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'Playing in the West Indies was always the best'

The South African-born England batsman, 47 today, remembers being pelted by the fastest bowlers in the world, being reduced to tears by the management, and more

Interview by Richard Edwards
Robin Smith, aka the Judge, was a hero to a generation of England fans brought up on Australian and West Indian domination at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. His ferocious square-cut, wide-eyed pre-ball routine and bravery against the quicks gave hope; the premature end to his England career broke hearts. And he regularly rescued his beloved Hampshire - both on and off the pitch.
What are your memories of growing up in Durban?
Going down to Kingsmead at the age of eight to watch the likes of Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock. Because of the apartheid system there was no international cricket, and because there was no television in South Africa we never really had any access to cricket played outside the country. They were wonderful players to watch and players that I admired and looked up to.
Is it true that Richards and Mike Procter would practise at your house?
Dad was a bit of an eccentric and when there was a house for sale next to ours, he bought it, knocked it down and built a cricket pitch. Barry and Mike - who lived only about a mile away - would come over and bat and practise in our back garden. We also had a bowling machine and the pitch we played on was concrete with an Astroturf overlay, so when it was cranked up to 80 or 85mph, it meant I was exposed to pace very early in my life.
You also excelled away from cricket...
I guess so. When I was 17, I held the South African Under-17 110m hurdles and shot put record. That was unique but again it was something that I worked incredibly hard at. I was also in the reserves for the South Africa U-19s rugby side, although I was only 16 at the time. Had I decided to pursue my rugby career, then maybe I would have gone on and played for the full U-19 side and from there, who knows?
Could you have turned your back on cricket at that stage?
Not really. I had just left school when I had the opportunity to go to Hampshire, again thanks to Barry Richards and Mike Procter. They had a meeting with my parents and Mike was very keen for me to go and play for Gloucestershire and Barry wanted me to go to Hampshire. As my brother [Chris] was there at the time, I decided to head to Northlands Road. I was offered a two-week trial and they then offered me a four-year contract. Four years later I was English-qualified, became a local player for Hampshire and played in Perth in the close season, instead of for Natal.
Was it your performance in the B&H Cup final in 1988 that won you England recognition?
That was a significant innings [Smith scored 38 as Hampshire beat Derbyshire] because it was on the big stage, but I remember Micky Stewart being at the quarter-final against Worcestershire that year when I scored 70-odd not out [87 not out] and won the Man-of-the-Match award. That was probably the innings that got me into the England side. I made my debut at Headingley and Chris Cowdrey was captaining the side for the only time. We played against a fierce West Indian side and we were clearly beaten by a much better side. It was a pretty chaotic time, but it didn't really matter who the captain was - that was a top West Indies side.
Did it help having Allan Lamb in that side?
Lamby, for me, was one of my heroes very early on in my life, from the time I would go down to Kingsmead and watch him play with Peter Kirsten. Lamby was a very good manager of people. He understood me and knew that I lacked an enormous amount of self-belief and confidence and he just pumped my tyres up. His confidence was infectious and just being around him was a huge help. When we batted together, he just made it fun; it was never tense. He would always come up and have a joke and a giggle.
"In my opinion Ray Illingworth and Keith Fletcher were the most appalling man managers, the most appalling coaches and the most appalling people that I've met. My career went downhill very rapidly because they didn't want to understand me and were just too quick to knock and criticise
Was it hard to have a smile on your face when you were being pummelled by the West Indians?
I would go out and be physically scared facing Shane Warne, but for me it was never a case of being unsettled by quick bowling. I loved the challenge and playing in the West Indies was always the best - a golden opportunity to go out there and play on good fast, hard-bouncing wickets, and have the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall and Bishop come charging in at you. I loved that. I got smacked on the body a few times but you would go back, grab yourself a nice large rum-and-ginger, sit under a palm tree and reflect on the day. That for me was what made cricket special. I think the 148 I scored against them at Lord's in 1991 was my best England innings.
