|Born||22 December 1968, Londonderry|
|Educated||Foyle and Londonderry College|
|Occupation||Taxi Driver, Professional Cricketer|
|Debut||9 June 1990 v Worcestershire at Castle Avenue|
|Style||Left hand bat; slow left arm|
|Teams||Brigade, Eglinton, Limavady, Glendermott|
|History||Stephen Smyth may have had a somewhat controversial career in Irish cricket, but no one would deny that he was one of the outstanding batsmen of his generation and that, even with his international career more than a decade behind him, he remains a very fine player. |
Left handed and very correct - he has, indeed, been described as the best player technically from North West cricket since 1945 - he is short in stature but powerfully built. At his best he could dominate most attacks with the range and power of his stroke play. Over the years comparisons have inevitably been made between Stephen and that other great man of the North West, "Dekker" Curry. Stephen was probably not so destructive a hitter as Curry and certainly has not rivalled his century count. He tended to get out when apparently well set with the world at his feet - a trait to be found among other left handers, notably, perhaps, one now well known in the TV commentary box! However some seasoned observers saw Stephen as the more reliable than Curry. According to Barry Chambers, "If you had to depend on somebody to get a fifty for you, you might go for Smyth before Curry" Stephen was, like Dekker, also a more than useful bowler. Though rarely seen at representative level, his slow left arm was effective in League and Cup cricket, often bringing him 20 to 30 wickets a season. At this level he deserves to be remembered as a batting all rounder. His all round value was seen in the field, where he was a superb cover point.
At Foyle and Londonderry College, he was easily the outstanding cricketer of his time, also being a very good scrum half. As a cricketer he, in Clarence Hiles words, "smashed record after record" which brought him selection for The Irish Schools XI v Wales at Kimmage in 1987. Unfortunately he had a double failure as did most of his colleagues, the visitors who included future England of spinner Robert Croft going home victorious by 10 wickets. Stephen was dismissed in each innings by the medium pace of Stewart Moorcroft who was later to have some success with Glamorgan Seconds.
While still at school he began his long senior career, scoring consistently for Brigade. While he caused some controversy by frequent moves between clubs, he was far from alone in this. Over the years he has been no stranger to the 1000 run milestone, passing the four figure mark on three occasions, for example making 1370 at 48.92 for Eglinton in 1995, the leading aggregate of the season with a highest score of 100*. He also took 36 wickets at 17. The hundred came in the second innings of the NW Cup Final, adding 217 for the 4th wicket with Hendy Wallace (144), enabling Wallace to declare and set Crindle an impossible 496 to win. The last 67 runs of their partnership had come in 4 overs! Small wonder that Stephen was Britannia Player of the Year in the North West, an accolade he also received in 1998. He also fell just short of the 1000 on more than one occasion. Never nearer than 2003, when - with Brigade - he scored 998 runs at 43.49, his highest a blistering 143* in the league against Donemana. Unfortunately, he failed in both innings of the Cup Final, seeing his side go down by 10 wickets to Strabane. A typical Smyth innings might have seen the Cup wrested from Co Tyrone hands, and him well past the 1000 yet again.
In 2010 he scored 1234 runs for Glendermott at 72.60 . This included a fine innings in the Second Round of the Irish Senior Cup against Phoenix. The Dubliners led off with an impressive 242-9 from their 50 overs, former Irish paceman, the Australian born David Langford Smith, hitting a spectacular 125. However Glendermott chased the target down for the loss of seven wickets, Stephen having made 72 in 89 minutes off 71 balls with seven 4s. His highest score in this competition, incidentally, had come in a home match for Limavady against Railway Union in the 2005 Semi Final. The hosts had scored 226 with Stephen's 88 by far the top score, 32 from Curry being the next best. Then he bowled his 10 overs for 36 runs and 3 wickets, including the then emerging talent of Kevin O'Brien, as the visitors won in a dramatic finish by one wicket. However his most impressive season in the tournament was, arguably, 1999 when he ensured Brigade's success in the Irish Senior - all North West - Final against Limavady. He had played a prominent part in their journey to the Trophy. He was a clear man of the match in the opening encounter against Muckamore, making a top score 40 in his side's 158, then bowling the foe out for 88, taking 5-16. The Quarter Final with Donemana again saw him in top form, striking a typically belligerent 85 to set up a 112 run victory. He again passed 50 in the Semi Final with Merrion, by now the only non North West side left in the competition. His 71 enabled Brigade to reach 199-6 before dismissing the Dubliners for 94. His appearance in the Final was, as is explained below in doubt but, as Ian Callender reported, "Limavady were on a hiding to nothing once Stephen Smyth was allowed to play." He hit eight 4s in an 80 ball 55. When he was dismissed by a catch at deep extra only 34 were needed in 19 overs with 6 wickets in hand.
