How often do we talk glibly about “heartbreak” in the all-consuming world of professional sport? It can be bandied about without thinking in the heat of the match-defining moment – the missed milestone, the tight finish, the thought of what might have been, if only that crucial moment had gone your way.
But when Gloucestershire’s hopes of silverware ebbed away on a soggy Finals Day at Edgbaston in October, perspective was the one thing that their defeated dressing room retained in abundance. For, as Tom Smith, their left-arm spinner, puts it: “we’ve all been through a few things in our lives”.
Two years ago, Smith himself was close to walking away from cricket in a grief-stricken blur, following the death of his wife Laura from a rare form of liver cancer – a tragedy that left him bringing up two young daughters on his own, and fearing that he would forever be judged in his day job as “the widower”.
But, he says, the love and support of his Gloucestershire team-mates helped carry him through the darkest days of his life – and vice versa too, for remarkably, he was not alone in experiencing some of the rawest grief imaginable.
“When you think what the dressing room’s been through, it’s pretty incredible,” Smith tells ESPNcricinfo. “So much has happened over such a short period of time. It’s made us a very mature group of players, very emotionally intelligent.”
In April 2018, the club’s assistant coach Ian Harvey suffered the loss of his own wife Amanda, while in 2017, Gareth Roderick’s father took his own life. In the same timeframe, Cindy Klinger, wife of the former club captain Michael, underwent multiple operations for Stage 4 breast cancer, while Benny Howell’s lifelong struggle with ADHD is further evidence that the club offers a level of genuine emotional support that few employers could hope to replicate.
And today, for Smith, that support has been reaffirmed in a new three-year contract that offers him the chance to step into a coaching role at the club in the final year of his deal.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity for me,” Smith says. “I’ve always thought that coaching would be something I’d like to transition into after my playing days, but to be given an official role is very exciting and I can’t wait to get started. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this club. They believe in backing the individual, as well as the cricketer, and they’ve supported me every step of the way.”
The deal is a reflection not only of Gloucestershire’s willingness to invest in its people, but of the levels to which Smith himself has lifted his game, which he now freely admits has helped him to feel alive again after months of “numbness” in the aftermath of Laura’s death in August 2018.
In this year’s Blast, Smith truly came into his own, claiming 14 wickets at 17.35 in Gloucestershire’s run to Finals Day, at a remarkable economy rate of 5.92. And while he was unable to exert his hold on their semi-final, as Surrey dominated a rain-reduced contest at Edgbaston, he nevertheless finished the season with a small but significant personal accolade, the Gloucestershire Supporters’ Player of the Year.
“I feel like I’ve improved every year, really,” Smith says. “I guess that comes with age and experience, and the hunger to be better, but so long as my numbers are getting better each year, I’d like to play as long as possible.
“But I know that cricket will come to an end eventually, and with the girls to think about, I’ve got no option but to plan for the future,” he adds. “The last thing I want to do is sit back and relax, and think I’ve got three good years ahead of me – that’s not me at all. I just want to keep improving on and off the field, and be the best me I can be.”
Taking life for granted has not been an option for Smith since Laura’s death, and never was that more apparent than during the grim early months of the English summer. The country was in lockdown and instead of preparing for the cricket season, Smith was furloughed in his house in Bristol, with his waking hours taking up with home-schooling for Rosie, aged 6, and Clara, 4.
“It was very, very hard,” he says. “I think the lack of exercise really troubled me the most, because with the children being so young, our one outing a day was spent with Rosie riding a bike and me pushing Clara around in the buggy while she went to sleep in the afternoon.
“I just wasn’t exercising. I was sat at the table doing phonics, and just didn’t feel in control of anything. I was living the same day over and over.”
Eventually, Smith began doing shuttle runs in his 15 metres of back garden, just to guard against pulling a hamstring if, by some miracle, the season did get back up and running. But then, suddenly, there was light at the end of the tunnel as Gloucestershire’s players were called back for pre-season training, and as the campaign got underway in August, Smith found himself experiencing a joy that he had struggled to replicate in the preceding months.
