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When Robin Smith first arrived at Southampton as a teenage member of Hampshire's staff, his fellow-players were quickly impressed by his immense power. "Go on, Judge, try and hit it to Portsmouth" was the dare often heard in the nets, and the crinkly-haired seventeen year old from Natal often rose to the bait. Eight years later, in 1989, as England stumbled from one disaster to another in the home Ashes series, Smith was a rare shining light, and what was once just sheer brute strength issuing from his solid fifteen-stone frame had matured into admirably controlled aggression.
ROBIN ARNOLD SMITH was born in Durban, South Africa, on September 13, 1963, the younger of two brothers. Both were to leave the country of their birth, with its politically restricted opportunities for international sport, to join Hampshire and eventually to play Test cricket for England. Although both were cheerful and outgoing in their personalities, as cricketers they were as alike as chalk and cheese. Chris, nearly five years older, was always the technician, relying on strong powers of concentration and a sound defence to overcome what he lacked in natural talent. All Robin lacked was discipline. A combination of the best of the two would have produced a world-class performer at a tender age.
As a pupil at Durban's Northlands High School, Robin excelled in a variety of sporting fields. He set 28 school athletics records inside three years, and set a new mark with the shot putt for a South African schoolboy; as a centre at rugby he raised Northlands' points-scoring record for a season from 116 to 214. Cricket records tumbled too. Chris had once scored 925 runs in a season. Robin scored exactly 600 more, overtaking in the process the South African schools record of 1,390 previously held by Barry Richards. He was only seventeen years and four months old when he was called up by Natal for his first-class début, though it was to take three seasons before he posted his maiden century in the top grade.
Leaving school a year early, Robin followed Chris to Hampshire - despite counter offers from Nottinghamshire and Gloucestershire - to begin a four-year qualifying period. In 1983, while Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall were away with West Indies on World Cup duty, he was given a run in the Hampshire side and responded with centuries against Sussex and Gloucestershire in successive matches. A total of 401 runs at 66.83 saw him top the county's Championship averages that year.
Each winter, meanwhile, Smith returned home to play for Natal and to seek coaching advice from Grayson Heath, the former provincial captain, who lived just 50 yards from the family home in Durban and had been responsible for the brothers' cricketing education. In the mid-eighties, however, he began wintering in Perth, where he felt the faster, bouncier wickets would help him develop his back-foot play.
In 1985, his first full season in the Hampshire first team, Smith lived up to his early potential, scoring 1,351 runs, and there was another thousand in his second year. But talk of his following Chris into the England Test team subsided in 1987, when, after breaking a thumb at the start of the season, he struggled for form. Only a fine, unbeaten 209 in July against Essex prevented the summer from being a total disappointment.
Throughout those early years, as his reputation for fine strokeplay grew, Smith was dismissed too often in the thirties and forties, when he should have gone on to reach three figures, and this undoubtedly hindered his progress. The turning-point in his career came in 1988, when his 38 in a low-scoring match helped Hampshire to win the Benson and Hedges Cup on their first appearance in a Lord's final. He displayed the discipline that had so often been missing from his game and caught the eye of the England selectors, at the time struggling to find batsmen who could stand up to the West Indians in that summer's Test series. Smith made his début in the Fourth Test at Headingley, scoring 38 in his first innings, and he followed up with a defiant 57 at The Oval. Significantly he was one of the few England batsmen to play with confidence, justifying his claim that he never minded being hit by fast bowlers while at the crease. He occasionally let it happen deliberately, he added, to shake him up whenever his batting got sluggish. Selected to tour India that winter, he missed out on the opportunity when the trip was cancelled.
Smith began 1989 with a flourish which produced three centuries in his first seven Championship innings. But with England under new management, he was not first choice for the Ashes series against Australia. Only a finger injury to Mike Gatting opened the way to a place in the First Test at Headingley, where 66 in the first innings meant he was in the side to stay. As his confidence and stature grew, he made 96 in the second innings at Lord's as England fought to avoid defeat. Although injury forced him out of the Edgbaston Test, he was back in the side for the Fourth Test at Old Trafford, where he surprised no-one with his maiden Test century in the first innings. He followed that 143 with 101 at Trent Bridge and finished the series as England's leading run-scorer with 553 at an average of 61.44.
One of the more satisfying sights in a disappointing summer for English supporters was Smith down on one knee, crashing the ball square of the wicket on the off side, or standing up to the quicker bowlers and pulling them to the fence with awesome power. Particularly of interest was the way he faced up to the intimidation offered by the Australian fast bowler, Merv Hughes, which made for colourful cricket. But then in Hampshire his colleagues had known for a long time that Robin Smith could not resist a challenge. What 1989 did was prove that he was also capable of playing with restraint and responsibility at the highest level. As he himself said: "Although it made a difference to my approach when I first got into the England side, I think there was also an element of growing up."