Mike Smith: One of the most popular and respected captains of England

Mike Smith © Getty Images

MJK Smith, born June 30, 1933, was one of the most popular captains of England. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the career of the man who led in exactly half the number of Tests he played, and was the last captain to win a series against South Africa for over 32 years.

His name was as commonplace as possible, a somewhat more appropriate anonymous label than John Doe. His bespectacled looks were scholarly, hinting at a life in musty studies lined with book shelves full of forbidding volumes. Indeed he studied Geography at Oxford — although never got around using his degree except perhaps when travelling the world with the England team. It was at Oxford he courted fame as an athlete of no mean distinction. From 1954 to 1956, he scored hundreds in the three Varsity encounters against Cambridge. He led both the cricket and rugby teams for the University. And in his final year, he played his sole international rugby match, against Wales as an outside centre. Although he modestly recollects that he had a poor game and was not selected for the national side again, he remains the last double international to play for England. He went on to play 50 Test matches for England, leading the side in exactly half of them.

Mike Smith, or — to put a less mundane spin on the name — MJK Smith, was one of the most popular and respected cricket captains of the country. His batting skills, which enjoyed immense success in First-Class cricket, were perhaps limited when it came to the highest level of the game. His proficiency against the genuine fast bowlers was suspect, rather short of the benchmark for Test cricketers. Hence, his Test slot was seldom secure unless he was chosen the skipper of the side. Yet, there was a spirit about him, indomitable courage that was displayed while marshalling his men on the field, he himself standing close at forward short-leg. This combined with his refreshing amiability as captain made him both successful and likable.

First-Class success

As a boy, Smith briefly tried his hand at wicketkeeping, but gave it at the age of 17 when he started wearing glasses. While at the University, he made his debut for Leicestershire in 1951. His career did not really get off to a flying start, with ducks in his first two outings and a total of five runs in four innings that season. He did not get to play much in the following years due to compulsory military service. However, when he returned to cricket in 1954, an unbeaten 104 for Oxford against Gloucestershire set him on his way. By the end of the season he had added a double hundred against Cambridge under his belt. It is not insignificant that his captain at Oxford that year was Colin Cowdrey.

On leaving University, his amateur status led the Warwickshire County team to approach him, offering him the captaincy. His stint with the new county again started with a duck, but he settled down to score more than 2000 runs in the 1957 season, a feat that he would repeat every year till 1962.

A batsman more pragmatic than stylish, Smith was a good judge of length and line. His technique was based on his academic mind which quickly analysed that but for off-spinners, most bowlers had a majority of their fielders on the off-side. Hence, he developed his pulls from wide outside the off-stump and also perfected the ability to work balls on the middle-stump to the leg-side with a straight bat. The one glaring shortcoming, along with ability to stand up to fast bowlers, was his running between the wickets. John Snow, in his entertaining biography Cricket Rebel, writes: “Unfortunately, Mike is widely remembered in cricketing circles — especially when in partnership with his Warwickshire teammate Alan Smith — as a very unreliable runner between wickets. Warwickshire’s tales of woe in this respect are numerous and I can remember a call between them in 1964 going something like “No, AC” —”Yes, Mike” — “Wait, AC” — “Damn it, Mike” — “Sorry, AC.”

A constant feature In the Warwickshire team with his steel-rimmed glasses, Smith was called up for national duty against New Zealand as a makeshift opener in the summer of 1958. Making his debut in Birmingham, he yet again started with a duck. He scored 57 in the four innings he played in three Tests, and showed his only glimpse of promise in the first innings 47 scored at Lord’s.

Annus Mirabilis

The following summer of 1959 was his annus mirabilis. He scored over 3000 runs, including a fighting 182 not out against Gloucestershire that snatched a victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat. In the field he crouched close at short-leg, valiant and brave, holding on to difficult offerings and absorbing blows without the semblance of a flinch. No sight inspired the Warwickshire men more than that of their captain putting himself in physical peril for the cause of the team. The side, which had finished 16th in the tournament table the previous year was hauled to number four. As many as 2147 runs came for the county side, breaking RES Wyatt’s 30-year-old record for Warwickshire. And at 26, Smith also became the youngest batsman to score over 3000 runs in a season, a record earlier scripted by the oriental magic of KS Ranjitsinhji.

