We’ve interviewed a number of all-rounders in recent years, but few will have experienced the highs and lows endured by this month’s interviewee, former Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith.
On the field Paul was a key player in Warwickshire’s dominant side of the early to mid-nineties, a favourite of the late Bob Woolmer and a player who was indebted by the early influence of another late Bob, Bob Willis.
Off the field, Paul experienced very well documented lows, a drugs ban in 1997 that finished his career, the loss of his marriage and loss of access to his children.
His excellent book ‘Wasted’ provides a very honest account of those lows, and I know I won’t do justice to his story, so when you finish reading this, I urge you to buy a copy, it’s an extraordinary story. Put in this way, I can’t imagine there are many cricketers who will have travelled to South America and met the likes of Pablo Escobar and Diego Maradona…
What I do want to concentrate on though is Paul’s playing career and the fantastic work he has done to turn around his life and be there for so many others.
Paul’s love of cricket followed the passion his Dad had for the game. His Dad was an extremely talented cricketer but was unable to build a first-class career due to his 10-year national service stint in the RAF. “My father loved his cricket,” said Paul. “He had his chance of building a first-class career but that vanished because of his national service. When he came out he was 31, Leicester offered him a two year contract so he went and played for them but he was soon offered the chance to go and play for Northumberland as a pro. It was too good an offer to turn down. There wasn’t the money in cricket that there obviously is now, so the combination of cricket and work gave our family multiple sources of income.”
As well as his older brother David, a former Warwickshire opening batsmen, another big influence on Paul was the late Bob Willis. “I remember one day when I was about 9 years old Bob knocking on our front door. He’d headed up north for a meeting and while in town thought he’d meet up with my brother for a drink. While my brother was upstairs tarting himself up, I recall just sitting in the front room talking cricket with Bob. I remember him and my brother walking out the front door and thinking to myself ‘I want to play in the same side as him one day’. And a relatively short period of time later, I was. Bob Willis was and always will be, an inspiration.”
A lot of Paul’s junior cricket was spent playing at school, well, until he was no longer selected! “Let’s just I wasn’t always a very good ‘attendee’ at school, which I suspect played in part in my eventual non-selection for the cricket team!” He did though continue to be picked for Northumberland’s under 13 and under 15 sides and for a men’s team on a Sunday called ‘The Vikings’. “Many fine players played for The Vikings, but it was a good social team. From the age of 10, I was the kid that went to every game. I played zillions of games for them. And a big part of my education was the number of pub stops to and from the games.”
Paul’s love of the game was growing and at 13 when, the school careers advisor was asking the children what they wanted to be, Paul was clear: A professional cricketer.
While his schoolwork may have been questioned by his teachers, no one could fault Paul’s dedication and commitment to his cricket. “I would spend my summer holidays in and around Edgbaston, watching my brother. If the first team were in town, I’d often be able to have a bowl against them and a quick bat at the end of the session, if there was time.”
Paul’s potential as a cricketer was becoming clear and Bob Willis was one that took a very keen interest in the younger Smith’s development. “Around this time, Warwickshire had something like 33 players on their playing staff, so Bob arranged for me to go to Lords to be part of the MCC Young Cricketers programme. He said it’d be good for my development.”
He was right as by the age of 16, Paul became a regular in Warwickshire’s second team. “The following September I got told I had a contract at Edgbaston. And from there the show was on the road for me.”
I asked Paul if at that age he always wanted to become an all-rounder? “Absolutely. I
could bat and I knew I could get the ball through. I was lucky in a sense that my talent was natural, but people don’t always realise, or maybe forget, just how many hours you spend in the nets when people have gone home, for example.”
And from a young age, Paul knew what his role in any side that he played in would always be. “When I was 15 or 16, I remember sitting in the dining room at Edgbaston and on my table was Bob Willis, Dennis Amiss and David Brown, Warwickshire’s cricket manager. Bob told me that my job with the ball will always be to bowl less balls to get my wickets than those around me, i.e. to shock batsmen and to try and blast them people out because I had something that was rare, which was pace. And when I bat my job was to put the cat amongst the pigeons. Go in, play my shots and always look to put the bowler under pressure from ball one. He also said if I ever wanted to talk bowling, speak to him or David Brown, if I ever wanted to talking batting, speak to Dennis. It was great, at that age, to have these three people that could advise me. I was a student of the game from a very young age. That may not always have come across because too often people can wrongly judge others through appearance alone. I would ask those three so many questions.”
