Smith was involved in some pretty good success during his time at ECB © Getty
It was a bit of a surprise when Ed Smith was appointed by Andrew Strauss, his former Middlesex team-mate, as head of the English selection panel in April 2018. At the time, Smith was a journalist and commentator on Test Match Special.
He had no real day-to-day part in the England game. But Strauss actually saw that as an advantage. “Ed will come into this role with fresh ideas and his input will help us implement a structure that we hope can become world-leading, not just in cricket but in sport in general,” Strauss said at the time of the appointment.
In many respects, Smith shook the pick. Under his watch, the process involved a much greater emphasis on data and analytics, including the use of ideas such as weighted averages, with Mo Bobat, the current director of performance, becoming a key influence. A network of scouts has been put in place to ensure that county cricket is adequately covered and to ensure that so many different scouts see potential English players in action, providing a more rounded view of character and ability. Medical science and sports information was also fed in.
It all added to a much larger pool of information and knowledge than the English selection panel ever had. Ironically, partly because of this set-up Smith has lost his job. The ECB referred to the “resource” of information now available to Chris Silverwood as he took on his new responsibilities for selection. Smith played a key role in establishing that resource.
How to measure Smith’s three years as a national selector? The first thing to say is that a selector or selection panel does not stand alone. Choosing the right players is obviously a fundamental part of any successful cricket enterprise but so are good coaching, insightful tactics and cricketers who can handle the pressures of the international game. That last piece is only known once a player is in the heat of battle. After all, the selectors do not go out to bat or bowl. The point here is that it is too simple to judge Smith’s tenure solely by results and performances.
Even if, by that measure, he was not part of a fair amount of success during his time at the ECB. England won the World Cup in 2019, although the squad was largely in place before he took office, and there has been a marked improvement in Test cricket over the past 18 months – despite the recent disappointing show in India – which includes away wins in South Africa and Sri Lanka. Under his watch, England won 21 of 37 Tests.
It is difficult to gauge the role played in those successes. He obviously played a role. But Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss were the key players in the World Cup competition while Silverwood has implemented a clear game plan in Tests since taking over as head coach that has yielded a win. Under Bayliss, England’s strategy in Test cricket was often confusing and selection played its part. Do you remember Jason Roy opening during the 2019 Ashes?
But how much of that confusion was Smith giving Bayliss the players he wanted for the brand of cricket he wanted to play? Probably a bit of both. But ultimately, the coach and the captain are responsible for how the team plays. Selectors must provide them with the tools for the job.
There have been individual successes and failures along the way. Smith’s consistent support for Jos Buttler as a Test cricketer proved, ultimately, the right call. While it hasn’t all been plain sailing since Smith was called back to the Test side in 2018 on the back of a strong IPL campaign, Buttler’s recent form has been outstanding and he is now the first-choice wicket-keeper across all formats. There was a side effect, of course. Jonny Bairstow has been moved around to such an extent that his Probation career has had a detrimental effect.
In general, Smith was unfathomable in choosing young players and many, including Ollie Pope, Sam Curran, Zak Crawley and Dan Lawrence, had blood under his watch. All four are already looking for long careers in England while Dom Bess with whom England has shown a great deal of faith over the past year may also come again. There is certainly more depth in the squad now than at any other time in the recent past although some of that is due to COVID and the need to expand the pool of players present in biosafety bubbles.
The biggest failure of Smith’s tenure was in the treatment of Moeen Ali, who was fatally dropped after the opening match of the 2019 Ashes series despite being the leading wicket-keeper in Tests during the previous 12 months. He prompted Moeen to take a break from Test cricket and seemed to beat his confidence and motivation. He has rarely been at his best for England since then in any format and, despite having 189 wickets to his name, has only played one Test in the last 18 months.
There were other misconceptions, like choosing Roy to open in that Ashes series. Pope was selected as number four against India in 2018 when he never batted that high for his county – he was dropped after just two games which, luckily, didn’t affect him severely – while there was criticism for continue with Joe Denly for as long as England did, in Test and limited overs cricket.
Then there was this winter’s rotation policy. While it is clear that some form of rotation is required, the selection panel was criticized for the decision to rest some of England’s first-choice Test team from the India series. There were other options available, including their rest for both Tests in Sri Lanka or from the limited overs series against India, both of which England eventually lost with a full strength team.
On the whole, the panel chaired by Smith clearly didn’t get everything right. But there were plenty of good things that happened under his watch as well. After three years in office, the end result is a balanced scorecard. Most selectors would take that. It’s a tough job to do well. And Smith made a decent fist of it.