Life as a trailblazer has come easy to Will Smeed – and he is at it again. Having just turned 21, the scorer of the Hundred’s first century has traded in his all-format contract with Somerset to become a white-ball specialist. In essence, he has retired from first-class cricket before making his debut.
Smeed has signed a two-year white-ball deal with Somerset that means he will no longer plug away in the county’s second team, trying to secure promotion to the Championship side. Instead, he will be practising the explosive skills that have made his name or playing in competitions around the world.
While Smeed is not the first player to become a white-ball specialist, he is the first to do so at such a young age. Alex Hales, for instance, has not played red-ball cricket since 2017, but by then he was 28 and had 107 first-class matches under his belt.
“A lot of thought has gone into it, and I have spoken to a lot of people,” Smeed tells Telegraph Sport. “Before I made a decision, I made sure I was 100 per cent sure it was right. I didn’t want any regrets from it. It’s not been made overnight, it’s through years of thinking what I want to do and envisaging how I see my future going.”
Smeed’s decision is indicative of the game’s shifting sands, with the skills required for different formats diverging and the increasingly alluring pull of the franchise circuit. It also reveals the unusual path his own career has followed, with great success in the shortest format and great struggles against the red ball.
Smeed is not the sort to make this decision on a whim. He has four A-stars at A-Level, in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry and is halfway through an Open University degree in Economics and Maths while also being an ambassador for the Sporting Wellness mental health charity.
‘I want to become the best white-ball player I can’
His careful decision-making is in part down to the fact that Smeed knows this will offend some lovers of the game. “I think there will be grumbling amongst traditionalists, but I hope they can see my reasons,” he smiles. “I see it as an exciting thing, a way of having fun and exploring how far I can go with white-ball cricket, but I’m sure there will be those who won’t [see it like that].”
Those reasons are varied. One is fun. Smeed makes no bones that he enjoys short-form cricket more than red-ball. Second is a desire to reach the international game in at least one format. There are other countries in which players reach international white-ball cricket without the first-class game; David Warner and Tim David are Australian examples.
But if Smeed does the same, he would become the first man to play for England before their first-class debut since the early Test cricket of the 19th century. Third, are his performances. “I don’t think I was giving myself a fair shot in either, trying to do both,” he explains.
“The amount of time I was spending away in the winter meant I wasn’t giving myself a fair shot in the red-ball stuff when I came back. And in an attempt to practise the red-ball stuff, I wasn’t training for white-ball in the summer. “Finding a balance became difficult. I want to become the best white-ball player I can, and the sacrifice is playing red-ball cricket. “In an ideal world I would still play everything. But with the year’s schedule being so busy, to do everything is so hard, and especially doing everything at the top level, which is where I want to be. “
I would much rather be a master of one trade than a jack of all. To give myself the best chance of reaching my potential it made sense to narrow it down.” Despite his current trajectory, Smeed’s name first drifted into the cricketing public consciousness for red-ball reasons. In 2018, having just completed his GCSEs, he made 116 for the county 2nd XI batting alongside Marcus Trescothick, who at 42 was 26 years his senior.
He jokes that it is “nice to have the reassurance that I could do it once”.Smeed does not deny that his red-ball struggles since have contributed and says “never say never” to reversing the decision one day. It feels a very tricky path to turn back from, however. This year in the second XI Championship for Somerset, Smeed averaged less than 16; last year he recorded three ducks in four innings.
By contrast, he is a short-form star domestically and overseas, making scores of 97 and 99 in six innings in the Pakistan Super League. This month, he is playing T10 in the UAE and has been signed up by Mumbai Indians’ offshoot MI Emirates for the inaugural IL20 in the UAE in the new year.
“The fact I haven’t done very well in red-ball cricket maybe made the decision a bit easier. I felt like I wasn’t giving up as much,” he says. “You go from playing in front of full stadiums in big competitions, to playing in an empty field with the wind howling. It’s a great leveller, but at that point you have to get yourself up for it. The more exposure you have to the fast pace, big crowd, the atmosphere, I loved that, and I really struggled going back to the red-ball grind and getting myself up for it.”
‘My career is an anomaly.’
There is every chance an IPL deal with MI follows at the auction on December 23. Mumbai Indians may well be wondering about signing Smeed as their next tranche of year-round stars, as they appear to be doing with 19-year-old South African superstar Dewald Brevis. But Somerset fans can rest assured, Smeed is extremely grateful to his county and is not going anywhere. “I am so grateful to Somerset for their understanding with this,” he says.
“I still wanted this to be my home, my base. I have been here since I was eight and I have a strong affiliation to it.” If Smeed’s career continues as it has started, he will become very rich. Is that a factor? “That’s honestly not come into it,” he says. “I have only just turned 21. To make decisions based on finances would be silly. It was based on how I could do what I enjoy for the longest.
That is playing cricket. Then how can I reach the best level I can.” This decision appears at once to be a clinical professional move, focussing on what he does best, while also being a throwback to an amateur age of playing the sport you enjoy.
His current goals are finding greater T20 consistency, improving his off-spin and learning how to pace a 50-over innings in a county schedule that does not currently offer those opportunities – his one and only List A appearance was for England Lions. Smeed believes there are few, if any, players his age queuing up to follow him. He points to his England U19 cohort where all his team-mates have played first-class cricket.
He describes his career as “an anomaly”. That is the reason Smeed’s Somerset team-mates have jokingly been calling him the “guinea pig.”
Although it seems unlikely Smeed will be the last, he is certainly the first of his kind.