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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
From Brum to bum and back again
By Matt Slater

Former Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith
An average of 35.72 belies Smith's ability as a genuine strike bowler
Nobody can accuse Paul Smith, whose autobiography "Wasted?" has just been published, of taking the "standing in queues at Disneyland" approach to life.

Squandering his talent, bringing the name of cricket into disrepute and giving a new meaning to the phrase "line and length", yes - but you cannot accuse Smith of being a tourist.

The places the 43-year-old spends much of his time in now are normally only mentioned in gangsta rap records. South LA's Compton, Inglewood, Watts...it's all rather a long way away from Edgbaston and Lord's, the places he used to frequent as a match-winning all-rounder for Warwickshire.

But then Smith, who has been back in the UK for the last six months to finish the book and rebuild frayed family relationships, has never done things the easy way or, in his own words, "fitted the traditional mould of the professional cricketer".

There were pyrotechnics with bat and ball, there were winters spent in cricketing outposts like Buenos Aires and Soweto and there were numerous variations on the mullet.

There was also "lots of cocaine, lots of pills and a copious amount of marijuana", and it is for his Sunday tabloid admission of drug use and subsequent ban that he is perhaps best remembered now.

That's a shame because it undersells his contribution to one of the great county sides of recent decades and ignores what he has done with his life since 1997.

Former Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith
The book wasn't written to be sold at a cricket ground in the middle of Birmingham

That was the year - only three summers after he starred in Warwickshire's famous treble-winning team - that he was banned from the game he loved.

In truth, he was already finished as a professional - he was, as he admits, "seriously ill" - but the two-year ban was a low blow to a man already on the ropes.

But now, a decade later, the Smith story (thanks to the man himself) can be updated and it is what happened after cricket, or professional cricket at least, that are the most interesting chapters of his remarkable tale.

Out of work, out of money and out on his ear, Smith fled the wreckage of his once comfortable existence in the Midlands and went to America. At this time an inventory of his belongings would have run to the suitcase he had with him and another one at a mate's house in Birmingham.

Not much to show for a 14-year career that saw him win seven trophies with Warwickshire, five in a purple patch between 1994 and 1996. But then Smith was never an accumulator. He wanted to make an impact, on and off the field, and he still does.

That he should choose to do so in the US seemed significant to me, and when I spoke to him I asked him if he went to America precisely because he was unknown as a sportsman there.

The answer, in true Smith style, was both more complicated and simple than that.

NEVER SHY, SMITH ON...
Warwickshire's treble team
You have to have a lot of balls to play the way we played


Celebrations
We were a bunch of fun-loving guys - I look back very fondly on those days


Where it all went wrong
In retrospect, if I was in charge I would have put a huge barrier around that team - I would also have educated them


Bob Woolmer
He was the best, and I don't just mean as a cricket coach - he was a man with exceptional communication skills


His playing style
It's not how many runs or wickets you get, it's the impact you make while you're getting them - averages mean nothing


Not playing for England
Some of the greatest of the era spoke very highly of me, I will take that as a compliment rather than getting a phone call from a selector

"I can live in lots of different cities in the world and use the fact that I played sport to a reasonable standard," he said.

"But I've lived in Sydney, I've lived in Melbourne, I've done Cape Town and Jo'burg. It's a big world out there and I think it would be a shame to only experience the same thing."

So his move to Houston was simply an expression of his free spirit? Yes, that and the fact that he followed a girlfriend there.

Once in Texas he settled into a new rootless, penniless but far from pointless life. Always interested in coaching and sport's ability to engage with youngsters, Smith spent his days talking to young offenders on parole schemes, learning lessons that could be taken home.

What did these tough kids make of the limey sportsman with the rock star looks?

"To them I was a professional ball-player with a good-looking girl on his arm, so I fitted in pretty well," he said.

But before long Smith, who still speaks with the soft Geordie accent of his birthplace, was back at Edgbaston, using his local fame to secure funding for an initiative called Cricket Without Boundaries, a back-to-work scheme for the unemployed.

