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Star turn on Lions debut leaves England feeling the need for Will Smeed

Somerset batter set for List A bow on Thursday after 90 off 56 in Tuesday's warm-up

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Will Smeed poses for a photoshoot at Taunton  •  Getty Images

Will Smeed poses for a photoshoot at Taunton  •  Getty Images

It is not often that a player makes their List A debut for their country's 'A' team, but Will Smeed is no ordinary cricketer. After belting 90 off 56 balls for England Lions against the touring South Africans in Taunton on Tuesday in a warm-up game, Smeed will make his official 50-over debut at New Road on Thursday, still three months away from his 21st birthday.
Smeed's career to date has been a microcosm of the modern English game: he has not made a first-class or List A appearance but has played 46 T20s, including a season for Birmingham Phoenix in the Hundred. Uniquely among English players, he has played in the Pakistan Super League and the Abu Dhabi T10, but not the County Championship.
Not that he has necessarily designed it that way. "It's just the way it's happened," he told ESPNcricinfo. "By no means does it reflect my aspirations: I still want to play everything. It just so happens that I haven't really scored too many runs in the second team, so that's not going to get me in the first team. I'm not sure averaging 12 is going to get me picked.
Aged 16, he made a red-ball hundred for the seconds in the same innings as Marcus Trescothick, but has struggled for runs this season. "It's all about trying to figure out what my best method is and that's something that's improved quicker in white-ball cricket through the opportunities I've had.
"The reality is that I haven't scored enough runs. Here [at Somerset] especially, if you deserve a chance, you get it. Hopefully that's something that kicks on soon because I'm desperate to be a part of that squad." Perhaps he is ideally suited to the Bazball revolution. "Maybe in my next red-ball game, I might just try and slog it and see what happens," he said, laughing.
Most of Smeed's development has fitted the conventional path for a young English player: excellent coaching at an independent boarding school, impressive performances at the Bunbury festival, graduation from a county's academy then elevation to the professional set-up. But for a shoulder injury and the pandemic, he would have played significantly more than his three games for England Under-19s.
But there has always been a slight difference with Smeed, a sense that he is part of a new, distinctive generation. When asked as a 17-year-old to make a hypothetical choice between the Ashes, the World Cup and the IPL, he opted for the last option with a cheeky grin. He is built like a rugby union centre rather than a batter, with forearms that are more Joe Calzaghe than Joe Root.
The result is a white-ball batter with a prolific early-career record, averaging 30.54 in T20 cricket with a strike rate of 143.99. Smeed generates remarkable power, memorably clearing Taunton's retirement flats in Somerset's Blast quarter-final against Lancashire last season.
Since he made his T20 debut as an 18-year-old, only Glenn Phillips and Alex Hales have hit more sixes in the Blast. Most of his success to date has come in favourable batting conditions (he averages 40.93 with a strike rate of 151.60 at Taunton) and his next challenge will be to prove himself when conditions offer something to bowlers.
Smeed was not an outlandish pick in the Lions squad, despite his lack of 50-over experience. The clash between England's domestic one-day competition, the Royal London Cup, and the Hundred means that a number of England's most promising young white-ball players hardly played one-day cricket; before Tuesday, Smeed's most recent one-day game had been for Bridgwater in the West of England Premier League.
But the England hierarchy have encouraged all of their development teams to replicate the attacking style of the senior ODI side. We spoke shortly after the Lions' batting meeting on Monday afternoon, where the message had been clear: "I don't think our mindset will be too different from a T20," Smeed said, "so that should help. We'll go out there with a lot of freedom and see where that takes us."
In Somerset's quarter-final against Derbyshire on Saturday night, Smeed had been troubled by the extra bounce generated by George Scrimshaw, a tall seamer with good pace. "He obviously got it through decently," Smeed said. "It felt like everything was either at my head or my throat. I wouldn't call it an anomaly, but normally I'm not too worried about people going short - I actually quite like people trying to dig it in at me."
He proved that against South Africa, taking on the new-ball pair of Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi. But he was particularly impressive against spin, hammering two sixes in an over off Keshav Maharaj before depositing Tabraiz Shamsi over midwicket for two more in consecutive balls.
"It felt like a T20 with less scoring pressure," Smeed said. "You have more time to soak up balls if you need to, and then when it's in your area you know you can capitalise." His dismissal, bowled for 90 looking to hit Andile Phehlukwayo for back-to-back sixes, was in keeping with England's one-day mindset, with limited interest in personal milestones. "The way we are trying to play, there's no pressure on us - as long as we are looking to be positive," he said.
Next on Smeed's agenda is Thursday's tour game, then a second successive T20 Finals Day with Somerset at Edgbaston, his adopted home ground in the Hundred. His winter plans are not yet clear but he is keen to travel: "That's when I feel like I'm really improving, when I'm playing cricket in different conditions, with different coaches and different bowlers."
That was most evident in Pakistan earlier this year, when Quetta Gladiators took a punt on him as a replacement player; he batted five times, and made 97 and 99. Wherever he ends up - including the possibility of a Lions tour to Sri Lanka - the ECB will monitor his development closely.
There is no shortage of attacking top-order batters lining up to regenerate England's white-ball squads, but Smeed stands out as a prodigious talent. "It's nice to know they're aware of you," he said. "The way I look at it is that I try and do well in every game I'm playing. Whatever happens, it's just about improving at this point, especially at 20 - I'm hopefully nowhere near my peak."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98