At Senior Interprovincial Level, he did pass the 1000 run mark - just - with 1001 runs at 33.36. In his first season, while still only 18 he hit 72, top score against Munster at the Mardyke as North West totalled 203 before going on to win by 33 runs. Stephen made exactly 100 runs in the tournament, a not out enabling him to average 50. His highest score - 96 - was made, at No 3, against Ulster Town at Eglinton in 1995. He was denied his ton by being caught off Mark Patterson. The hosts scored a formidable 263-8 but owed much to Stephen and Bobby Rao (93) who put on 170 for the second wicket. A 148 run victory resulted. Two years earlier the same venue and same opposition had produced a somewhat similar match. NW, batting first, made 267-4 in 64.1 overs before declaring, Stephen hitting 77 while Rao reached 103*. On this occasion their partnership - for the 3rd wicket - was worth 156. The visitors were then dismissed for 185. The highest of his three other half centuries came against North Leinster at Limavady in 1992. Batting first the hosts made a more than useful 261-6 in 59 overs, Stephen scoring a typically elegant 86*. He had, however, to give second place to Junior McBrine (106). They added 146 for the 4th wicket. NL were never in the hunt, being dismissed for 160.
In 1990 he was one of the Ireland U 23 side which toured Scotland. He showed his best form in making 67* against West of Scotland as Ireland reached 144-4 in reply to their hosts' 182. Opening Stephen put on 51 for the first wicket with Alan Rutherford and 74 for the 4th with Mark Nulty.
For Ireland Stephen scored 1912 runs at 28.07 with one century and ten 50s. There can be little doubt that he would have gone well past 2000 had his career in the national side not been interrupted, once temporarily and then permanently, by controversial incidents, which will be described after the highlights of his career are examined. He began with a half century, 59* v Worcestershire at Castle Avenue in 1990. This was the second of two one day matches the county played at Clontarf on that visit. In this match they made 304-8 before using eight bowlers as Ireland responded with 158-8. Stephen, who came in at 5, batting through the rest of the innings against an attack which included Ian Botham and Phil Newport who had played against Australia, the previous summer.
He made a half century on the Zimbabwe tour of 191, but was next seen at his best during the 1994 season. Against Scotland, in the then annual three day match played that year at Hamilton Crescent Glasgow, he made 70 in the first innings of 316 before being caught off Gavin Hamilton. He batted 163 minutes, faced 117 balls and hit ten 4s and was described as having batted "very well", his innings being ended by a catch low down to second slip's right hand. That same season, however, he played what was undoubtedly his best innings for Ireland so far, 61 in a Nat West match against Northamptonshire at Wantage Road. He came in at 3 after Curtley Ambrose had disposed of Michael Rea and - in a rain interrupted innings - faced 122 balls, hitting six 4s. He put on 83 with Stephen Warke for the second wicket. He eventually fell to a catch at mid on, checking a drive against Zimbabwe all rounder Kevin Curran, who, considering his name and nationality on his passport, should, perhaps, have been batting with Stephen, rather than bowling against him.
His highest score for Ireland came the following summer when he passed 50 on three occasions. At Castle Avenue, the visiting West Indies, continuing to lay the ghost of Sion Mills, raced to 306-4, with Chanderpaul, for once abandoning crab like defence, to score a brilliant 101. In reply Ireland were 26-3 in 11overs against Ian Bishop and Otis Gibson. Then Stephen, who had come in at 0-1 was joined by Justin Benson. They batted out the remaining 22 overs, putting on 161, Benson making 76. Stephen finished on 98, Benson having given him the strike for the last 4 balls. However the cherished three figures eluded him, Derek Scott's report saying that, "he tried too hard", only mustering a 2 off those final deliveries. Though the bowling became more varied and less demanding as the overs ticked by, it was a magnificent innings. He made his 50 off 66 balls and, in all, faced 107 balls, hitting fifteen 4s.