The programme was comprised of classroom lessons in the morning and cricket lessons in the afternoon. The results spoke for themselves.

"What we were looking for was not to turn them into better cricketers but to get them to communicate better with the people around them. From that they got the confidence to find work," he explained.

"Over 40% of the people that went through that programme got re-employed - and they had all been employed for at least four and a half years before they came to us."

Smith's next project was to take his "education through cricket" ideas to local schools. It wasn't long before he had 200 schools and 5,000 kids a week involved.

Graffiti in South Central LA
I haven't been shot yet - it's the perfect place for me to work

"My contribution to Warwickshire Country Cricket Club since 1997 has been significant," he said with some justification.

"To me it's been as significant as the trophies I helped win. I've helped bring the community to Edgbaston."

So is there any bitterness on his part that the club's bosses have decided to ban his book from the shop at Edgbaston?

"No. The book wasn't written to be sold at a cricket ground in the middle of Birmingham," he said. Next question.

Smith's relationship with Warwickshire is like almost everything else in his life - mystifyingly tangled and incredibly straightforward.

The cricket team is the source of his saddest regrets and happiest memories. Birmingham is where his world unravelled and also the place he knows best and is known best.

The city is also where he met many of the most significant people in his adult life - his captain, friend and fellow recovering addict Dermot Reeve, his influential coach, the late Bob Woolmer, and the man that inspired him to move to Los Angeles, Ted Hayes.

An American activist for the homeless, Hayes visited Edgbaston in 2001 with the Compton Homies & the Popz cricket team he had set up in Los Angeles. Made up of ex-gang members, the touring party made quite an impression.

Former Warwickshire all-rounder Paul Smith
Smith scored quickly wherever he batted in the Warwickshire order
"The thing that grasped me was their enthusiasm for the game," Smith explained.

"It reminded me of why I played cricket. They are a challenging lot but nothing demonstrates what cricket can do for young people better than Homies and Popz."

Using the game of WG Grace as a tool for social good on the lawless streets of South LA might not have been the most obvious idea, but it made sense to Smith.

"Going to California was the challenge. I can be myself there," he explained.

"It was a big step but the experience has taught me that I have been going to the right places."

The concept of cricket on LA's least Hollywood streets will come as a shock to anybody who owns N.W.A.'s "Straight outta Compton" - although there is a track called "If It Ain't Ruff" which might be about reverse swing - but Smith knows different.

"You'll be surprised. There's more cricket played in California than a lot of people would imagine," he said.

But in places where they try to shoot down police helicopters (which is incidentally as close as the police like to get)?

"Look, when I was 18 and playing for a team in Cape Town," explained Smith, "Dr Ali Bacher, my boss, would send us into places like Soweto to coach.

Dermot Reeve lifts the B&H Cup in 1994
Dermot Reeve lifts the B&H Cup in 1994, Smith was man of the match
"I would usually be the only white person and if we made a wrong turning I would have been in real trouble. But I think the fact that I worked there carries huge clout with young black people in the US - they see Soweto as their spiritual home.

"And as a sportsman you can open doors that perhaps a salesman can't.

"People often say to me 'why do you want to stand in a park in Compton where people get shot every 30 hours?' But I haven't been shot yet. It's the perfect place for me to work."

Not that Smith would ever limit himself to one project, let alone one continent. He is still dividing his time between LA and Birmingham, where he currently runs cricket projects for the Prince's Trust, and has ambitions to bring his work to London.

But whatever he does in the future, and wherever he does it, playing cricket with a smile, despite the circumstances, is bound to be at the heart of it.

"I have played games of cricket in skid row in Los Angeles where there have been about 3,000 homeless people in a long, wide street watching what I'm doing," he said.

"Now that is funny because you've got a bat and a ball and they love it and they cheer. It doesn't matter where you are, it's funny.

"So as long as you keep that spirit the sport travels very well. And if you love cricket you're halfway there."



SEE ALSO
Reeve reveals cocaine addiction
22 May 05 |  Cricket
Spreading the cricket gospel
13 May 03 |  Cricket


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