“I look back at it, and although it was awful, a really dark period for me, in a way it was quite positive because it enabled me to feel the way I’m feeling now,” he says. “There’s happiness and reflection on a good season, but also I just enjoyed my job, which is something I can’t say I’ve truly felt with all the stress of the past few years.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that you just have to try and enjoy the game, there’s so much stress and there’s so much pressure on performance. It’s easy to say that, but I do feel over the last few years I’ve just enjoyed the game, because we are so fortunate to do what we do.”
“For the longest time, I felt like I was just existing really,” he admits. “Playing cricket, looking after the children, I just felt numb all the time. I did think about retiring because I didn’t want to be known as the widower, I wanted to be known for my cricket. I just didn’t want that judgement.
“I know it was all cooked up in my head, but it took me a while to realise that. And as the year went on, I got more and more excited by the prospect of the season and realised it was something I wanted to do.
“For me to go through that, where cricket was taken away, was something that I’d never experienced. I always had cricket in my life since I was tiny, so it really made me appreciate what I do for a career, and how lucky I am to play for Gloucester with a great group of players, who are extremely supportive of my situation.
“You do wear a bit of a mask as a cricketer,” Smith adds. “You leave your home as a single parent and then you arrive at the ground as a sportsman. You’re judged for what you do on the field, so I feel very free on the pitch. It’s a chance to stop thinking about what’s going on at home, or worrying about the children. I can just go out and perform.”
Clearly it’s not quite that simple, and Smith has spoken previously of the huge support he received from the PCA’s Professional Cricketers’ Trust, through whom he was able – among other crucial contributions – to source a nanny to provide his girls with the maternal support they would so clearly need when he was away for a match.
But even the littlest details of Smith’s career are complicated by his changed circumstances. “The club understands that sometimes I’ll be late to training because the timings overlap with the school run, or that I’ll be unable to commit to an event because I have other stuff on,” he says. “They’ve allowed me to be the best single parent that I can be, so to be able to commit to them for another three years, and thank them for their support, is something that’s really important to me.”
The one disappointment for Smith was that he was unable to share any of his rediscovered love of cricket directly with his girls this summer. Though he concedes that neither of them is especially sporty, and that Clara tended to be scared of the fireworks whenever she came to the Blast in preceding seasons, the inability to involve them in the fabric of the club this year is something he regrets.
“I would have loved them to come to some of the summer, but it wasn’t to be,” he says. “But most of the players probably suffered in the same way. The lack of crowds was one thing but many players’ parents, brothers and sisters come to most games. The cricket is just as important to them as to the individual.”
At the age of 33, Smith is confident that he will continue to give his best on the field for Gloucestershire for some time yet, but is understandably cautious about what the future may hold, notwithstanding the coaching path onto which he appears to be heading, and for which he will soon be embarking on his ECB Level 4 badge.
“I’ve got to be realistic that there may not be a job at the end of the three years,” he says, “if all the spaces are filled or if Covid hits badly, and budgets are tight. But I’ve always used my winters well and tried to do work experience and extra studies. I’m currently working for a wealth management company, which keeps me busy because I still have to actively think about what I might do if the coaching isn’t there.”
For the time being though, Smith knows that his life experiences will be of value in aiding Gloucestershire’s next generation of cricketers, particularly spinners – a breed that tend to require sympathetic handling in their developmental stages.
“I do think that some of what I’ve been through in the last few years will be of value to young players,” he says. “Everyone goes through periods of their careers where they believe that one bowl or one bat is going to be it for them, and that puts them under so much pressure.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that you just have to try and enjoy the game, there’s so much stress and there’s so much pressure on performance. It’s easy to say that, but I do feel over the last few years I’ve just enjoyed the game, because we are so fortunate to do what we do.
“I’ve noticed it more and more in recent times when dropping the children off to school,” he adds. “The parents are worried about the security of their jobs, or they’re working all the hours through the night, and we just go and play cricket.
“Of course there is stress around that, you do have to perform, but I also think we’re so fortunate. It’s taken me a while to realise that but I think if I can pass that on to the next generation, it’s hugely important.”