You started your Test career with a bang. How much of that was down to Micky Stewart?
He was outstanding. Throughout my early career, Micky was a wonderful manager. He encouraged me, he backed me, and I'll always be grateful to him for that.
You didn't get the same kind of support from his successors?
I'm sitting here in Perth and I'm a million miles away from the days when I played the game, but in my opinion those two [Ray Illingworth and Keith Fletcher] were the most appalling man managers, the most appalling coaches and the most appalling people that I've met. My career went downhill very rapidly because they didn't want to understand me and were just too quick to knock and criticise. It wasn't just me, though. It was such a shame during that period, because I played with about 74 players for England in about five years. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. In my opinion they set English cricket back 10 years.
When did things come to a head?
I was in Pretoria before the start of the 1995-96 tour and Ray Illingworth and John Edrich [England's batting coach at the time] reduced me to tears. I remember speaking, in floods of tears, to Mark Nicholas in the middle in Centurion the afternoon before that Test and telling him that no one had any innings back after being hit by Ian Bishop [who broke Smith's jaw in England's fourth Test against West Indies earlier that year]. And Mark - who was a tremendous mentor during my career and was a fantastic manager of people - told me that I had to pull myself together because I was going out there tomorrow to bat for England. And I did - because I had to. It all went back to a net session before that Test when Graeme Hick overheard something that Edrich said to Illingworth. Hicky ran in and got me caught bat-pad in the net after five balls and Edrich turned to Illingworth and said: "Mate, if that was you bowling, you would have got him out three balls earlier." I was absolutely shattered. These guys shouldn't have been knocking, they should have been there to support the England side.
Could you have done more to conform?
Maybe I have to take a certain amount of blame. I was brought up in the old school and I enjoyed working hard and also playing hard. That's my character. I'd have a couple more beers than everyone else, in the new culture that Illingworth and Fletcher were trying to create. After getting rid of Gower, Lamb, Gatting and Emburey... I think they wanted to get rid of that old culture and usher in a new era.
Do you think you were jettisoned from the England side too soon?
Listen, I'm not remotely bitter. I'm the happiest guy in the world and have a wonderful new life here in Perth. Growing up in South Africa I didn't think I would ever play Test cricket, so every Test I played was an absolute bonus, but I just felt that at the age of 31 or 32 I was at my peak and it was unreasonable not to get another opportunity when other players were averaging in the late 20s.
Do you think your problems against spin counted against you? Was that reputation justified?
I thought it was a bit unfair. There was talk of me not going to Australia for the 1994-95 series because I couldn't face Shane Warne, but there weren't many people who could face him. If you look at my record against spin bowling - I averaged 45 against Pakistan and they had Mushtaq Ahmed, and I scored hundreds against India and Sri Lanka. I got tagged for not being a great player against spin bowling, but at the end of the day there weren't many players in my era who averaged near to 44 - David Gower was only half a run ahead of me - so if I did that, I must have scored some runs against spin bowling.
When you went back to county cricket, you didn't score the same volume of runs. Was that a frustration?
I always felt I was a better player on the big stage than the daily grind of county cricket. By the selectors' criteria, I wasn't scoring the runs I needed to get that recall, but I just wish they had looked a little deeper into players and realised that scoring volumes of runs in the county game doesn't necessarily mean you have the temperament or fight to succeed at the top level.
It takes a special type of street fighter to score those runs. When I was dropped by England, though, it gave me the chance to captain Hampshire and I put my heart and soul into it, especially during the time the club made the transition from Northlands Road to the Rose Bowl. I approached Rod Bransgrove and asked whether he was interested in owning a cricket club. Had it not been for Rod and with a little influence from me and Brian Ford - who was the Hampshire chairman at the time - then there would be no Hampshire and no Rose Bowl. I love the county, and for someone like Rod to come in and save it shows how special it is.

This article was first published in the August 2010 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here