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7 September 2022

Ed Smith and the courage of conviction

In his new book, the former England cricket team selector recalls what he has learned about doubt and decisions.

By Jonathan Liew

You have to feel a certain sympathy for Ed Smith. As he was writing this book, in the months after being removed as the national selector of England men’s cricket in April 2021, the team was approaching its nadir. Consecutive home series defeats to New Zealand and India in the summer of 2021 were followed by a humiliating 4-0 drubbing by Australia in the Ashes that winter. Ashley Giles, the man who sacked Smith, would pay for the debacle with his own job. Coach Chris Silverwood, who assumed Smith’s selection duties, would go too. These events are related by Smith with a sober and barely disguised relish. He doesn’t append the words “needless to say, I had the last laugh”, Alan Partridge-style. But they are implied.

More recent events, however, have cast Smith’s intriguing three-year tenure in a new light. By any standard, this has been a spectacular and transformative summer for English Test cricket: a 3-0 victory over New Zealand was followed by a spectacular comeback win against India, currently the best-resourced team in the world. A side written off after last winter’s Ashes has inspired itself to improbable and stirring feats. A new captain in Ben Stokes and a new coach in Brendon McCullum preach an exciting and unfettered brand of cricket: new players, new praxes and new vibes. In short, pretty much the entire apparatus of English cricket – an apparatus in which Smith operated and which he helped to construct – has been gleefully swept away. All of which raises the pertinent question: what was it all for, really?

Making Decisions: Putting the Human Back in the Machine is Smith’s sincere and often self-reflective attempt to answer this question. Readers of the New Statesman may know Smith as an erstwhile columnist and occasional contributor, but this is of course just one of his many accolades. He has written numerous books, worked as a leader writer for the Times and been a cricket commentator for the BBC, having played for England as a younger man. Privately educated, well-spoken and with a double first from Cambridge, Smith is one of those winsome old-school characters who does so many things that it’s hard to tell whether he can actually do any of them well, whether you’re watching a polymath at work or simply a polished confidence trick in an expensive suit.

At times his work seems to consist largely of banal truisms dressed up as searing insight. Confusingly, there are other times when he offers genuine searing insight, making points you feel have never been made before. And he really can write: his 2016 essay “Batting 3.0”, a surgical and sweeping dissection of innovation in the modern game, is one of the finest pieces of cricket writing I have ever read. Above all, Smith is at his best when he is not trying to sell books, to brand or position himself for his next career move, but simply writing: delving, exploring, pondering for the sake of sheer intellectual titillation.

Making Decisions can be split into two personae, one far more interesting than the other. The first half of the book deals largely with his surprise appointment as England’s head selector in 2018 – his first role in cricket administration, and a role he makes clear he didn’t need to take in the first place. Immediately he decides that the main problem in English cricket is what he calls “bureaucratic inertia”: the tendency of institutions to think too much like institutions, hidebound by convention and groupthink.

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For instance, one problem with the Test side is a chronic lack of top-order batters. Many hopefuls have tried and failed. But, as Smith writes: “if players aren’t there, even the best analysis can’t find them”. Instead, he tells England to accentuate the areas in which they are strong: attacking all-round talents like wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, leg-spinner Adil Rashid and the teenage Surrey all-rounder Sam Curran. Initially, the results are a resounding success. Buttler and Curran, left-field selections widely scorned within the game, sparkle as England beat Pakistan and India at home, before winning 3-0 in Sri Lanka. Smith urges us to stop viewing player performance in isolation – a tougher task in cricket, which is essentially a sport built on individual statistics – but at how players seemingly contribute to the strength of the unit as a whole.

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But a turning point comes in the Barbados Test of early 2019. At Smith’s behest, Curran is selected ahead of the legendary fast bowler Stuart Broad. England lose heavily to the West Indies, Broad quickly returns to the side and somehow Smith is never quite as courageous or principled a selector again. Many of his early picks – Buttler, Curran, Rashid, the Kent batter Joe Denly, the Somerset spinner Dom Bess – begin brightly before falling by the wayside. England fail to win the home Ashes of 2019 and are badly beaten in India in early 2021. “I think we were too easily knocked off the winning formula of summer and autumn 2018,” he writes. “I blame myself for not making the case more effectively.” His biggest regret, in other words, is in not sufficiently persuading enough people how right he was.

There is a strong streak of self-justification running through this book, as evident in what is omitted as what is included. There are only oblique references to how unpopular he eventually became in the England dressing room, where senior players like Broad made no secret of their disdain. And on the biggest and most contentious issue facing English cricket this decade – diversity and opportunity, the question of whom this game is ultimately for – Smith has virtually nothing to say. Perhaps this is because of the 12 England players to make their Test debuts during his tenure, ten played for counties in the south of England. Seven of the 12 were privately educated. Given the emphasis Smith places on the human dimension of selection, of judging not only a player’s cricketing credentials but their character, this is a glaring and problematic oversight.

The second part of the book, by contrast, is a good deal more fun. Smith begins to come to terms with the limitations of his job, and of his own judgement. He leans on a rich trove of analogy and reference, borrowing liberally from the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the behavioural economics of Daniel Kahneman, from parallel examples in basketball and football and even the ancient Japanese board game Go. Above all, he allows a healthy measure of scepticism and doubt: when to have the courage of one’s convictions, and when to question them? “There is no complete answer,” he concludes, “beyond awareness that it is another judgement, another balance.”

And yet, with a keen understanding of his audience, and perhaps one eye on the corporate speaking circuit, Smith is also at pains to underline the fuzzy universality of the conclusions he draws. A sceptic might point out that this is a management textbook written by a man who has had one job in management. A more charitable response might be that this is a learned and engaging study of decision-making at the top of elite sport that occasionally really is as clever as it thinks it is. It’s clear that Smith has moved on from England, and the reverse also appears to be true. In a way, everyone wins.

Making Decisions: Putting the Human Back in the Machine
Ed Smith
William Collins, 256pp, £20

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained