By Richard Edwards
27th June 2023
Last week the ICC published its latest global rankings. And the one, two, three of Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith and Travis Head provided a sizeable shot in the arm for English club cricket at large, and Sandwich, Sevenoaks Vine and Ventnor in particular.
Between 2007 and 2014, the Aussie trio honed their skills away from the rockhard and rapid pitches of South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, swapping them for tracks in the Garden of England and the Isle of Wight.
“We drew lots to get him,” says Rob Snell, who played alongside Head for Ventnor in the Southern League in 2013. “It was the first summer that a group of Australians had come over to play in Hampshire’s International Cricket Academy. There were six of them and they basically entered a draw with six league clubs from across the South of England.
“We got Travis, Ashton Agar went to Henley and the others went elsewhere. I guess the whole thing was a little bit strange but it worked out pretty well for us!”
All three have since gone on to become some of the most consistent runscorers in the sport’s longest format, at the last count (and before Australia’s second innings at Edgbaston) amassing a tally of close to 15,000 Test runs.
And all three are fondly remembered by the clubs they graced long before they became household names in Australia and beyond.
Smith is a case in point, although, ironically, he wasn’t supposed to have played for Sevenoaks Vine at all. He had originally travelled to England to play in the Lancashire League but suffered a bout of homesickness in the north west and was taken in by a family friend near a club that includes the likes of Paul Downtown, Chris Tavare and Ed Smith among its alumni. No-one knew it at the time - and it looked unlikely as Smith began his career in England in the club’s Second XI - but the 2007 intake would go on to be the most famous of the lot.
“The club had signed a Grade player from Sydney (by the name of Matt Wallace) and so Steve had to start in the second team,” says Sevenoaks’ new chairman, Hugo Tudor. “He didn’t stay there for very long.”
His first innings hinted that the Kent club had stumbled across someone rather special. Playing Blackheath, Sevenoaks were set an apparently daunting total of 367 from 50 overs. The kid from Sydney made the target look like child’s play, scoring 185 not out as the Vine sprinted home with five overs to spare.
“Our original overseas players saw what Steve did and immediately stepped aside,” says Tudor. “It actually worked out very well. The second team won the league and he scored a ton of runs.”
Smith himself would spend the summer fighting off advances from England, whose ears pricked up when it emerged that the precocious young leg-spinning batter was the owner of a UK passport, thanks to his English mother.
By the end of May, he was playing for Kent Second XI alongside the likes of Matt Coles and Sam Northeast. Surrey also expressed an interest in taking him to the Oval - more for his bowling than his batting.
“He came to us as a leg-spinner who could bat,” says Alan Butcher, the then coach of Surrey Second XI. “And I certainly wouldn’t have said it was obvious that he would end up where he is today as a batter.
“He was obviously talented, he had great hand-eye co-ordination, he was always going to get somewhere, but I think if you even asked people back in Australia at that time, then it wasn’t clear that he was going to achieve what he has eventually achieved.”
Regardless of everything that has followed since Smith is fondly remembered.
“He was a very popular figure here, and there’s an enormous amount of pride in everything he has achieved,” says Tudor.
The same is true on Kent’s east coach, where Marnus Labushagne was a regular sight on the beach dissecting his game and imagining what might come the following Saturday while he skimmed stones in the Channel.
“I’d go for an hour’s walk, sit on a bench and visualise my innings ball by ball – literally until I got a hundred,” he told BBC Sport back in December 2022. “The first game for Sandwich, I got 127 in 24 overs. We played 55-over games. There was still more than half the overs left, and I got out.
“I thought if ‘I want to get a double hundred, I need to visualise it’. The next week I visualised the hundred, then getting to 200. I got 203 not out.”
Food for thought from the former Sandwich man.
For those involved in the club game, though, Labuschagne, Smith and Head have shown that the English finishing school is still as good as it gets.
Regardless of the outcome of the Ashes, that’s something well worth celebrating.