The deeds with the willow did bring him the reward an England call-up again, this time against a weak Indian side. Batting at number four now, he hit his first Test century at Old Trafford, an innings of exactly 100, and followed it up with 98 at The Oval.

As a result he was included in the side to tour West Indies in 1959-60. He got a 108 on the slow wicket of Port-of-Spain, a painstaking effort stretching nearly five hours. Although he struck three sixes, most of the knock was a synchronous exhibition of stonewalling with Ken Barrington. Soon, however, his weakness against real pace was exposed and Wes Hall and Chester Watson gave him a torrid time for most of the series. When the action returned to the sluggish track of Port of Spain for the final Test, Smith got back into runs with 96.

Fluctuating fortunes

There was initial success against the visiting South Africans in the summer of 1960 but he ran out of form with successive ducks, and lost his place in the national side when out for another blob against Australia in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. But, given the slow nature of the tracks in the sub-continent, he was picked to tour India and Pakistan in 1961-62.

Once again, Smith’s performance remained erratic and sandwiched between 99 at Lahore and 73 in Madras, there were three successive ducks, including a pair in Kanpur. His success story in the county circuit remained unabated, but he was dropped from the Test side.

When he was brought back it was as captain. England toured India again in 1963-64, and both Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey were unavailable for the tour. It was a depleted side without Brian Statham and Fred Trueman, and things were not helped by numerous injuries and stomach ailments, compounded by losses in every toss.

In the second Test at Bombay, England was so hit by health problems that wicketkeeper Jim Parks played as batsman batting at No 3, off-spinner Fred Titmus batted at No 5 and slow left-arm bowler Don Wilson followed at six. At one stage, when Mickey Stewart was declared unfit with dysentery on the morning of the Test, Smith had seriously considered drafting journalist and commentator Henry Blofeld into the team. However, Stewart was included in the eleven although he took no part in the match, and England managed to hang on for a draw.

England managed to get through the tedious five Test series 0-0, and Smith did enjoy success as a batsman scoring 306 at 51.00. But, on his return to England, he was not considered good enough to merit a place in the side for batting alone. With Ted Dexter returning as captain, he was dropped from the side.

The amiable captain

After the Ashes series of 1964 which England lost to Bobby Simpson’s men 0-1, Dexter resigned as captain and Smith was appointed skipper for England’s tour of South Africa 1964-65. It was to be the last tour to the country before the infamous Basil D’Oliveira affair would isolate South Africa from international cricket.

The appointment of Smith was criticised in the press who argued that he did not deserve a place as batsman. However, it was a superb series for the captain and his men. The English team were one of the happiest and most popular travelling sides, and won the series 1-0. It was the last time South Africans lost a full series before Australia beat them in1996-97.

In the first Test at Durban, the only match that produced a result in the series, Smith as usual stood at forward short-leg. With Fred Titmus and David Allen, two off-spinners, bowling in tandem and turning balls into the batsmen, Smith held four catches, some of them spectacular. In the third Test at Cape Town, England were in a spot of bother after South Africa had posted 501, before Smith rescued the innings with 121 made over five hours — his third and final hundred in Test matches. It was in this same series that the great Wally Hammond, spending the last days of his life in South Africa, visited the England dressing room in Durban, much to the delight and awe of the English cricketers.

Smith ended the victorious series with 257 runs at 42.83. According to Wisden, “MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club] have sent more powerful teams from Lord’s than this one, but never one superior in terms of corporate effort on the playing pitch and harmony in the pavilion.”

Smith continued his successful stint at the helm with a 3-0 win against New Zealand at the beginning of the summer of 1965. But, when Graeme and Peter Pollock turned the tables on England at Nottingham to win the series for South Africa, and Smith himself scored a meagre 112 runs in the three Tests with a highest of 32, voices clamoured for Cowdrey to be appointed skipper for the forthcoming Ashes tour.