Paul shared one example of how Bob would guide him. “I would ask Bob a question and he’d just say I’ll show you. We’d then be playing a game and at key points in that game, he’d grab the ball, run up and bowl against their most dangerous player, more often and not get them out, and he’d turn to me and explain his thinking in answer to a question I’d have asked.”
But it wasn’t just on the pitch that Paul broadened his knowledge and game awareness. “After games, we’d head into pubs and bars and talk for hours about cricket. I’d learn so much in those environments. We were probably the last generation to do that. Today someone would see sports people in a bar and will think negatively and take photos etc. For me at that age, it was an environment to talk and talk and I learnt so much.”
Paul made his first-class debut for Warwickshire back in 1982, in a season curtain-raiser against Cambridge University, a side that included the likes of a young Derek Pringle. “We typically would put out our strongest side in those games, because it was the first game of the season. I was fortunate to get selected. I didn’t play in the 1st championship game a week later, but I was then picked for the next game against Kent, at Gravesend. That was a strange feeling, because they had players such as Bob Woolmer, who I grew up watching in quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals of cups, and now I was playing again him. It was kind of surreal.”
And what was it like slotting into the Warwickshire dressing room? “For me, it wasn’t difficult, because I had spent so much time in and around the squad, for so many years, because of my brother. I’d been in all those drinking houses with them. They just encouraged me and encouraged me. Two things they drilled into me, was to remember there is always tomorrow, and learn not to fear the opposition, they can only bowl one ball at a time.”
In 1984, Paul played in his first final, a Benson & Hedges Final against Lancashire at Lords. “We got stuffed but that final taught me a lot. It taught me how not to prepare for a final. It wasn’t because we drank alcohol or anything the night before the game, but it felt like we were there just to enjoy the day. If you turn up for a Lords final, you want to be all over it and make sure that you’re the guys holding the cup with the big ears on a Lord’s balcony at the end of the game. Your supporters have paid to watch you win not to just enjoy the day. That was a highlight in education for me.”
Paul achieved a lot in those early years. He became the youngest Warwickshire player to score a thousand runs and two years later, the youngest player to score 1,500 runs, a record which still stands. “I think it’s the only batting record Ian Bell doesn’t have!”
But the Warwickshire side of the 80s was an under-performing one. “We weren’t a good team. I wouldn’t necessarily say there was a ‘split’ in the squad, but at times there was a definitely a batting and bowling divide. Batsmen would blame bowlers and bowlers would blame batsmen. At times I would sit there thinking this is a load of bollocks and we should be playing as a team.”
So, what changed the mentality and mindset? “Over time people like Allan Donald, Bob Cotton, Bob Woolmer and of course Brian Lara arrived.”
Where to start with that list! Allan Donald seemed the obvious. “Allan joined us in 1987, and that was a real highlight. He was a kid from Bloemfontein who spoke little English. Andy Moles brought him to me to look after and because I’d spent quite a bit of time in South Africa. I knew quite a few of the naughty Dutch words, so I could make him laugh! The first time I batted against him in the nets, he bowled the speed of light. I’d played against Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Michael Holding and he was equally as quick and was only 18! He played a huge part in Warwickshire turning the corner. He and Gladstone opened the bowling for us, and they were immense. We knew when we played well as a team we’d win. Our problem was we just didn’t play well often enough. When Bob Cotton came to us, he said he thought we had a soft underbelly and he was right, and he played a massive part in toughening us up. When we lost Bob as a coach, we got Bob Woolmer and he put us in a different league. On his first day I remember him saying that if he could make us all compete better by 5 percent, we’d automatically all become better cricketers. Bob came to us young and he had this ability to plant seeds in your head. And because he was still young, he was able to demonstrate stuff to us in the nets. Things like how to play the ramp shot. That shot is commonplace now, but Bob brought that thinking to us in the 1990s, he was ridiculously ahead of his time. Bob’s mentor was Colin Cowdrey. Cowdrey learnt a huge amount from Donald Bradman, so you felt like through Bob you were also learning from Bradman and Cowdrey. Bob was also a brilliant hockey coach so when talking batting, he’d often talk you through certain hockey shots. It probably took Bob a season and a half to realise that we wanted to win just as much as him. I’d say to him, don’t judge me from what I do at 7pm to 7.40am but judge me by what I do from when we meet up at 9.30m until we leave the field. After 18 months I’d say the penny dropped with him.”
