It was an historic year for Durham County Cricket Club and one that batsman Will Smith certainly won’t forget. Stuart Rayner meets a cricketer tipped for an even brighter future on a regional, national and international stage
WILL Smith started the 2008 cricket season fearing it could be his last but ended it being tipped to play for England and captain his county.
Dale Benkenstein is expected to quit as Durham’s skipper this winter and if he does, Smith seems certain to replace him. If – or more likely when – that happens, it will complete a remarkable turnaround in fortunes for the 26-year-old.
Smith began the 2008 campaign as he finished the 2007 one – out of Durham’s first team. But a matter of months later he was celebrating his second County Championship title, named the Riversiders’ player of the year and being touted by respected pundit Vic Marks as an England international in the making.
The right-handed batsman’s maturity beyond his years is what has marked him out as a captain-in-waiting at a club keen to have an Englishman back in charge after three successful seasons under South African Benkenstein. It is also what helped him get through a debut season with the county in which he failed to reach 50 in the County Championship. “I took a decision over the winter and in pre-season to be a bit more instinctive in my batting,” he revealed. “I got too caught up in being a stereotypical opening batsman, which is what I got into my head that I needed to be. In 2008 I tried to be a bit more natural and let my instinct take over.
“In the winter I had a couple of months away and they did me a lot of good. I did a bit of work for All Out cricket magazine living in London. It just refreshed my mind and reminded me there were other things in life outside of cricket.
“I normally go away every winter and I’d had six or seven years of non-stop cricket, so I decided it was time to take a bit of a break. Because cricket’s my real passion, it makes you even hungrier to succeed.”
Smith was born in Luton but his affinity with the North East stretches back to a spell at Durham University between 2003 and 2005, the last two years as captain. It was in April of his final year that the Collingwood College student first registered on the national cricket consciousness. That was when he made 156 in a partnership of 304 with Alistair Maiden in a first class match against a Somerset side featuring international bowlers Andy Caddick, Nixon McLean and Ian Blackwell. The stand remains Durham’s highest in first class cricket and Smith only bettered his personal tally in July, when he made an unbeaten 201 against Surrey in the Championship.
Smith made his second team debut for Nottinghamshire aged 16 and his time with the east Midlands county was eventful to say the least. In 2005 they won the County Championship, only to be relegated from division one 12 months later.
By then Smith had agreed to move back to Durham – who finished half a point higher than Notts in 2006. His first season was underwhelming to put it mildly, failing to reach 400 runs in 19 Championship innings, and he had lost his place in the side by the time the Riversiders reached their first Lord’s final, where they beat Hampshire to win the Friends Provident Trophy, the club’s first major silverware.
But when Kyle Coetzer endured a difficult start to the 2008 campaign, Smith was handed a second chance and he took it impressively. Having begun his Durham career as an opener, he quickly made the number three slot his own in all forms of the game. Smith’s calm head and steady run accumulation were instrumental in Durham reaching the semi-finals of the FPT and the Twenty20 Cup, and finishing third in Division One of the Pro40 League.
Two days after Durham’s Championship title was confirmed at Canterbury, Smith was named the club’s player, batsman and young player of the year.