In spite of protests in the press, Smith was retained as captain and Cowdrey was made his deputy for the Australian voyage. Many sections of the media branded the side the weakest to visit Australia. Yet, once again Smith’s captaincy won plenty of accolades. The side made runs at a faster rate than any England team since the War, and their positive and entertaining approach won many a heart. The team even took the lead in the Ashes series with a big win in the third Test at Sydney, but Australia fought back to win the following match at Adelaide. The series was shared, and the following three Tests in New Zealand were drawn due to bad weather.

However, 107 runs in the Ashes Tests at 17.83 did not really help Smith’s personal cause. When West Indies won the first Test of the 1966 summer and Smith managed 11 runs in the two innings, he was dropped from the side and Cowdrey was appointed captain. Smith led Warwickshire to a maiden Gillette Cup triumph that season and retired after the following summer.

Brief return

Smith returned to Warwickshire in 1970 and heavy scoring in two successive seasons prompted his being recalled against Australia in 1972. He played three more Tests under Ray Illingworth. He enjoyed limited success, but did look the most accomplished of the English batsmen as he got behind the line and negotiated the swing of Bob Massie at Lord’s. 

He played three more seasons for Warwickshire before retiring in 1975.

Smith’s final figures read 2,278 runs in 50 Tests at a modest average of 31.63 with three hundreds. His gutsy close in fielding brought him 53 catches, at an impressive scalps per game ratio. In 637 First-Class matches, he scored a mammoth 39,832 runs with 69 hundreds and held 593 catches in all.

Yet, his stamp on the history of English cricket is far more prominent as a captain. He brought a refreshing approach of easy professionalism during his days at the helm. Unlike some of his predecessors, Len Hutton, Peter May and Ted Dexter, who were also supreme batsmen, Smith did not believe in the captain regulating the discipline of the players with an iron fist.

His attitude to leadership is best summarised by Ian Wooldridge’s description of Smith’s demeanour in Australia before the start of the Ashes series of 1965-66. “He strolled in with an open-necked shirt, a white linen jacket which appeared to have been slept in for a week and a carry-cot containing a slumbering junior member of the Smith dynasty. Apparently Mrs Smith had gone shopping and M.J.K. was left holding the baby. Despite an Oxford education his accent was utterly classless and between questions to which he appeared to be paying no attention whatever, he applied himself to solving the crossword in the latest Times to arrive from Britain. ‘Good heavens’, growled one of Australia’s senior cricket correspondents, ‘what have we here?’ What we all had on that tour was the affable companionship of one of the most popular England captains ever to tour anywhere. It never occurred to him to leave the baby, let alone his wife, at home while he led the fight for the Ashes.”

Smith hardly ever interfered with the way his bowlers wanted to bowl or the field they wanted. His reasoning was that someone good enough to play for England was expected to know the intricacies of line and length and field placement. At most, he would utter a word of congratulations at the fall of a wicket, delivered in his endearing absent-minded professor sort of way. But, in spite of his rather carefree attitude, even volatile cricketers like John Snow acknowledged that he was astute in his cricketing decisions.

EW Swanton analysed his methods as: “Smith, though outwardly unconventional and in manner casual to a degree, succeeds as a captain for the conventional reasons. He is thoughtful for his players, unselfish, does not fuss them or panic, shows a grasp of the situation which they deem generally sensible, and not least gives an inspiring personal lead in the field.”

After retirement, Smith served as the chairman of Warwickshire County Cricket Club from 1991 to 2003. He also served as International Cricket Council Match Referee from 1991 to 1996.

Smith’s sporting legacy runs deep and, as in his career, goes beyond just cricket. His son Neil was an off-spinning all-rounder who went on to emulate his father by captaining Warwickshire. He also appeared in seven One-Day Internationals for England with limited success. Smith’s daughter Carole is the wife of the great English middle-distance runner and Member of the Parliament Sebastian Coe.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)