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The buzz of anticipation which greeted Kenneth Scott McEwan every time he strolled to the crease last summer was final proof of his emergence as a batsman of exceptional talent and flair. Yet when he joined Essex at the start of the 1974 season, his arrival went virtually unnoticed. That was not surprising. He had still to register his maiden first-class century and his appearances in England had been limited to Sussex Second XI.
Born in Bedford, Cape Province, South Africa, on July 16, 1952, McEwan arrived at Hove on the recommendation of Tony Greig. The former England captain first spotted his potential while coaching at Queen's College where McEwan spent a great part of his schooldays. For Sussex he scored 580 runs in Second XI competition games in 1972, but during the following summer was told that his contract would not be renewed because, at that time, Sussex already had their quota of overseas players appearing in the championship.
At that precise moment, Essex were aware that the Australian opener Bruce Francis would be returning home for good. Word spread that they were seeking a replacement, McEwan's name was mentioned and he was invited by the county to play in a friendly against Scotland in Perth in July 1973. His only innings in that match brought 45 runs against a far from hostile attack but the manner in which he made them prompted Essex to offer him a contract.
Neither have had cause to regret the decision, although McEwan did not exactly burst upon the championship scene in a blaze of glory. His debut against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge brought him a duck in the first innings and four runs in the second; on both occasions Stead trapped him leg-before. And it was another six weeks before he scored his first hundred, 119 not out against Middlesex at Ilford. He went on to finish the season with 1,040 runs for an average of 30.58 -- and has never looked back.
An ability to learn from mistakes and digest advice so accelerated his progress that in 1976 he scored 1,821 runs for an average of just under 50 and was recognised as one of the best and most exciting batsmen in the country. Last summer he switched into overdrive to emerge as a player of world class during an astonishing run which brought him five successive centuries -- the first was not first-class.
He began stealing the headlines on June 26 at Edgbaston against Warwickshire, taking 104 in a John Player League game. The following day at Chelmsford, he scored 218 against a toiling Sussex attack which, ironically, included Greig in its ranks. Greig could only look on in frustrated admiration as his pupil unleashed an array of thrilling strokes to become the first player for nine years to score a double century for Essex. There followed innings of 102 and 116 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston and 106 not out at the expense of Gloucestershire at Southend. McEwan eventually finished the season with eight first-class hundreds, including 100 not out against the Australians, and a first-class aggregate of 1,702, an average of 51.57.
Quiet and unassuming, McEwan does not possess a physique which lends itself to comparison with the muscular power of others. The secret weapon in his armoury is his timing, so perfect that the ball can be seen striking the boundary boards through the covers and mid-wicket before a fielder has had time to move. He also displays refreshing use of his feet, never afraid to dance down the pitch to the slower bowlers -- a fact ably demonstrated during the match against the Australians when he thrashed O'Keeffe for 28 in an over.
McEwan's attitude to the game is just as compelling as his strokes. Not for him the ritual of concentrating wholeheartedly on defence to play himself in or putting the emphasis on caution when in sight of three figures. He makes a point of trying to dictate to bowlers right from the start; going boldly for his shots when others are content to adjust to the intricacies of the wicket and opposing bowlers.
There are those who, while acknowledging McEwan's rich vein of natural talent, believe that he is often a victim of his own impetuosity. They argue that if he displayed a little more patience and concentration, qualities which are the hallmark of the prolific Geoff Boycott, he would compile many more runs. Such critics have a valid point. But those who have been fortunate enough to see him in full flight would consider it a tragedy if McEwan was to try and shackle his attacking instinct.
McEwan's stature in the game is surprising when one recalls that he never took part in an organised match until he was 12, playing his first game after going to Queen's College, Queenstown. In his early days this only son of a sheep and cattle farmer was coached by Richard Langridge, the former Sussex player. At the age of 14, he found himself in the school's first eleven alongside lads four and five years older than himself.
In his final years at school, he was coached by Greig, a player whom he admits has helped him enormously and exerted great influence upon his career, and finished skippering the South African Schools XI.
McEwan, who plays for Eastern Province back home, is acutely disappointed that South Africa is no longer part of the Test arena. "That is tragic when you reflect upon the great players my country has produced in the last few years," he says. He will find no-one to argue with him on that point. But I doubt if there are many cricket followers and players who would agree with him when he says "Even if we did play Test cricket, I don't think I would be good enough to get in the side."
Judging by last season's performances, this thrilling batsman would be an automatic choice to follow in the footsteps of Boyce, Irvine and Francis -- all of whom arrived at Essex as unknowns and went on to represent their country at Test level. -- N.F.