Bob had an obvious soft spot and high regard for Paul. Thanks to Bob, Paul became the first white cricketer to play for Cape Town club St Augustine’s (the cricketing home of Basil D’Oliviera), during the period when apartheid was being dismantled.
“At the start of 1990, I had, had an awful lot of operations on my left knee and two big operations meant I had to wear a knee brace with metal bars either side and when you have operations like that you fear how you might approach the game, for example running a two and turning back for a quick single involves twisted and turning of the knee, so Bob came to me and said would I like to come to South Africa with him that winter, as part of my rehabilitation. I couldn’t understand how rock hard South African surfaces was going to be good for my knee, but he said the reason he wanted me to come was that it was to play for Basil D’Oliviera’s club. I’d met Basil several times as he was coach of Worcester and was good mates with Bob Willis. So, whenever we played at New Road we’d always sit and have a few beers with Basil. Obviously, I knew Basil’s background and story that he had to leave the country etc, but I didn’t really understand why Bob wanted me. Anyway, I said I would do it.”
The reason Bob chose Paul, was because he knew Paul could handle the inevitable pressure that would fall on Paul’s shoulders given the situation in the country and would be good for his development. “When I arrived in Cape Town, I remember sitting in Bob’s garden drinking a pint, when he explained what my role would be. Mandela had just been released and it was the first year that players of colour could play against players who were white. He knew I’d be able to handle any situations that might arise. He said I want you to run through bricks walls and they will love you for it.”
What followed was an incredible experience. “These guys were people from within the communities who’d come through apartheid. They showed me everything. They took me to townships and it completely opened by eyes. In games I got abused for being a white person playing against white people. But I knew my job. And that was to try and retire hurt as many of these opposition players as possible. It was full on. And to this day the people I played with are close friends. I’ve been back to South Africa many times and every time I’ll visit St Augustine’s.”
I asked Paul to explain more about the experience. “We weren’t allowed to play our home games or practice at St Augustine’s and all of our ‘home’ games had to be played at Cape Town cricket club or Avendale, which was Bob’s club. One day we thought for hell with it and we went to the clubhouse. We took mountains of Castle Lager and just sat there and went through all of the old scorebooks from when Basil was a kid. Honestly, every year you see Basil with 200 runs or seven wicket hauls to his name. It was ridiculous. Yet despite what he did with the bat or ball he was never going to get picked for South Africa because of his colour. When we played Western Province at Newlands it was the first time my teammates had been allowed to step foot on the ground. It was incredibly humbling, and I could see what it meant to them. I scored a hundred in that game and that was for them because I knew what it meant to them. In the bar afterwards, I had a stand-up argument with the barman, saying that we weren’t leaving until there was no alcohol left in the bar. These guys had never been allowed to drink beer in this pavilion in their lives and we weren’t going to leave until there was no alcohol left, and we didn’t.”
The stories Paul shared were heart-breaking to hear. But I wasn’t prepared for two other stories.
