The players' favourite - and a very good cricketer too, 1976

M. J. K. Smith lays down his bat

John Woodcock

Of how many cricketers may it be said, at the end of a long and distinguished career, that he made no enemies? Precious few is the answer to that -- but Mike Smith is one of them. Between 1951, when he first appeared for Leicestershire, and 1975, when he played his last game for Warwickshire, he became, and remained, one of the players' favourite players.

It took some time to dawn that he was as good as he was, or such an excellent man. His appearance, I think, had something to do with this. To see him emerging from the pavilion in The Parks, as an outwardly gauche and gangling undergraduate, and to watch him taking guard, face screwed up behind those rimless spectacles, was not a convincing introduction.

But he began very soon to make enough runs to be marked down as no ordinary batsman. By the time he went down from Oxford he had scored 201 not out in the University Match of 1954, followed by 104 in 1955 and 117 in 1956 when he was captain, a record that has never been equalled. He had been President of Vincent's Club too, an exclusive sporting establishment which is very careful about whom to have as its head; and he had played stand-off half for England.

His position on the rugger field gives the key to another of his gifts: he had a fine pair of hands. Although as likely as anyone to catch a steepler in the deep it was at short leg that Smith spent most of his time. Square of the wicket, or just in front of square, it is a horrible place to field; as captain of most of the sides he played for he could have put someone else there had he wanted, but he did it himself, with great skill and quite intrepidly.

Lest this should sound altogether like an encomium let me mention one or two of the criticisms that were made of him. Somewhat disparagingly he was described in his early days as a welfare state cricketer. I have a good idea who coined the phrase and I know just what he meant. Mike was from the new frontier; if he didn't actively defy convention he was certainly no stickler for it. It was said that he was obsessively an on-side player; yet no-one was a more consistent scorer. Between 1957 and 1962 he never got fewer than 2125 runs in an English season; in 1959 he made 3245, including 166 for Gentlemen against Players at Lord's and 100 for England against India at Old Trafford.

They were nearer to the mark who claimed that he was fallible against true speed at the start of an innings. As soon as he came in the fastest of the opposition bowlers would be launched at him, with no small hope of success. On a bright Caribbean day, or under the glare of the Australian sun, he had more trouble than some in adjusting to the light. Yet of his three Test hundreds one was made in Port of Spain, when Wes Hall was at his peak, and another in Cape Town, when Peter Pollock was still pretty hasty.

It was, in fact, in South Africa in 1960 that Smith played one of his most remarkable innings, batting for a Commonwealth side, raised and managed by that great pioneer, Ron Roberts, against Natal. I remember Norman O'Neill talking about the innings soon afterwards and saying how it had shown him an entirely new range of leg-side strokes, from the chip into the open spaces to the lap, played with extraordinary certainty from far outside the off stump. Mike made 204 that Durban day, the highest of his 68 hundreds, and you may be sure that any off spinners or slow orthodox left-armers who had bowled at him went home scratching their heads.

We are embarked upon Smith's virtues again now, and there were plenty of them. If one above all others accounted for his popularity with his contemporaries it was his constancy. No matter who he was with, or where it was, or when, he was always the same man -- absolutely fair and as unselfish a captain as England ever had. His players knew exactly where they were with him, which meant every bit as much to them as their acceptance that he was a good enough cricketer to be in the side. Had he played as much for himself as the great majority of successful batsmen do he would undoubtedly have scored more runs than he did.

Of the 39,830 he finished with, probably 70 per cent were scored on the leg-side. This is not to say, though, that he was a poor off-side player. When he chose he could cover drive with the best, once he had come through the invariably painful process of playing himself in. Tactically he was inclined to be cautious, as England's captain anyway, and there is nothing unusual about that. He took over the England side in 1963, on a two-month tour to India, and was relieved of it after England had been heavily beaten by West Indies in the First Test of 1966.

It is more apparent now that it was at the time that the selectors got rid of him too soon, partly perhaps because he was too independent for their liking. He did things his own way, whatever the establishment may have thought of it, although as harmonious a partnership of captain and manager I have toured with was when Smith and David Clark were paired together in India in 1963/64. Of Smith's three series as M. C. C.'s captain abroad two were drawn, in India and Australia; the other, in South Africa, was won. Even the old lags who went with him were heard to say "I'd do anything for 'M. J. K.'". Behind that rather improbable exterior they found a man whom they liked and trusted, and a very good cricketer too.

© John Wisden & Co