr Ali Bacher was my boss and part of my duties was to coach in townships such as Soweto. Bob Woolmer I first met in this environment as he and Bacher were big mates. The impact of that work, under that regime, in terms of opening my eyes to how the world is, and the impact a sport could have on kids, it was something I never forgot.

“Later on in my career I was asked by Woolmer to play and coach for Saint Augustines CC in Cape Town. The club is where Basil D’Oliviera played all his cricket before he had to leave the country to test himself in a fairer world, so my job, as the first white guy ever to play for them, and the first pro, it was a hard gig. This work took place during the dismantling of apartheid, and also involved township work. It reiterated my belief that sport can change things for the better.

“When you link sport to education it will have a massive impact, if people are committed. So I think my involvement started under the regime of Apartheid.”

That era in South African history is one of the great case studies for the impact – both positively and negatively – that sport can have. It’s now 20 years since the 1995 Rugby World Cup, one of the best examples of how sport is capable of changing society for the best.

Smith had an amazing opportunity to work in that environment and see first-hand the impact it had.

Years after his South African experience, Smith involved himself with the less fortunate of the USA. It was after his involvement with Cricket Without Boundaries and Pertemps, when he decided it was the right time to make the move, that he headed across the Atlantic.

“I’d spent a lot of time in the States (in the 90s) prior to going to do cricket work there. However, when I went to Los Angeles my aim was to assist people, one example was the area of Compton, a known gang area of the city. In that line of work I knew that so long as someone had my back, then it would be no harder to avoid a lifestyle there, than anywhere else.

“I could have any day or night experience I wanted – Hollywood at night, or gang life at night. I taught cricket in between. In retrospect, I’m now a firm believer that if you want to truly understand a city, and its issues, then you have to live on its streets. I hear people talking about homeless issues but it’s clear they’ve never been there.

“I have been there, so I have no problem challenging their opinions. What I do know is that you can take homeless people, kids in gangs etc., teach them a sport, and it will move them forward in life. I know it works. In many cases I have seen it save their lives.”

That last paragraph shows Smith’s dedication to the work he’s done with the less fortunate. He’s seen the impact sport can have, the impact of having a forward-path in life, and it’s a message that we can all learn from.

As he says, it can change lives.

For Smith, personally, the future schedule is hectic. He works with the Prince’s Trust in the United Kingdom, is writing his second book, does bits and pieces of radio work, and does motivational talks and speeches to youngsters, as well as at sports dinners and functions.

“I also have aspirations to do more work in the States and South Africa where my contacts are strong. Working with young people in the United Kingdom has been massively cut back due to the Government shrinking most types of funding. This fact alone will see an increase in disaffected youth, which will then spread into adulthood, and see increases in jail numbers. It’s a guarantee, sadly.”

It’s that line of work where it’s clear Smith’s passion lies, and the ability to really make a difference to someone’s life is something he finds fulfilling.

“Outside the playing of sport, I have always coached it, when the right type of audience has been available. People who coach professionals have an easy ride as professionals are paid to be in attendance, and they will be judged on their visual improvement, and their stats.

“Personally I find it more of a challenge to work in arenas where sport is linked to educational programs, as it potentially changes the lives of those who have struggled to interact in either the classroom, a sports field, or society.

“I’d call this work an opportunity to be a “life changer.” Because of this belief, and my track record, I have dipped in and out of the work when my diary allows.”

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