“I once went out to a nightclub in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg with a teammate called Ashley Harvey. Let’s just say that Hillbrow is an area where you get told to stay clear of. But we went to this nightclub on many occasions. Ashley once said, that one day he was going to buy the nightclub and he did. But soon after he did, a guy walked in with a shotgun and blew his head off. Another team-mate was assassinated for a bunch of golf clubs, just up the road from the Wanderers. Then one day Bob and I were coaching kids, and, in the distance, you could see fires, and these fires were getting closer and closer. It wasn’t the case of fires you see in Australia; these were fires that were getting started in townships by people who were looting and starting them. Bob turned around to me and said, ‘you see that building there, we are carrying on coaching these kids, until the fire reaches that point, then we leave.’ I just said I’ve got a better idea, we leave now. But that was Bob and the stuff people didn’t see.”
The final influential person was of course Brian Lara.
“Brian was fantastic for us. I think he scored something like seven hundreds in his first 8 games for us, including a 501! Imagine walking out to bat and coming back in with 500 to your name! People have said a lot of things about how Brian could be difficult, but I thought he was great for us. People have to remember he went from playing a lot of cricket to a relentless amount of cricket and everyone wanted a piece of him after his 375 and 501. But he was one of us and our job was to welcome him and show him that we cared. To this day he says he remembers us most for our humour! Some of us knew him because he’d been great mates with Dwight York so had socialised a lot previously in Birmingham. He signed for us and then scored that 375. The confidence we took from him signing was the final phase in our turnaround.”
So, to that famous summer of 1994 and that historical treble. “It actually started for us in September 1993, when we won the NatWest Trophy.”
This was the final when Warwickshire chased a record total to lift the trophy. We chased 322 and won that game without an overseas player. After we beat Yorkshire in the quarter-finals we lost Allan Donald who had to go and play for South Africa in Sri Lanka. So, we had to go into that final without an overseas player, but what we did have was damn good players who had enough confidence to chase 322. I remember walking through the Long Room in between innings thinking we’ll get these. I don’t know why I thought it but some days you just get those feelings, and this was one of them. In reply we were 17/2 and I remember a young Dominic Ostler walking down the wicket to me before I faced a ball and he said what are we going to do, and I just said twat it. If it’s there or there abouts I wasn’t going to hang around I was going to put pressure straight back on to them. They think it’s going to be a walk in the park with a huge score on the board, let’s prove them wrong.”
Paul was proved right as Warwickshire chased a record score.
And the following summer with Lara in tow and under the captaincy of Dermot Reeve, Warwickshire won an unprecedented treble – the County Championship, Sunday League and Benson & Hedges Trophy.
The only trophy they didn’t win was the NatWest, which they should have done, according to Paul.
Success on the pitch coincided with things going wrong off it for Paul.
“I started taking drugs in 1995. They were everywhere and for me they were an escape. They fuelled my social life. Would it have happened if we hadn’t won that treble, I’m not sure they would have. But I never once took a drug to enhance my performance.”
Drug testers were rife in the game, and at times Paul wished he’d have been chosen and caught, but eventually a story was run in a Sunday tabloid which led to a two-year ban from cricket.
“I knew I had to get away from the environment that I was in and I told Warwickshire I wanted to retire and within months I was living in America.”
You can read a full story of Paul’s account in his book Wasted. But what was impressive to me was the way he turned his life around.
Along with Tim Watts, Group Chairman of recruitment firm Pertemps, Paul formed Cricket Without Boundaries, an initiative which linked sport to the classroom and then employment.
“Cricket was all I knew and in America I was able to live the life I wanted.”
In addition to Cricket Without Boundaries, Paul became involved with Compton Cricket Club in Los Angeles, where he used cricket to help steer youngsters away from crime. An initiative which led to Paul being awarded a Certificate of Appreciation from Los Angeles City.
“I would say through everything we’ve done we’ve coached over 5,000 kids and I believe the best work is still to come. They’re has never been more of a time when youngsters need assistance.
It’s fair to say Paul has been through some incredible highs and lows. Lows that many of us couldn’t imagine. But Paul’s story for me is one of inspiration. Having reach an all-time low, the way he has turned his life around is incredible and says a lot about him as a human being. I’ve said it twice in this article already, but please do buy a copy of Paul’s book Wasted, it’s an incredible read. And look out for his second book that he is in the midst of writing.
Paul – thank you.