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September 12, 2003
Robin Smith: life in the fast lane
Gully fielders everywhere will be heaving a sigh of relief today. No longer will they have to try to intercept the fiercest square-cut in the game: Robin Smith has given best to injury and announced his retirement.
"The Judge" only turns 40 tomorrow, but he seems to have been around for years. That's because he was only 15 when he made his first-class debut in his native South Africa, and not much older when he joined his brother, Chris, at Hampshire. He was a strapping teenager, who had set schoolboy records in athletics in the hurdles and the shot putt, while in cricket he broke Barry Richards's old marks for runs in a school season.
Before long - after a four-year qualification period, anyway - Smith was putting that brute strength to good use in county cricket. By the time he was 25 England came calling, and the sight of his solid frame squaring up, forearms and rear jutting, heavy bat twitching as he waited for the short ball, was a reassuring sight over an eight-year period from 1988.
Smith averaged 43 in his 62 Tests, cuffing nine centuries. The highest was 175 at St John's in 1993-94 - the match in which Brian Lara set the Test record with 375 - but Smith's most fighting knocks came on a much less obliging track than that Antigua road.
In the first Test against West Indies at Edgbaston in 1995, the first ball of the match shot over the batsman's head, eluded the wicketkeeper as well, and flew away for four byes. Poor old Jason Gallian, making his Test debut, broke his hand, and Alec Stewart was banged on the gloves so often he couldn't hold the bat on the third - and final - morning. England were demolished by an innings, but Smith top-scored twice, with 46 out of 147 and, after opening in the second-innings collapse to 89 all out, possibly the finest 41 in Test history as the West Indian fast bowlers rampaged in on a two-paced pitch of variable bounce that might have been custom-built for the Ambrose & Walsh Demolition Company.
Within a year, though, Smith was gone for good from the Test side. He was a casualty of the disappointing 1995-96 season, even though he made 66 in South Africa in what turned out to be his last Test - and 75 and 25 in his last two one-dayers, at the 1996 World Cup. Smith certainly was written off too soon, but equally after that rejection he never made the weight of runs at county level that would have demanded a recall, not in the same way as, say, those perennial in-and-outers Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash. Smith finished with 49 first-class centuries, while Hick has piled up more than 120 and Ramps is approaching 70.
Various suggestions for Smith's decline have been put forward over the years. Niggling injuries started to restrict his powerful frame. Captaining a struggling Hampshire side didn't help. Nor did batting on the capricious pitch at the new Rose Bowl. As early as 1994 Keith Fletcher, England's then manager, side-mouthed that Smith spent too much time on moneymaking ideas - an equipment manufacturer, a tour company, some other schemes - and not enough on batting. Not surprisingly, Smith wasn't impressed, but his outside activities continued, somewhat hindered by an associate who swindled him out of a sizeable dollop of cash a few years ago.
Maybe it was just that his eye had gone: batsmen who live by the cross-batted sword tend to lose their edge quicker than the straight-batted Boycotters. In truth Smith should probably have packed it in a couple of years ago - but every now and then he would unleash another fence-busting square-cut, which persuaded everyone, including himself, that he could still perform. But the good days became more infrequent. This year, between injuries, he's managed only 522 runs at 37 - respectable, but not riproaring.
One final hamstring injury threatens to cost him a fitting farewell, which would be a great shame for a man revered in Hampshire and widely admired elsewhere. Down at the Rose Bowl they will talk about Judgey for ever, debating whether his square-cuts were more ferocious than the ones another imported Hampshire favourite, Roy Marshall, used to detonate at cowering off-side fieldsmen in the 1960s. But not many modern-day cordon-dwellers would vote against Robin Smith.
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.
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