CRICKETER OF THE YEAR - 1984

Chris Smith

When CHRISTOPHER LYALL SMITH first arrived in Southampton in the late spring of 1980, Hampshire supporters found themselves weighing up a powerfully built, fair-haired 21-year-old whose square shoulders were matched by the determined set of his jaw. Ever since, this elder son of a Walsall-raised father and Scottish mother, born in Durban on October 15, 1958, has been proving that for once first impressions were very accurate. In his first summer Smith held together a Hampshire side that was in the early stages of re-building, after the fruitful days of Richards and Roberts, and one deprived of the services of Greenidge and Marshall by a West Indian tour.

In this maiden season, Smith was the only Hampshire batsman to reach 1,000 runs, a feat achieved mainly from a position in the order which he did not relish - number two. Two summers followed which equally demonstrated the strength of will which his whole being suggests.

He wanted to play county cricket unshackled by the strictures of overseas regulations. This meant satisfying the requirements of qualification. So for two summers he had to be content with occasional first-team appearances, spending the rest of his time in the Second XI where, even for someone of his temperament, boredom threatened. But this two-year exile served one very real purpose - it increased Smith's steely determination to become, as he had set out to do in 1979, the successor to Barry Richards in the Hampshire dressing-room. He has never made any bones about his ambitions. "I want to be known as a good batsman... My ambition is to score as many runs as I can... I would be quite happy to bat for two days if there was a century at the end of it." Within a few weeks his textbook technique, iron will and unshakable concentration had convinced even the most sceptical that his targets were well within his scope.

By the later stages of 1980, when his 1,000-run landmark was within sight, Smith was prepared to admit that acceptance as a good player was really only a rung on a ladder of ambition which had carried his through a daunting coaching schedule since he was a boy of ten. Before returning to Natal that winter, he confided that his sights were firmly set on following Tony Greig into the England side. It was that which steeled Smith during his two frustrating summers of qualification and which fired him when, early in the 1983 season, he became, in cricketing terms, English. That spring, once the weather had relented, he quickly began to make up for lost time.

His secret ambition was to score 1,500 runs and to play his way into the selectors' awareness, perhaps even to stake some claim to a place on England's winter tour. In his first innings of the summer he scored an unbeaten 129 at Leicester - and that set the pattern. His 1,000 came up in only his nineteenth innings, against Gloucestershire in late June. It contained two other centuries - a career-best 193 at Derby and exactly 100 off Lancashire in the next match at Bournemouth. In that same innings at Bournemouth his nineteen-year-old brother, Robin, scored a century on his first-class début in England.

Chris's effort drew this appraisal from Jack Simmons, who had laboured long and hard on Lancashire's behalf to contain the brotherly onslaught: He reminds me a bit of Boycott, but with more shots. Many other bowlers were to draw a similar parallel before the summer ended.

Smith is the first to admit that he has not the exceptional natural gifts of his younger brother; but he has proved beyond all doubt that practice can be a passport to success. Even as a young boy he would spend half an hour ever morning in the net in the garden of his family home; every Sunday, summer and winter, he was in the nets by eight o'clock in the morning, working with a former Natal player, Grayson Heath, the coach his father brought in to channel youthful enthusiasm.

What Heath's coaching and Smith's natural ambition have fashioned is a player of textbook correctness, unshakable application and with the patience to apply the maxim of play the good ball and wait to hit the bad. He admits that he is still vulnerable against really fast, short-pitched deliveries, although his investment of £1,000 in a bowling machine, which was exported to Durban and set up in the family net to fire bouncers at him in the winter of 1982-83, has improved his technique.

In the end it came as no surprise to most people when he was selected for the third Test against New Zealand in 1983. But it stunned the likeable Smith. When Hadlee had him leg-before first ball, he plumbed the depths of personal misery and self-doubt. That was, he admits, the worst moment of his life, followed by the most depressing two days he has spent. But his temperament pulled him through, and his second-innings 43 is one of his two outstanding memories of a spectacular season. The other was his 163 against the ultimate champions, Essex, at Southend, when Hampshire became the first side since the war to score 400 in the fourth innings of a Championship match and win it.

So the summer of 1983 ended with Smith having scored more runs in all competitions than anyone else in England, and having achieved another rung on his personal ladder. The next one is to be accepted as a Test batsman of genuine quality. Past experience suggests that Kippy Smith (thus known because of his fondness for sleeping in dressing-rooms) has the will, the drive and the technique to manage it.

© John Wisden & Co