By Neil Robinson 13/04/03
Abc of Cricket’s UK Correspondent
Alec Stewart, celebrated his 40th birthday this week and as if to demonstrate that blowing out all those candles hadn’t left the old boy out of puff, England’s veteran wicket-keeper/batsman did so with the assertion that he intends to hold on to those England gauntlets for a while yet. “My pride in playing for England is as great as it was when I was 25,” he said. “And that will continue until I give it up.” Old man Alec, he just keeps rolling along.
The recent World Cup proved a watershed for some of international cricket’s elder statesmen. Some elected to bow out of one day internationals in order to prolong Test careers and restore flagging enthusiasm, others such as Aravinda De Silva called it a day altogether. As the oldest player representing any of the senior teams in the tournament, Stewart may have been thought a likely candidate to join this exodus, but that would be to underestimate the passion for the game, which is at the very core of Alec Stewart’s being.
Stewart, was one of a generation of promising young batsmen who rose to prominence in County Cricket during the mid 1980s. The fact, he was one of the last of these to gain international recognition, may well be down to his father Micky’s position as then England manager leaving the selectors concerned about possible charges of nepotism. Even in the fledgling days of ‘86 he looked a classier prospect than the likes of Bailey and Whitaker, but the call did not come.
It wasn’t until Graham Gooch’s tour of the West Indies in early 1990, that Stewart’s chance came and in the aftermath of the disastrous summer of 1989 when it seemed every man in England had been given a chance against Allan Border’s all-conquering Aussies. There were perhaps two things about Stewart, which marked him out as a likely lad in Gooch’s eyes; a hint of steel in the young man’s make up and his useful ability as a stop-gap wicket-keeper. It was to be the second of these elements, which would carry Stewart through the ups and downs of his first two years as a Test batsman. The sparkling cameos with the bat, which saw other youngsters fall foul of selectorial impatience, were tolerable in a man who could fill two roles in any squad.
In recent years, Stewart’s position as wicket-keeper has become a certainty, but for much of the 1990s there was a vocal debate about whether he should concentrate on his batting alone and open the innings with Michael Atherton. In the end (helped somewhat by the retirement of Jack Russell) the desire for someone to perform the all-rounder role, allowing a balanced five-bowler attack, won the day. I have always had my doubts about that. English cricket has been obsessed with filling the all-rounder role since Botham slid past his peak. But, such genuine all-round talents are rare indeed, one comes perhaps every other generation. It is possible for a side to be great without a true all-rounder who can bat in the top six, indeed neither the last great West Indian side nor the great Australian one of the last ten years has had one, although Adam Gilchrist doubtless could fill the role if need be, but no great side has ever existed without a top class opening partnership. Without that, few sides have ever been even competent.
Stewart himself expressed a preference for playing solely as a batsman. But, international honours never come to a cricketer a la carte, they have to take what they are given. Alec Stewart was handed the gloves and to his great credit he never complained about it. He performed as well in this taxing role as anyone could have hoped, his glovework improving from merely competent at first to highly accomplished, his batting gradually adapting to a slot further down the order. At times he was asked to take on the burden of keeping and opening the batting, he did so without demur. He inherited the captaincy from Michael Atherton and did a better job with it than he was generally given credit for. For some years there was a suspicion, if it were physically possible, he would have opened the bowling and made the tea at the same time too!
Through it all; Alec Stewart’s commitment, enthusiasm and professionalism were an object lesson in what an English Test cricketer should be. But, it is hard not to wonder what might have been had all that energy, all that skill, all that pride been directed solely into developing the promising Atherton-Stewart partnership at the top of the order into the best in the world. How different might that lost decade of the 1990s have looked if England’s bowlers hadn’t had to keep defending totals of less than 250, if the likes of Thorpe and Hick had been coming to the wicket at 180 for 2 rather than 50 for 2?
When a player reaches 40, inevitably his career will be looked upon with a hint of retrospection. To have reached such an age and still be a leading player, he must by definition have been (still be) among the most highly skilled, dedicated and respected of his generation. But, the Alec Stewart story may not be over yet. Everything that made him a great player is telling him not to give up while he can still do the job. It is probably beyond the character of the man even to contemplate retirement until it becomes humiliatingly obvious, that the time has come. That stage may still be some way off. How long can he go on? To the end of this summer with a final bow at his home ground, The Oval? Or will he be tempted to finish it off where he started, on next spring’s tour of the West Indies; where he could be part of the first England team to win a series there since 1968. Perhaps even the Ashes of 2005 are in his sights!
In every English cricket fan there is a streak of romanticism and sentimentality, which runs deep. Which is why I’m sure, I am not alone in imagining Alec Stewart striding proudly from the stage with his bat raised in gratitude and several thousand fans on their feet as the applause echoes round south London come September. Part of me really hopes it could end that way and yet (it feels almost blasphemous to be suggesting this) in my head, I feel sure the right time for the curtain to fall is now.
There are two targets at which English cricket is invariably aiming. The Ashes and the World Cup. Having just taken on both in the space of a couple of months and not having to face either again for another two years, England are fortunate in having a little time on their hands for planning and rebuilding. Clearly, some experienced heads will still be needed, those who suggest England should simply sweep away the old guard and start again with a team of kids are deluding themselves. In modern cricket you could only get away with that if you were playing Bangladesh every week. The sensible way is to do these things gradually, allowing new players to bed themselves in alongside more experienced types before going on themselves to mentor the next influx. Andrew Caddick, will still be needed to lead the attack until one of the young bloods, Anderson or Harmison, can be trusted with the responsibility. Hussain and Butcher, will be needed in the middle order, until someone like Key, Collingwood or Bell has become established.
The one senior player, who for all his continued ability to do the job could most easily be replaced, would be Alec Stewart. Twelve months ago, it looked like Stewart was finished already, having missed the winter tours it seemed like young Jamie Foster had secured his place with increasing aplomb. But, Foster broke an arm in the nets and Stewart returned to deliver one of his greatest summers yet. Foster had another chance this winter, when Stewart missed the Melbourne Test through injury. The young pretender did well again, his slick keeping having improved since his last outing and his batting showing guts and technique.
Foster, is the selectors’ preferred alternative at the moment, but Chris Read of Nottinghamshire, also has many supporters, not least academy coach and Aussie legend Rodney Marsh ,who when asked if his young protege was a better bet than Foster, replied “I reckon he’s a better cricketer than most people I know.” Praise indeed. Another Australian, former Test spinner Ashley Mallett, reckons Read would be worth a Test slot on the strength of his batting alone.
In two years’ time, the Australians once more arrive on English soil. That’s a decent period of time in which to work out whether Foster or Read, is the man for the job and then to give the victor sufficient experience. I can’t help feeling, that while I have no doubt Alec Stewart could continue to perform superbly for England this summer, the time to start that process is now. If only Alec himself, or even the selectors, would realise it too.
But, Alec Stewart is still a centrally contracted player. Last week, when the ECB decided which of the England squad could play in the first round of County Championship matches, beginning April 18th and which should be held back until the third round on April 30th, Stewart was one of those to be held back. He remains, it would seem, very much part of the selectors’ plans for this summer. Old man Alec, he just keeps rolling, rolling along!