September 2, 2003

The Gaffer to the bitter end



Alec Stewart: playing it straight © Getty Images

Starched collar to the fore, and never a grass stain in sight, Alec Stewart is not the type of cricketer who wears his heart on his sleeve. Not when, on his chest, there are already three gleaming lions taking pride of place. But, on the eve of his final Test appearance, and on his home ground as well, even Stewart might be expected to shed a tear or two. Surely?

But the Gaffer's final press call as an international cricketer, in the Long Room at The Oval on Tuesday afternoon, was the sort of reassuringly straight-batted performance that has maddened and gladdened the assembled hacks for 13 long years. Emotion can wait, we were told in that familiar clipped tone. First and foremost, England have a game of Test cricket to win. The only tears in prospect were ones of frustration from his interrogators.

"To be perfectly honest," said Stewart, as if we ever doubted what was coming, "I won't know how it feels until I finally walk off the pitch, and know my England career is finally over. I'm not one to count down the moments. I've never been in this position before, so I'll be treating it as just another game. Alec Stewart's final appearance will be put to one side in my mind."

Sentiment is not something that Stewart has ever felt comfortable with. So the prospect of a nation getting dewy-eyed on his behalf filled him with something that might have been interpreted as dread. "There'll be a presentation on Thursday, which I'll have to take it in my stride, thanks very much," he sighed. "But the only thing I'm focused on is winning the match and squaring the series."

So we can take it that Thursday's commemorative photo, of Alec alongside each of the players to have captained him in his career, won't be taking pride of place in the Stewart household? "If there's one thing that Lynn is looking forward to," he confirmed, "it's clearing out all the crap that's gathered up over the years. It's my testimonial this year, so I've got rid of quite a bit already.

"It's more the memories that I'll keep with me," he added quickly, not wanting to sound too blasé about it all. "My presentation cap on debut is very special - that's framed in my room and I'll never get rid of that. Otherwise, I'll offload most of the things I haven't used. I'm against people walking around in England sweaters that they haven't earned, but nothing against them in a frame."

Did he regret his decision to retire? "Ask me that again next month" he replied, "when you're all in Dhaka and I'm in Rome, watching Chelsea playing Lazio! But no, the World Cup was an obvious watershed for my one-day career, and when I sized up what was in store this winter, it was a straightforward decision to pack up my bat."

While Stewart sizes up his next step (and after an adult life devoted to cricket, he was looking forward to the challenge of "a proper job") England's thoughts turn slowly and nervously to life After Alec. Who were his tips for the wicketkeeping duties in Bangladesh and beyond?

"Well ..." he pondered, while the hacks shuffled forward in their seats. "See, you've all started listening now!"

"I would take Chris Read," he eventually pronounced. "And probably Geraint Jones - because he's the best batter-keeper of the candidates. James Foster has to be in the selectors' thoughts as well, because England have invested two years in him, while Surrey's own Jon Batty has made a late bid, thanks to the quality of both his keeping and his batting."

But whoever comes in to replace the Gaffer, he will have one hell of a void to tape over. For Stewart and for England, however, that void will not be addressed until this series is done and dusted. "When Athers finished here in 2001, he just sat in the corner of the dressing-room with a towel on his head for ten minutes. But I don't honestly know what my reaction will be. I might pack my bags and clear off straight away. Or I might stop to look around - and decide, did I enjoy or not?"

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden CricInfo.