Interviews

Jamie Smith: England's next wicketkeeper off the rank ready to put his hand up

After record-breaking Lions knock, Smith is hoping to push for higher recognition

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
07-Mar-2023
Jamie Smith brings up his century on the third day in Galle  •  SLC

Jamie Smith brings up his century on the third day in Galle  •  SLC

For the last decade, England have been blessed with an abundance of wicketkeeper-batters. Jos Buttler has over 300 international caps, while Jonny Bairstow has 250. Ben Foakes is the incumbent in the Test team, and Sam Billings has spent much of his career as the world's most overqualified 12th man.
Collectively, their stock is high. Buttler is England's white-ball captain, and one of the best T20 batters in the world; Bairstow was the standout Test player of 2022; Foakes is generally considered one of the best pure wicketkeepers in the world; Billings has slipped down England's pecking order, but his services remain in high demand on the franchise circuit.
Foakes, the youngest of the four, turned 30 last month, a landmark birthday which prompted some deliberation. At some stage in the not-too-distant future, England will need to replace this golden generation of wicketkeepers. Most of the options in their mid-20s are either predominantly batters - think Ollie Pope and Ben Duckett - or have a clear preference for the white-ball game, like Joe Clarke and Phil Salt.
You do not have to look far to find the long-term solution. At 22, Jamie Smith has already spent two winters on tour with the England Lions; last month, he blazed the fastest-ever hundred by a Lions batter in a four-day game, taking 71 balls to reach his century against Sri Lanka in Galle.
It was a statement innings - and word travelled quickly throughout the English game. Smith spent some time around the Test squad during the Lions' pre-Christmas training camp in the UAE and his admirers include Rob Key. Ben Stokes has taken notice, too: "Jamie Smith is someone who's been talked about a lot," he said before the first Test in New Zealand.
His record-breaking innings encapsulated the extent to which England's style and philosophy under Stokes and Brendon McCullum has quickly disseminated through the English game. "Being in an environment where he's been able to go out and express himself, and feel confident enough to go and do that, you see the performances coming," Stokes said. "It's great to see that filtering from us at the top, down to the Lions - and hopefully into county cricket as well."
Smith started his innings slowly from No. 5, reaching 10 off 19 balls as the Lions responded to Sri Lanka A's 332 all out. At the drinks break, he spoke to Alex Lees, unbeaten on 58 off 59 balls and the senior player in the side. "I said to him: 'I don't feel like I can take them on here,'" Smith recalls. "'I don't really feel like I'm set.'
"He just said: 'You definitely can. Back yourself, be positive.'" Three balls later, Smith slog-swept Lasith Embuldeniya - one of four members of Sri Lanka's attack with a Test cap - over midwicket for six. "From there, I was just like a different person," he says. At stumps, he had reached 86 off 56 balls; he was eventually dismissed for 126 off 82 the following morning.
"Jamie, for a young English player, has a fantastic technique against spin," Ian Bell, the Lions' batting coach, says. "When we see world-class players like Joe Root, with his footwork, it's about getting forward and back, and picking length very quickly. He does that.
"He's got a very good, solid defence against spin. But also, he has the ability to take people down as well - and we saw that in his hundred. He could flick a switch, hit over the top, sweep, and go to another gear. When you're looking at the way the England Test side are playing at the moment, I would have thought that fits very nicely, in terms of how he puts pressure back on bowlers."
[Smith] did himself no harm at all with what he achieved for the Lions. For all these guys, it's about going back and dominating county cricket
Ian Bell
Six months ago, Smith did not anticipate spending the winter overseas with the Lions. "I had a poor year with the bat," he reflects. "I didn't have the stats on the board to warrant being included. I'm very thankful for that backing and that definitely did give me a slight boost. Come that first week in October, I was pretty low on confidence."
Smith's third Championship innings of 2022 was an unbeaten 234 against Gloucestershire, but he managed only 121 more in his next eight innings, even as Surrey won the title. In the T20 Blast, he batted as low as No. 9 when Surrey had their full complement of star names available, and he spent August running drinks for London Spirit rather than playing in the One-Day Cup.
