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September 23, 2003
A job well done: Alec Stewart ponders retirement at the end of the fifth Test against South Africa
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Was Stewart really 30 times better a batsman than Rob Bailey? Bailey made 43 on his debut against West Indies in 1988 and people imagined it was a decent start to a Test career. But the career never materialised and 43 remained his best score. Although he was expected to bat at No. 3 on the tour of West Indies 18 months later, Stewart leapt ahead of him after the plane touched down, made his own debut and kept ahead. It did not help that Bailey, when he did join Stewart in the side, got a shocking decision in the Barbados Test, given out caught behind off Curtly Ambrose when the ball brushed his hip. Bailey was perceived to be an unlucky cricketer and Stewart, as we know, has long been protected by the Valkyries who keep an eye on ambitious bat-warriors.
Luck: it plays such an important part in all games and is not always granted to those who deserve it most. Bailey is generally regarded as one of the finest men to have played county cricket in the past 30 years. He was a very good batsman too, in his palmy days a most accomplished strokeplayer for Northamptonshire. But his career eventually petered out in disappointment at Derbyshire, as Stewart surged past all-comers to become the most capped England cricketer.
Stewart had many well-aired virtues. He was an absolute trouper, a mustard-keen competitor with gloves and bat who lived and breathed cricket. He had courage, commitment and plenty of shots. He was the pros' pro, known (in that revolting phrase) as `The Gaffer'. But that was part of the problem. His was the head-down mentality of the football manager. His boots were clean, his pads were white, his bat was oiled, and his mind was often empty.
That is not to say he is thick. He is not. It is merely that Stewart, like so many English cricketers, lacks hinterland. It is not essential for sportsmen to read books or watch foreign films or even take an interest in the countries they visit but it would help to develop their minds. As Stewart played 133 Tests, leading England in 15 of them, his lack of curiosity was more obvious than in other cases. He offered blood, toil, tears and sweat, a noble thing to do. But it was not enough because it never is.
What was he doing as captain in the first place? Only in England does the senior pro immediately take precedence in the queue when a leader stands down, as Michael Atherton did in April 1998, or is deposed. Stewart got the job because it was "his turn". His captaincy of Surrey was not marked by special intelligence or sensitivity. So why did he get the nod?
He was certainly a superb maker of strokes in his prime. I recall breaking a press-box rule and applauding his century at Old Trafford, in his 100th Test. The winter before he made a wonderful innings of 96 in Durban. Others will have their own memories and his final appearance gave everybody the chance to send him into retirement with a wave of gratitude. But he went on far too long. His batting lost its edge and his wicketkeeping became shoddy. Everybody noticed except, it seems, the selectors.
To persist with Stewart after the defeat in Australia, which was clearly one tour too many, was sheer folly. It was nonsense to call him "a world-class player" in anything other than the past tense, yet that is how the selectors sought to justify his retention. And so, having decreed that the Oval Test would be his last, he was granted his wish. It could hardly have been more explicit if he had petitioned David Graveney with a scroll of parchment, yelling "I crave a boon".
Stewart ended his career in a manner of his choosing but with his reputation diminished. Handsome batsman or no, he stands as an imperfect symbol of the English game, which is too unambitious for its own good. Now he intends to swell the ranks of the media and offer television viewers his thoughts. Penny for 'em, Alec.
Bailey, meanwhile, is on the reserve umpires' list, which represents a surer way of putting something back into the game he served with modesty. Remember, this was a man who turned down the chance to join Mike Gatting's unofficial tourists in South Africa at a time when others were waffling about "financial security". Wish him well.
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