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The need for Smeed: going full throttle on the T20 highway

Jo Harman by Jo Harman 5 minute read

Already a short-format star, Somerset’s Will Smeed is still waiting to make his first-class debut. The 20-year-old speaks to Jo Harman about the challenges of trying to have it all in an increasingly fractured landscape.

It’s lunch on day one of the Lord’s Test but Will Smeed’s focus is elsewhere. While England’s bowlers have been tearing through New Zealand’s top order in an electrifying session of Test cricket, Somerset’s 20-year-old shotmaker has been catching up on some sleep after four Blast games in the space of eight days, the most recent taking place against Sussex at Taunton the previous night.

“I can’t say that I do, really,” Smeed says, a little sheepishly, when asked if he watches much Test cricket. “No, not really.”

It’s not a huge shock to hear a cricketer say they have only a casual interest in watching the game – a great player doesn’t necessarily make a great watcher – but Smeed’s detachment from the Test format feels especially pertinent given the direction his career is heading in.

Two years since making his T20 debut, the Cambridge-born right-hander is yet to play a professional red-ball match. In fact, such is the schedule these days for the country’s best white-ball players, he’s not even played a 50-over fixture. All 37 of his appearances have come in the T20 or 100-ball format, and it’s not clear when – or possibly even if – that will change.

In his nascent career, Smeed has already played in Finals Day at Edgbaston, turned out in the inaugural Hundred final at Lord’s, smashed 99 in front of a packed house at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore (and 97 in Karachi) – and yet he’s still to wear whites for his county.

He’s keen to stress that it’s not because he has no interest in the longer format; he says he declined the opportunity to enter the IPL auction this year to focus on developing his red-ball game. But when your skills lead you down the T20 highway, and all the tantalising detours it offers, it can be hard to find your way back to the ‘prescribed’ route. In the case of players such as Alex Hales and Adil Rashid, the alternative path has offered such plentiful opportunities they’ve not seen the need to return.

“I’ve been playing a lot of second-team [red-ball] stuff,” he tells Wisden.com. “I’m obviously still trying to get into that Champo side, but I just haven’t been doing well enough to warrant that. That’s still a massive goal of mine and hopefully at some point I can manage that.

“In red-ball stuff, if you can nail the fundamentals of that it only helps your white-ball cricket. So whenever I’ve had the opportunity back in Taunton, I’ve been working on my red-ball stuff. I haven’t done much white-ball practice when I’m home. That was more when I was away through the winter. I feel like I’ve been able to balance the two, it’s just the way that it’s worked out my red-ball cricket hasn’t developed as quickly as my white-ball.”

Smeed first came to attention as a 16-year-old when he shared a 92-run stand with Marcus Trescothick – 26 years his senior – in a second XI red-ball fixture against Sussex at Taunton Vale. The King’s College student followed Somerset’s all-time leading century-maker to three figures in that match and commented afterwards how much he had benefitted from watching Trescothick go about his business at the other end.

Since then, though, it’s his white-ball exploits that have propelled his career. With lightning-fast hands, sweet timing and a no-holds-barred approach, Smeed perfectly fits the mould set by England’s white-ball bludgeoners. He has developed at such a rapid pace that it appears only a matter of time before he graduates to international cricket.

Having blitzed 82 from 49 balls against Gloucestershire in 2020, in only his second professional outing, last summer he starred for his county and for Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred, leading to his first franchise contract with Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League.

Smeed was an instant hit, smashing 97 from 62 balls on his PSL debut and then two weeks later falling agonisingly short of a maiden century, dismissed for 99 as part of an all-English top three which also featured Jason Roy and James Vince. He finished his first campaign in notoriously testing conditions against high-quality bowling with a very healthy average of 40 and his burgeoning reputation further enhanced.

“It’s given me a lot of confidence,” he says of his time in Pakistan. “It’s obviously regarded as one of the best T20 tournaments around and to go out there and for it to go as it did was great. At the end of the last English summer, I said that I wanted to look to make some bigger contributions as opposed to quick 30s and 40s, so that was the main thing for me, that I managed to do that.

“I had to work a lot on my gameplan against spin and coming back over here that’s definitely helped. I think facing spin seems a fair bit easier over here than it did in Pakistan.”

Smeed has continued to play match-defining knocks in this summer’s Blast, making a 30-ball 58 to set up a victory over Essex and then, the day after our interview, taking an in-form Somerset side over the line against Glamorgan, finishing unbeaten on 94 from 41 deliveries – his third 90-plus score in 11 knocks.

In this kind of form more lucrative overseas deals inevitably await, meaning his red-ball aspirations may have to be put on the back burner. If, for instance, Smeed does go on to pick up an IPL deal, that would potentially put him out of Championship action until late May, by which time the white-ball summer is in full flow. Is he concerned that the longer format may simply pass him by?

“That’s the tough thing for the English guys – once you go to the IPL you miss a whole bunch of red-ball stuff in county cricket. That’s quite a big sacrifice. I’m not sure at this point, I think it’s hard to know until you’ve done it. I’m young, I want to play everything I can, so my goal for the moment is to keep trying to make it in all formats and should that path narrow as I get older, then so be it.

“I’ve never thought too much about the end goal. It’s just about the here and now, contributing in the games I’m playing in and seeing where that ends up.”

Given Will Smeed’s talent, that end point is likely to be at the very top of the game – but perhaps not as we used to know it.

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