'Cricket has given me a platform to talk about grief and bereavement' - former Eastbourne and Sussex cricketer Tom Smith

In the past year, we have all experienced tough times and lives have been forced to change.

Tom Smith and David Payne celebrate as the final ball is hit for four to win the match against Somerset in this season’s Vitality Blast
Tom Smith and David Payne celebrate as the final ball is hit for four to win the match against Somerset in this season’s Vitality Blast

And no-one knows more than how life can change quickly than Tom Smith.

The former Eastbourne and Sussex cricketer suffered a tragic loss when his wife Laura died from a rare liver and bile duct cancer in August 2018. The loss hit him so hard he wanted to retire from the game he loves.

But thanks to support from the cricketing community he carried on at Gloucestershire and is now one of the first choices in their T20 team – and this year all his hard work and top performances were rewarded with the club’s Supporters’ Player of the Year award – his first gong since winning second team player of the year at Sussex.

Laura with Rosie and Clara

Single dad Tom, 33, who has two daughters, Rosie, aged 6, and Clara, aged 4, said cricket has given him a platform to talk about grief and bereavement. “Laura dying in August 2018, made me think a lot about my career and initially I felt the best thing would be to retire and get a more child friendly job and be around more for the girls – and luckily I didn’t get interviews for the jobs I applied for.

“Cricket has given me a platform to talk about grief and bereavement and also be able to perform as Tom Smith the cricketer and not be Tom Smith the widower.”

It was the love and support from the sport community as a whole that helped him through it. He said: “I have had a huge amount of love and support from the cricketing world, from county cricketers to people from the various league cricket teams I have been involved with over the years. I think for me winning the supporters’ player of the year was a display of this and all the people who have been part of my journey over the years coming together and voting for me and I really appreciate it.”

Tom revealed that the reason he wanted to retire from the game after Laura’s death was because of how people saw him on the field. “I was worried about being judged on the field not for my cricketing ability but by the fact I was a widower,” he said.

Tom Smith pictured with daughters Clara and Rosie - they are wearing the Rainbow Day kits worn when his Gloucesterhsire played Sussex 2019. The limited edition shirts and caps were sold in aid of Grief Encounter with the shirts selling out online and in the club shop on the day with 100% of proceeds going to the charity. They raised more than 10,000.

“I soon realised by the start of the following season that actually cricket was the release I needed and I have loved being on the field ever since, it gives me that release from the reality that I am living in my private life.”

Following 2018 and 2019, we have had a year that has not been easy for anyone.

And one sport that seemed to suffer more than any was cricket. After the season’s start being postponed in March, it was not until July that it got going.

For any professional sportsman that is tough, but Tom believes the people who run the game got it right.

Tom Smith with wife Laura, who died in 2018

He said: “The most frustrating thing for me was those beautiful sunny days in April and May which was the perfect cricketing weather, especially being a spinner, and no cricket was played.

“I think the administrators got it right, we got a lot of meaningful cricket in and each county had our safety as their top priority.”

The first lockdown saw Tom experience something he hadn’t done since he was 18 – not playing cricket or training with teammates. He said: “This was the hardest thing for me in lockdown. Since turning professional when I was 18, every day I have got up and played cricket or exercised or at least had the option to do so.

“In lockdown suddenly that all changed and my days were about being a single parent with two young girls and home-schooling. The one bit of exercise we had a day was spent pushing the buggy whilst my youngest daughter had a nap.

“I ended up running 5k doing laps of the garden most days which got me to a level to go back to training. Luckily in June schools reopened and the girls went back and that gave me a month to prepare for going back to training in July.”

Mental health has been highlighted more than ever in sport – and when professional athletes don’t get to do the job they love, it’s not easy.

He said: “If I am completely honest I didn’t cope particularly well. When cricket is a huge part of your identity and that is taken away it was a really dark time. I have often used cricket and exercise to escape from the issues in my private life and that was also challenging to do with two young girls at home. I think the first few months when it looked like the season might not start at all I found it difficult but once there was a confirmed start date then that was like the countdown to Christmas for me!” But how has Lockdown 2 differed for Tom and his family?

He said: “Lockdown 2 has been completely different to the first one. I have been able to drop the children to school and get some exercise in every day which has been delightful, and also not having to do home-schooling is a huge relief.”

Tom is currently furloughed but the people of Bristol will see him out and about, and he Rosie and Clara will have another distraction soon.

“There won’t be any cricket training but I will keep my fitness up, pounding the streets of Bristol.

“I am also working with a wealth management company (Tavistock private client) which should keep me busy. I have a puppy arriving on Friday so that will keep us all busy!”

Will Rosie or Clara follow in his footsteps in the world of cricket? Tom said: “Rosie is showing more sporting prowess than Clara. Rosie plays hockey and loves dancing and gymnastics, Clara seems to be more creative at the moment but there is still plenty of time to convert her!”

There will be more from Tom Smith to follow as talks about his time at Eastbourne and Sussex and the rest of his professional career