Article by Neil Robinson 27/07/03
Surprising news came from the England camp just before the commencement of the first Test against South Africa, an announcement by veteran wicket-keeper Alec Stewart that he is to retire from Test Cricket at the end of this current Series.
For a man as dedicated and even at 40, as fit and worthy of his place in the England side as Stewart, it can’t have been an easy decision, but it seems that Stewart addressed it in typically forthright fashion. Speaking to Sky Sports recently, Stewart spoke of having thought about his future over the weekend prior to his announcement, then quickly informed the England management team of his decision. “Once I’d made the decision, there was no point keeping it a secret,” he said. Of his reasons he remarked, “I asked myself if I wanted to tour again, this winter. The answer was no.” That meant, he said, a big series against South Africa to go out on.
So a final Series of five Tests beckons, a genuine challenge against a side rated number two in the world and an emotional farewell at his home ground at the end of it. But inevitably there will now be those who feel Stewart having stated that the long term future lies in other hands, the selectors ought to put it in those hands immediately. In characteristic fashion, Stewart himself is taking nothing for granted. “I’ve received no assurances from the selectors,” he said, “and I wouldn’t expect any....but in a dream world it would be nice to wave goodbye at The Oval.” It is almost inconceivable, barring injury, this emotional farewell could be denied him. The ovation he will no doubt receive is sure to ring out not just at The Oval, but in living rooms, bars and clubhouses across the land.
Stewart’s announcement must surely settle the debate about who should keep wicket for England over the rest of the summer. A lot of column inches have been devoted to the question of whether he should continue or be replaced by a younger man, Stewart himself admitted as much yesterday, “The speculation can now stop,” he said. With the five match Test series against South Africa about to begin, England can now concentrate on fielding their strongest side, knowing that the time for rebuilding is close at hand. For the remaining weeks of the season, an unholy scramble can now begin among the would-be successors to his crown. It should be quite a battle. England currently possesses a finer crop of young glovemen than it has done for at least twenty years. Chris Read and James Foster have already gained honours, snapping at their heels are Marc Wallace, Matt Prior, Tim Ambrose and Kent’s Geraint Jones (currently heading the first-class batting averages), while Jack Russell’s understudy at Gloucestershire, young Steven Pope, caused a stir with a superb showing in the Twenty20 semi-finals at Trent Bridge at the recently. The cupboard, far from bare, is bulging at the hinges.
If future prospects are exciting, it is no less stirring to look back on Stewart’s thirteen year career. I wrote a more detailed appraisal of his achievements on this site earlier in the summer, but a few notable statistics ought to be reprised. Currently standing on 128 Tests, Stewart is the most capped player in English history. In terms of runs scored he stands second only to Graham Gooch. He remains England’s leading runscorer in one-day cricket. This is not to forget the fact that he also kept wicket to the highest standard (despite a known preference for playing simply as an opening batsman), captained the side (pulling off England’s first win in a five match series for twelve years against South Africa in 1998), and sometimes combined both these duties with opening the batting, an impossible job he carried out without complaint and with an old-fashioned sense of duty. There were times when you felt he would gladly have made the tea, rolled the pitch, carried the bags and driven the team bus too. He would still have had a smile and an honest word for the media at the end of the day even then.
All, of this, never forget, was during an era of seemingly unremitting failure for the England team, when to be an England cricketer was to be a target for media derision and public scorn. Alec Stewart was always there, fit as a fiddle, smart as a pin and tenacious as a bulldog, sometimes, as in his twin centuries in the Barbados Test of 1994, scintillatingly brilliant. He stood there as a model of everything English cricket should be, in a decade when so much of English cricket certainly was not. As well as that he was the finest English strokeplayer of his generation.
Stewart says that he has not given his future beyond his playing days too much thought. Not surprising, his mind has always been on the job in hand. He plans to play on for Surrey in 2004, “if selected.” Beyond that he hopes to remain in sport in some capacity. But for the next two months we can be sure that such thoughts will be at the back of his mind while he concentrates on helping England beat South Africa. There will be personal goals along the way, keeping his Test average above 40, perhaps a farewell century at The Oval. Few would bet against him in either case. Then, on the ground where it all began, he can take his bow and leave the field to think about a life in which there are more important things than playing cricket. Hopefully, Jacques Kallis, currently back in South Africa at his father’s bedside, will be back to tell him all about that. We wish them both well.