His best season or Ireland came in 1998, after a period in which he had been unavailable or not selected for the best part of two seasons partly because of his rugby commitments. However he returned in a blaze of glory scoring 703 runs at 37.06 with one hundred and three 50s. The hundred came at Pollock Park in a two day match with MCC. Batting first Ireland made 267-6 with Stephen hitting a superb and error free 102. "He never made a mistake in an innings of true class, " reported Derek Scott. He hit ten 4s and one 6. In his second innings he made a stylish and dominating 38, Ian Callender commenting that he, " again held centre stage and, if anything batted better than he did in the first innings." The 38 came off 45 balls with seven 4s. He led Ireland to victory in the Triple Crown match against Wales at Paisley, his one international experience of captaincy and was also in good form with the bat in the European Championships at The Hague with an 84 ball 52 against England and a fine 93 against Scotland in the third place play of. Ireland lost by 4 wickets, but Stephen's runs came off 127 balls and included eight 4s. The 1998 Irish season concluded with a visit from a very strong Australia A side including six Test players captained by Michael Di Venuto, later to become one of the most consistent batsmen in the County Championship for Derbyshire and Durham. They were, unsurprisingly, somewhat too strong for Ireland but Stephen played two notable innings against them in the unofficial ODI series. The opening math at Castle Avenue was first interrupted then abandoned because of rain. Coming in at 3 after Kyle McCallan had been caught by Colin Miller off fastman Andy Bichel, he was made 39 including 20 off an over from Bichel, smashing him for five consecutive 4s. As one who watched Bichel many times during his time with Worcestershire this writer can confirm that this was an achievement few batsmen could match. Stephen was eventually out for 39, his concentration perhaps disturbed by a rain break. He really shone in the fourth match at Downpatrick. The visitors had notched a handy 268-8 with Damien Martin making 98 and Di Venuto 52. With the exception of Stephen's innings, Ireland's reply was a disaster. Stephen made a magnificent 50, taking on Bichel successfully once more, but only two other double figure scores were made. Steve Waugh, assisting Ireland, and the redoubtable Mr Extras both reaching 17. Ireland were all out for 98. Stephen batted for 81 balls, becoming during the course of his innings the first Irish player to pass 700 runs in a season. For some of the Irish side there was another hurdle to meet. A Northern Ireland side, under Alan Rutherford, went to the Commonwealth Games at Kuala Lumpur. They found most of the opposition very testing but there were some fine individual performances, as well as a victory over Bangladesh. Stephen with 55 against Barbados made the team's highest score.
By the end of the following season, however, he was out of the Irish side under a five year ban, which effectively ended his career at international level. Unfortunately no study of his time with Ireland would be complete without reference the two incidents which meant that he played many fewer matches than he should have. The first occurred in 1994, shortly before the Irish team was due to depart for Kenya and the ICC Trophy. Against instructions, he played rugby for City of Derry in an All Ireland League match against Dublin Club De La Salle. This led to his being deselected from the Irish side for those matches.
As we have seen he was key member of the side in 1994 and 95, but after playing only twice in 1996 - making 32 against Sussex with five 4s in an early season Benson and Hedges match, he did not play at all in the following season. These absences were partly due to his rugby commitments as he was now a member of the full Ulster XV. Though not in top form for Ireland during the 1999 season, he remained an automatic selection until an incident in the team's hotel during the one day series against South Africa A. To explain what happened we can do no better than to quote from Derek Scott's annual article on Irish Cricket in Wisden. "Stephen Smyth, Ireland's leading batsman, was disciplined after a fight with a team-mate in the team's hotel and suspended from international cricket for five years." Derek, perceptive as ever, added, "Smyth is a gifted cricketer and his loss will be severe." A one year ban from all cricket was also imposed but the NWCU considered it legally unenforceable so that Stephen was cleared to play in the Irish Cup Final with results already described.
This study has no wish to rake over old ground or become involved in arguments over rights and wrongs. However all would surely agree that Stephen's absence from Irish sides in the early years of the new century was most unfortunate. His continued dominance of bowlers in the North West shows just what was being missed. He must rank in the pantheon of Irish batsmen and for any fantasy All Time North West XI to play The Rest of Ireland, The World, or - as might be most appropriate - Galifrey, Stephen George Smyth would surely be a first pick.
He is profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald "Ireland's 100 Cricket Greats."
Edward Liddle, January 2011
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