Photo Credit: Cricket South Africa
The market town of Ashby-De-La-Zouch in Leicestershire, England wouldn’t have known that in time it would produce one of the finest and formidable left-handed and right-arm bowler in its history. And Karen Smithies etched her name in the ledgers of history.
Smithies’ father was a local club cricketer, captain, groundsman, and treasurer of the NW Leicestershire Miners Welfare cricket team. Her mother was the tea lady, while Smithies and her sister were scorers – a complete management team. Unbeknown to them, that young scorer would one day be appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to ladies’ cricket!
Smithies started playing cricket at an early age and eventually got to play in the boys U18 local cricket club side from when she was 15. Owing to her pedigree in the game, word was passed around and she was eventually taken to Nottingham for trials. One of the English all-time women’s cricket greats, Enid Bakewell, who was playing for Nottinghamshire at the time, took Smithies under her wing as she sauntered into the England junior side.
Her first outing with the junior side was in 1984 when they went on tour to play Denmark. This was followed by a test debut in 1986 and later a One-Day International (ODI) in 1987.
“It was all very amateur then, so every tour away my parents had to pay for me to go,” recalled Smithies.
And then the inevitable happened.
“Things happened pretty quickly after that,” recalled Smithies. She went on to play in three Women’s Cricket World Cups between 1988 and 1997, and captained the England side which won its second World Cup title in 1993.
“I was delighted to have scooped the joint leading wicket-taker title in that tournament,” said Smithies proudly.
“But all of that I played 69 ODI’s [One-Day Internationals] and 15 Test matches between 1986 and 2000 and was captain of England between 1993 and 2000,” she added.
Smithies has travelled to countries such as India, New Zealand, and Australia where she met “great, unbelievable, and fantastic people – not just in the cricket world” – along the way and experienced different cultures. She described her sojourns as “part of my memory and journey”.
She singled out India, a country she had been to twice – for a Test series and World Cup – as one that bestowed her with special memories.
“To play in a country that is so passionate about cricket was unbelievable. But that moment when we met Mother Teresa, in Kolkata and had morning mass with her, was the pinnacle of my experience. We went to an orphanage with her, and I’ll never forget the sight of what we saw of the amazing work that she was doing. It was so inspirational to meet somebody like that.
“And cricket brought me that; I was there because of cricket,” said Smithies fondly.
Smithies’ England side played the Proteas women at Lords in the UK in 1997. Post that she was, in 1998, lured to South Africa to become player-coach at the University of Pretoria. She subsequently fell in love with the country so much that upon her retirement from international cricket in 2000, she decided to permanently settle in the country. In 2003 she got employed at Northerns Cricket Union as the head coach for the women senior team, the U19 set-up and oversaw the U16 and U13 teams respectively.
“It was really great for me that I had the opportunity; I’ll never forget it. I come from a different background, so, travelling to areas such as Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Soshanguve, Laudium, Eersterust, and Hammanskraal to interact with schools and clubs and seeing many many young girls wanting to have a shot at playing the game gave me a cause. There was just a lot of natural talent around,” she said.
Smithies completed her level one and two coaching certificates with the ECB in the UK and level three in South Africa.
She was in time to produce some of the finest women cricketers in history. She instilled in them the “love and passion for the game”. Smithies resolved to do her utmost to feed her experience and privileges of having played the game at an international level back to them.
“One thing I got inspired by was that these players were united in their quest to make something of themselves. They came into the cricket environment with very little knowledge of the game, yet they had this amazing drive to be part of something that really didn’t give that much to them at the time. They were committed to something bigger.”
Ever passion-driven and forward-looking, Smithies laments the lack of progression in enriching the schools’ cricket pipeline. She submits that more should be done to get young women in that sector enticed to play cricket.
“I think the grassroots level really needs to be looked at. Let’s follow talent. There are opportunities to grow the game within schools. Also, the club cricket ecosystem needs to be sustainable. The legacy of the recent U19 World Cup is massive. It gives youngsters from high school and the U19s something to work to. The World Cups that were held in South Africa brought youngsters closer to the game, especially international cricket. This is something to be leveraged to enrich the senior side.”
She also sees a silver-lining. “There is now a clear vision for women’s cricket. Women cricket players now have opportunities, which were never there before. There is remuneration involved. The world has opened up. They can play anywhere in the world. All they need to do is work hard and put in everything within their power to better themselves.”
Smithies is the embodiment of longevity and staying power. Having spent 17 years in the employ of the Titans, she was a major of part of the growth of stars that are adorning the cricket landscape.
“I learnt a lot along the way. I remember having been nowhere near a computer, let alone knowing anything about administration. It was so scary, and I was accordingly very scared,” she candidly admits. A warrior of note, she overcame her shortcomings and came out victor on the other side.
A walking encyclopaedia on the cricket-playing environment, Smithies, who was in 2017 granted the coveted MCC membership, is the go-to person for players and coaches, something she would rather be hush about – humility in action.
This Titans Men & Women Team Manager however comfortably offers: “I am fortunate to work in an environment that promotes teamwork and a shared vision. I feel privileged to have worked with six coaches over the years, who have all contributed towards my growth. It is this comradery that has assured us 19 domestic cricket trophies in the Titans cabinet.”
Smithies (or Kaz as she is fondly known) gave her life to cricket. Her commitment, dedication, and appetite to give back is unmatched. From being a young scorer in that town of Ashby-De-La-Zouch in Leicestershire, England, to being a cricket great, able to unearth and produce other legendary women cricketers, is more than inspiring; it is a gift to humanity. Her’s is a journey anchored on motivation, peppered with humility, sprinkled with the temperament to create a rich legacy.
“The game has always been part of me,” said this globetrotter, whose travels include Abu Dhabi, Namibia, and Seychelles, to name but a few of her escapades.
Indeed. Kaz has been either playing, coaching or in administration for 39 years! “One thing that remains constant throughout is my passion and love for the game,” emphatically added this stalwart of the game.