DateLine: 20th December 2005
Considering he is England’s most capped Test match cricketer of all time, and that he was one of England’s best batsmen (and arguably the most entertaining) of the 1990’s, the lack of warmth towards Alec Stewart from certain cricketing quarters is at first glance somewhat puzzling. He made his Test debut in the Caribbean in 1989-90, with his father Mickey in place as cricket manager. It is often forgotten that Stewart opened in this series (to much tut-tutting that a third opener hadn’t been picked for the tour) in an auxiliary role, after Graham Gooch had been injured. A maiden century came against Sri Lanka in 1991, and, whether keeping or not, so began a virtually ever present run in the team until his retirement in 2003. The argument that Stewart averaged less when he was keeping always overlooked the fact that it was against the better teams (and hence better bowling attacks) that England inevitably needed the extra player which necessitated him taking the gloves. It also ignores the fact that his keeping was performed to a very high standard for the majority of his career. Where the wicket-keeping affected Stewart was when it led to him batting in the middle order. As an opener, his exceptionally crisp cover drives and pulls could be used to counter attacking excellence. Fast bowling meant little to him, other than it meant the ball hit the boundary boards a bit quicker. A perfect example of this came against the West Indies in April 1994, where his century in each innings gave England the perfect bridgehead from which to storm fortress Barbados.
However, against spin, his hard hands and almost spontaneous reflexes, (which served him so well against the quicks) rendered him vulnerable to the greater subtleties of slow bowling. Having him in the middle order increased his chances of facing spin, as well as robbing the team of the contrasting, but complimentary Stewart-Atherton opening axis. Coincidentally, it was also spin which tested him most as a keeper, although the heavily seam focused nature of the various England attacks of Stewart’s era meant this wasn’t as big a problem as it might have been. Considering that his victorious captaincy against the South Africans in 1998 was England’s first series win against a cricketing superpower in over a decade, it is often overlooked or downplayed. This is partly due to unproved suspicions over the series (Hansie Cronje was the opposing skipper), and partly due to another Ashes trouncing in the winter and a poor World Cup campaign of 1999. England flopped in this tournament despite the fact that it took place in the unique conditions of the early English season. He had ascended to the captaincy thanks to his status as senior pro rather than for his average past record as Surrey skipper. Widely renowned as one of the tidiest and smartest cricketers in history, it was felt that the captaincy style of ‘Sgt Major Stewart’ was overly rigid and regimented, and that it left no room for potentially match winning (but also potentially difficult) characters like Phil Tufnell and Andy Caddick.
His century in his 100th Test at Manchester in 2000 provoked a tumultuous crowd response, in appreciation of both the rich strokeplay of that innings and also of his efforts through the 1990’s. However, some later events would take a certain gloss of the Stewart legend. A claim that Stewart had taken money for information on the England tour to India in 1992-3 were laughed off (his reputation was as clean as one of his square cuts) by all except a deeply shocked Stewart, although his rather huffy refusal to tour India in 2001-2, while (correctly) assuming that he would walk back in the team at a more convenient time wasn’t terribly endearing. Similarly, his announcement just prior to the start of the 2003 series against South Africa that it would be his last as a Test cricketer was seen by some as a calculated attempt to hold onto his place in the team for one last summer, and contrasted with the proclamationless departure of Michael Atherton from the international arena. After a poor start to the series with the bat, and with occasionally imperfect glove work, a more ruthless hierarchy may not have allowed Stewart his final curtain call at The Oval in the Fifth and final Test of the summer. Certainly Ian Healy was ruthlessly cut off by the Australian selectors when a home ground farewell beckoned, although as Stewart scored 38 in the series levelling finale, all was more or less well. Stewart’s predictable, hackneyed public utterances and perfectly placed creases and hair did juxtapose with the sheer fun which his batting was to watch. For all the entertainment he gave though, and for sheer length of service, the cricketing public will always be grateful.
(Article: Copyright © 2005 Matthew Reed)