Yesterday, thanks to the time machine that is cricket literature, we left Peter Roebuck in 1983 working on his new trigger movement with the bowling machine in the indoor nets deep below the Taunton stands.
Today it is January 2003 and we are in the nets again, but this time at the Bombay Gymkhana Club where the Kent opener Ed Smith is also working on his trigger movement.
“Back-lift and preliminary movements are connected, all parts of the most important thing of all – rhythm. Change one and the other will change too, and you might loose your rhythm. So think carefully before tinkering.”
Roebuck was not picked for England, Ed Smith was. Perhaps the difference was Vasudev Jagannath Paranjpe – Vasu for short – a former Mumbai player and coach.
Two years before, after a session at the Bombay Academy, Vasu then in his mid-fifties ‘with an intense stare and a passionate, almost maniacal love of cricket’ had offered Smith an opinion about his game.
“You will play for England in the next eighteen months, two years at the most. But you’ve got to use long handled bats. You’re six foot two and you are stooping over a short handle.”
In 2003, Vasu is back again to watch Smith from all angles.
VP: How many first class double-hundreds have you scored?
VP: None! None! That is ridiculous. None! I have watched carefully for days now. I can’t see what’s stopping you. It is ridiculous. Do you want to do well or not?
ES: Of course, I desperately want to do well.
VP: Well, why no doubles then? … If I don’t see you scoring doubles for Kent and then playing for England against South Africa I will be furious. Doubles, OK, doubles.
And with that Vasu walks off to watch someone else bat from all angles, and to tell them what to do.
Back in England the season is not going well either for Kent or for Smith. By the start of July we see him at crisis point reaching out to his coach from school boy days, Chris Stone. They meet at the indoor school.
‘At the ground I saw a few of the second team guys. It’s a dreadful condition being in the second team: the failure of others in the first team may provide you will opportunities. They knew I had got a pair last week . They also knew I was here practising, trying to find some confidence. While we talked they looked at me as if they were thinking, “Is Ed tottering here? Might his place be up for grabs soon?”’
Before he sleeps that night Smith’s phone beeps. It’s a text from Matt Banes the player most likely to take his place in the first team. It reads simply “Get a big hundred tomorrow”.
3rd July – “Some people don’t believe in form. Just one good shot away from getting it all back, they say. I do believe in it. I know what it feels like to stand at the crease full of confidence, with stacks of runs under my belt. I also know – a feeling I can retrieve from memory with greater clarity and sharpness (fear is so much more memorable than comfort) – the quiet turmoil of bad form. Please God, give me a start, just a start, and I will be all right.”
There follows for our hero a purple patch of hundreds, of a double, of test selection on the 9th August, of the high drama and intensity of test cricket, of a first innings 67 at Trent Bridge, of Vaughan’s warm, “Well settled, well settled”, of Fletcher’s “Well played Big Ed, well played”, of that balanced calm state, of a first baller, of despair at Headingley and, at the Oval for the last Test, of fairy tales (Stewart’s last Test), nightmares (a bad lbw decision), glorious returns (Thorpe’s) and anxious exits (Smith’s).
“Sadly I was on the wrong end of it all” writes Smith. Earlier he had defined succeeding at cricket as ‘making a difference’. At the Oval, Thorpe makes a difference, Smith does not. Thorpes makes the full England winter tour. Smith does not.
Smith’s season of chaotic swings ends in uncanny symmetry as he returns to the sub-continent with England ‘A’ never to play Test cricket again. Cricinfo records it all: Ed Smith 3 Tests, 5 innings, 0 not outs, 87 runs, average 17.40.
Who was the more fortunate, Roebuck or Smith? Like two Hymalayan mountaineers, one was not chosen for the summit bid and never knows how he might have done, the other was, only to suffer the cruelest exposure and amputation, a lasting legacy of psychic loss.
And who is writing a diary this season? Third man can’t wait to read it.