Age did not weary Alec Stewart
Alec Stewart turns 50 today, less than a decade after the end of his international career - it stands as a testimony to the level of fitness he maintained throughout his career that he remains the only player in the 21st century to appear in a Test after his 40th birthday; he later wrote that "If you're good enough, the date on your birth certificate is meaningless."
For much of the 1980s and 90s, the England selectors pursued a policy of 'safety first' - while other countries blooded promising players early to give them the longest career possible at the top level, England preferred to 'develop' players at county level, usually over a span of several years, before finally deciding that they were ready for Tests. Stewart was perhaps the starkest example of this; he had played nine seasons for Surrey before finally earning his international call-up just short of his 27th birthday.
To put that in perspective, he made his Test debut three months after Sachin Tendulkar, despite being ten years older; he still ended with the England record for most Test caps - one can only speculate as to how many more he might have played if he'd been picked even five years earlier.
Stewart's role in the England side was largely determined by who else was available, rather than by his own strengths - most observers reckoned Jack Russell was a better keeper, and Stewart's own batting average was markedly better when he didn't have to keep (47) than when he did (35), but for most of his career England had no-one good enough to bat in the top six and bowl a significant number of overs; periodically a player would come along who could bat a bit and bowl a bit (but in most cases, do neither very well), be labelled 'the new Botham', but fail to live up to the billing and rapidly fade. Thus for most of the decade the selectors were faced with a choice: play six specialist batsmen, Russell at seven and four bowlers; or six batsmen including Stewart as keeper, and five bowlers. For a few years they alternated between the two options before deciding on the latter as preferable, and after the 1998 tour of West Indies, Russell - four months younger than Stewart - never played again.
His finest hour came as a specialist batsman, at Bridgetown in 1994. Going into the match, England could hardly have been at a lower ebb - they were 3-0 down in the series after being destroyed by Curtly Ambrose at Port of Spain, where their eventual fourth innings total of 46 would have been even worse without Stewart's 18; the next highest score of the innings was 6. To compound their misery, they had lost comfortably to a Board XI in between the Tests, and were now heading to a ground where West Indies hadn't lost a Test since the Second World War. Up stepped Stewart; in the first innings he added 171 with Atherton, and added the statistical curiosity of scoring a century on his birthday before falling to Winston Benjamin for 118.
On the second morning England extended their first innings to 355 before Angus Fraser ran through the middle order and, at 134 for 7 West Indies faced the unthinkable prospect of following on. A 19 year old Shivnarine Chanderpaul, shepherding the tail for the first time of many, averted that possibility, and useful contributions from Ambrose and Kenny Benjamin helped restrict England's lead to 51. When Atherton, Ramprakash and Smith fell cheaply in the second innings, that looked like it might not be enough, until Stewart took charge again; he added 115 with Hick for the fourth wicket and 150 with Thorpe for the fifth.
His 143 made him the first England batsman ever to score a century in each innings against West Indies, and allowed Atherton the rare luxury of a declaration. They never threatened to reach a target of 446, and it was only a matter of time before "Fortress Bridgetown" fell. The mood in the West Indies camp was summed up when Ambrose reacted to being last out by swatting the stumps down, earning himself a fine from the match referee.
Even when they weren't opening together, to a 1990s England fan the names of Atherton and Stewart went together like fish and chips, the two pillars of continuity in an ever-changing side - Stewart played 93 Tests in the decade, Atherton 91, while no other player managed more than 57 - although in style they were more like chalk and cheese, one's flamboyance contrasting with the other's grit. Thus when Atherton resigned the captaincy after yet another series defeat, Stewart was the natural successor - even though it meant increasing his workload further, as he was still keeping.
He was a success at first, leading England from one down and a fortuitous draw at Edgbaston - thanks primarily to his own 164 in England's second innings, although Robert Croft and Angus Fraser's later resistance lingered longer in the memory - to an unexpected 2-1 win over South Africa, their first in a five match series for more than a decade; but his captaincy was always in the mould of Botham and Gooch, thinking that what was good enough for him was good enough for everyone, rather than of Brearley and Atherton who treated each player as an individual, and he was dumped after England's ignominious early exit from their home World Cup the following year.
Fittingly, the two stalwarts made their 100th Test appearance together, against West Indies in 2000; Stewart marked the occasion with a century, but the Mancunian rain ruined what might otherwise have been an intriguing contest, with the visitors recovering for a first innings deficit of 146 to post a target of 293, in pursuit of which England had reached 80/1 before the weather had the final say. Atherton's career ended with the 2001 Ashes when his back problems took their toll, but Stewart carried on, with time for a series-winning century at home to Sri Lanka in 2002, before bowing out when England scripted a remarkable series draw against South Africa with a win at his home ground of the Oval a year later, completed after the visitors had reached 345 for 2 shortly before stumps on the opening day.
Stewart maintained a better reputation than many international players and was rarely summoned to the match referee's room, but he wasn't shy of voicing his opinion: during the heated encounter at Adelaide in 1999 when Ross Emerson no-balled Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing and Arjuna Ranatunga led the team off the field in protest, an on-field microphone later picked up Stewart telling Ranatunga that his behaviour that day had been "appalling". Towards the end of Sri Lanka's chase, the England players claimed that Roshan Mahanama had deliberately obstructed Darren Gough in his attempt to reach the ball, and Stewart made his feelings known by barging into Mahanama soon after.
Perhaps the best measure of Stewart's value to his team was how long it took to find a long-term replacement for him: over the years following his retirement, England passed the gloves around Chris Read, Geraint Jones and Tim Ambrose before Matt Prior finally made the Test position his own, while the list of post-Stewart England ODI keepers is almost as long as the list of post-Warne Australian spinners.
In the 1990s - a decade when Tendulkar, Lara and the Waugh twins were at their peaks - Stewart scored more Test runs than anyone; when informed of that statistic, he is said to have replied "Just imagine how many I might have made if I hadn't had to keep wicket!".
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