But a conversation with Mo Bobat, the ECB's performance director, at Loughborough before flying to the UAE "gave me a massive confidence boost going into the winter", Smith says, tripping over himself to remain modest: "We just chatted a few things through about where they sort of saw me - and how much, maybe, they do sort of believe in me, a little bit."
England see him as a natural fit to their new style, and Smith found the training camp had a liberating effect on his batting. "I've always been a person who likes to take the positive option," he says. "I felt like last year, back in the county system, I probably lost that. I didn't put bowlers under anywhere near the amount of pressure that I know I can and have the ability to - especially against spin.
"I've always felt like I want to be very proactive against spin, hitting over the top. Last year, I'd lost that completely; lost that intent. I don't know why, if it's a lack of confidence, but when you're not scoring runs, it seems to be the first thing you do: to protect your wicket a bit more. It was a turning point for me in Dubai, having that freedom. Luckily, that came back and I was really able to show what I could do."
In particular, he feels as though he benefitted from "clear messaging" which enabled him to stop worrying about his technique and focus on his strengths. "You're just not worried about what your feet are doing, what your hands are doing. You're watching the ball, and looking to put pressure back on bowlers. That simplicity really helps me.
"When I do inevitably get a few low scores during the summer - as everyone does - I feel like I can just go back to the real simplistic approach of just watching the ball, having fun, trusting myself. I think that was the main thing: knowing you have the confidence of an innings like that in the bank, where you can always look and think, you know what? I can do it."
Smith's progression has been a familiar story in English cricket: he was educated at Whitgift School, and first played for Surrey's age-group teams aged 10. But even those players with the most traditional backgrounds have had to look at things differently in the Stokes-McCullum era.
"You always used to be taught that to score a hundred, you need to face 200 balls," he says. "But it doesn't have to be like that. The way the England guys are playing is definitely inspiring people not to set their own ceilings."
At this stage, Smith is seen as a long-term investment by the ECB - but a strong start to the Championship season could see him pushing for Test selection as a specialist batter before long. Bell cites the case of Harry Brook, who he worked with at Hobart Hurricanes just over a year ago. Brook averaged 6.28 in the 2021-22 Big Bash; now, he is England's best young batter across formats.
"Harry is a great example: it's amazing how quickly things can change," Bell says. "Jamie looking at that can think, 'actually, if I do start well for Surrey, then it's not a million miles away.' He did himself no harm at all with what he achieved for the Lions. For all these guys, it's about going back and dominating county cricket; he's in a fantastic place to do that."
Of England selection, Smith says: "It's why you play the game, isn't it? Everyone wants to play for England. Just to be having your name thrown around with some of those people is a bit ridiculous at times but it's something to strive for. The main thing is just enjoying playing. Being out there in Sri Lanka definitely brought that enjoyment, and hopefully I can take that into the English summer.
"You never know. You're always closer than you feel you are. A couple of good summers or whatever, and you push your name right in the frame. But I've just got to keep working hard on all aspects of my game. You never know how far it can take you."
His first task will be securing his spot in Surrey's team. Hashim Amla has retired but Dom Sibley is back after a spell at Warwickshire, and as defending champions, they have a strong, deep squad. For Smith, that has occasionally meant running the drinks or playing for the seconds.
But he insists: "I don't see it as a detriment anymore. For example, if Popey [Ollie Pope] is lucky enough to be picked in the Ashes - which I'm sure he will - there's a chance for some games there to put your hand up, and go and score his runs. Which won't be easy, because he scores a lot of them - but why can't you?"
That question has informed much of England's thinking in the last nine months, shifting the focus from what players can't do to what they can. As Smith showed in Sri Lanka, he can do almost anything.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98