November 2, 2008

Ed the head

Ed Smith is among the most intelligent and articulate interpreters of sport going

Smith: both his writing and his cricket have benefited from his range of interests © Getty Images

Not too many writers have scored a century on first-class debut, had their first two books shortlisted for literary prizes, earned a first in history at Cambridge, led an English county, and played Test cricket for England - all while still in their 20s. Ed Smith is clearly special - and only the fact that he does not (yet) hold the world record for the long jump, or is a few service games away from being the world table tennis champion, keeps comparisons with CB Fry at bay. Some day he hopes to write a book about Wagner, though.

Smith began with a half-century against South Africa in 2003, and had he managed to nail down a place in the national side, he might have led it. But this is about Smith the author of three excellent, diverse books.

The first, Playing Hard Ball, is a wonderful analysis of baseball and cricket written after spending a season in New York with the Mets. The second, On and Off the Field, is a diary of his 2003 season with Kent. The most recent is a series of essays, What Sport Tells Us About Life.

In recent years cricketers have tended to have few outside interests. Their books are ghost-written and their daily newspapers are probably ghost-read for them. Smith is a columnist and book reviewer (fiction, mainly) who is one of our most intelligent and articulate interpreters of sport.

"Cricket and baseball are like parents and their teenage children: they have so much in common and yet remain a total mystery to each other," begins the first book and then takes us on a tour of the two sports, the similarities and the differences, technical and emotional. And of course, financial. At various times Smith tells us that baseball is cricket's bastard son or its spiritual cousin, and says he would have been a baseball player had he been born in America.

The diary tells us about the cricket but equally about the mind of a cricketer too. The entry for February 2 begins: "Two days ago I flew back from India. Yesterday I split up with my girlfriend in Cambridge. Today I moved house to Wye. It is all happening…" That reads almost like Albert Camus, perhaps a kindred soul; Camus was a goalkeeper, after all.

Smith explains how bad history in sport takes four forms: simple forgetfulness, using the wrong facts and missing the real ones, using the right facts but interpreting them wrongly, and the fallacy that what happened was always inevitable

The little tricks the professional uses to keep focused on the game, the music he chooses to get over the break-up (Neil Diamond's Solitary Man), the literary parties he attends (he meets Vikram Seth) - each can be expanded into larger chapters, but in keeping with the diarist's sweep are given just the right amount of space and importance. This is the book's strength; the temptation to philosophise is overcome with brilliant mental editing.

Yet when Smith does philosophise, as he does in his third book, the reader realises it is not such a bad thing after all. In an essay on England's 2005 Ashes victory (soon followed by Australia's 5-0 triumph over England), Smith the historian speaks of "bad history". Bad history means bad analysis of the past, he says, and "bad analysis makes for poor strategy. Poor strategy costs games." Therefore "history matters".

Smith explains how bad history in sport takes four forms: simple forgetfulness, using the wrong facts and missing the real ones, using the right facts but interpreting them wrongly, and the fallacy that what happened was always inevitable.

When is cheating really cheating? Smith tells us. And what do Michael Jordan, Richard Wagner and Rupert Murdoch have in common? We are told that too. "Well-adjustedness," says Smith, coining one word before going on to coin another, "and champion-ness seem very rarely to co-exist."

The baseball book was short listed for the WH Smith Prize, the diary for the William Hill Prize. "Sport is a condensed version of life - only it matters less and comes up with better statistics," says Smith. Whether the cricket kept him from being an overly obsessed writer or if it was the other way around, both the writing and the cricket have profited from Smith's range of interests. And he is only 31: plenty of time to add to his contributions in both.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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  • Chandran on November 2, 2008, 9:25 GMT

    Interesting story. I know one Indian first class cricketer, V Ramnarayan, the Hyderabad, South Zone and Rest of India off spinner, who is at present the editor of Sruti, a leading Indian magazine on the performing arts, an associate professor in Asian College of Journalism and chief editor of Indian Writing, the English language imprint of New Horizon Media, Chennai. He is also an author and translator, writing books on cricket, biographies and corporate histories. He has been a Cricinfo columnist as well. One of his translations was shortlisted for the Crossword Annual Award for the best translated fiction in India in 2007.

  • Thomas on November 2, 2008, 6:28 GMT

    I wish he'd concentrate a bit more on his cricket and less on his writing.

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