Ed Smith is a cricket savant. If you’ll believe that, then you’ll believe that I could have gone pro but for the ‘horror’ shoulder injury of 2o13. Of course, both statements are total rubbish. I’m aware you may not need much convincing of my cricketing ineptitude; however, I probably need to work a bit harder to convince you of Ed Smith’s selectorial pitfalls.
It’s coming up to 3 years since Smith was named England’s chief of selectors. Honestly, it feels like we’re already at the ‘7-year itch’. The honeymoon period is well and truly over. I want England to escape this toxic relationship. Things are stale, they’re stagnating. I passionately believe England cricket can still arouse. Sometimes all we need is the pick-me-up of a stolen glance across a crowded room, or an absolute stunner offering to buy us a drink, why should English cricket be any different? Whisper it quietly, but I’ve always had a thing for Smith’s ‘best-man’, James Taylor. I know it’s taboo but there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi about him. As if he could pluck a world class number 3 from the relative obscurity of the English first class game just as easily as he could snaffle those half chances at short leg. Anyway, I digress.
Let’s start with Moeen Ali. Not long after Smith assumed the role of chief selector he openly questioned Ali’s suitability to the role of frontline spinner, and his effectiveness in overseas conditions. This is the same Moeen Ali who is behind only 3 other spinners in England’s leading test wicket charts. Those spinners: Laker, Swann and Underwood. Three English cricketing giants. Incidentally, Ali has taken his wickets at a better strike rate than all three.
Now, you might claim that this was Smith exhibiting some exceptional reverse psychology. Afterall, once Ali forced his way back into the test team he enjoyed a purple patch of form. I would counter with two points: one, Ali could be spurred on to take his game to another level without the need for public criticism bordering on humiliation. Two, shortly after his purple patch Moeen fell out of love with the game and required a break from international cricket. It appeared clear to all, that the years of being undervalued by England and used as a utility player (batting anywhere from 1-9) had taken their toll. It’s not a gigantic leap to suggest that having his ability as a frontline spinner publicly questioned compounded the issue further.
Fast-forward to 2021 and we see even greater mismanagement of Ali. England’s policy of rest and rotation ought to be lauded. Placing greater emphasis on player’s mental health is long overdue. I have no quibbles with Smith for this. However, after agreeing with Ali that he would return home after the second test against India, England attempted to renege on that accord. They put Ali in the position that no other player had been put in, and subsequently a tired and preoccupied captain and coach accidentally, but falsely, claimed that Moeen had chosen to go home. This brings me to another example; I call Dom Bess to the stand.
I’d be intrigued to know the stats on how often Smith lost his wicket to off-spin during his playing career. I can’t think of another reason as to why he would have such a problem with off-spinners; seeing as, shortly after ruining one off-spinners love of the game Smith has tried to kill the spirit of another. He set his sights on Dom Bess. Put yourself in Bess’s shoes. You’re touring India, playing on some absolute Bunsens and everyone is expecting you to take poles with ease. That’s a lot of pressure. You don’t perform perfectly in the first test, that’s fine, take it in your stride. You’re replaced for the second but you know your replacement is going home before the third. Then the chairman of selectors asks your replacement to stay on the tour, disregarding all ‘rest and rotation’ rules. When your replacement does indeed fly home, England go into the third test with just one frontline spinner. Would you feel like the management had faith in you?
Don’t worry, the sh*thousery continues. Take the cases of Ollie Pope and Daniel Lawrence. Both supremely talented batters. Both appear to have the talent and temperament to play for England for years to come. Both picked to bat in a position they had next to no experience batting at for their county (in the case of Pope he had never batted at 4 for Surrey). Or perhaps I could point you towards Jonny Bairstow. England’s second-best player of spin, behind Joe Root which is nothing to be ashamed of. Not only is he labelled a ‘spin specialist’ to ramp up the expectation that much more, he’s flown back and forth between England, Sri Lanka and India so often you could forgive him for thinking his purpose was to accumulate airmiles for Smith’s business class flight home.
It is often said that a good selector is like a good wicketkeeper. If they’re performing at their best you barely even notice that they’re there at all. To extrapolate that analogy further, if I had to compare Smith’s tenure as chief of selectors to the performance of a wicketkeeper, I would paraphrase the probably apocryphal story of the short-sighted gloveman. The first ball of the game has gone fizzing past Smith’s left ear for four byes; the second, past his right for another four byes. Before the third ball of the game, Smith has crouched into position and called out to his team: “come on boys, first ball, let’s set the tone”. Ed Smith, less cricketing savant, more cricketing simpleton.