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Alec Stewart calls on England selectors to keep faith as he defends county 'breeding ground'

Surrey director of cricket says gulf in standards is due to unavailability of international players

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
30-Mar-2022
Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, takes his place at the pre-season photocall at the Kia Oval, London, March 30, 2022

Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, takes his place at the pre-season photocall  •  Getty Images for Surrey CCC

Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, insists that county cricket remains the primary "breeding ground" for England's Test cricketers, but acknowledges that the gulf between the domestic and international game has widened in recent years, due in a large part to the reduced availability of the world's best players.
For that reason, Stewart - who confirmed he is not in the running to become the new managing director of the England men's team - has warned the selectors not to over-react to the failings of the team in Australia and West Indies this winter, after they capped a run of eight Tests without victory with a humiliating ten-wicket loss in Grenada this week.
Two of Surrey's most prominent players were casualties of England's 4-0 Ashes loss. Rory Burns, the club captain and England's senior opener at the start of the winter, was omitted from the West Indies tour after making 77 runs at 12.83 in three Tests, including a first-ball duck from the opening delivery of the Ashes. And Ollie Pope, whose first-class average at the Kia Oval is currently a Bradman-esque 99.94, was relegated to 12th man duties in the Caribbean after a top score of 35 in six Ashes innings.
At the age of 24, Pope's struggles to convert his prolific county form into the England team is perhaps the most revealing evidence of the step-up in class that is now required to make the Test grade, and Stewart insisted that that need to learn on the job with England was all the more reason why it was incumbent on the selectors to keep the faith.
"We've still got good players," Stewart said at the Kia Oval, during Surrey's pre-season media day. "Ollie Pope is a high-class player, but when they go up a level, it is a massive jump. The scrutiny you're under now is even greater than it was, and that's where you need selection to be strong. Because if you believe a player is good enough, then you need to give them a real good run."
Stewart himself is no stranger to the vagaries of England selection, having lived through the team's struggles in the 1990s. But he believes that the heavy workloads faced by the game's best players during his own playing days were a factor in keeping the standards constant across the first-class game.
"If you go back in time - and I'm not saying it was right - you used to finish your Test match and then play a county game the next day," he said. "So the players coming through would be bowling at Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, or they'd be facing high quality overseas bowlers.
"In the 80s and 90s, there wasn't franchise cricket around, there was no international cricket played outside of England in our summer. So you had all those great bowlers coming over to our breeding ground. Whereas now, the quality of the overseas-player availability has diminished and the best England Test players, because of the amount of Test cricket they play, are either playing [for England] or resting.
"So you have to learn when you go up. You always have to improve and learn, but even more so now at the highest level, because of the hand the game has been dealt. And that's globally, not just here."
The ECB is currently preparing to undertake a game-wide review, instigated by Andrew Strauss, the interim managing director, with the aim of redefining the game's structure in time for the 2023 season. According to the Telegraph, proposals include a mooted 12-team Premier League, to replace the current 10-8 split across the first and second divisions, but Stewart believes that much of the criticism is the inevitable consequence of another high-profile Ashes loss.
"How long has the County Championship been in place? 100 years or more?" Stewart said. "Whenever we've lost in Australia, which has been on numerous occasions for a long, long time, there's always an inquest and we're just seeing exactly the same thing, yet another inquest. When Australia lose here, they have an inquest about their Sheffield Shield.
"County cricket is a breeding ground for Test cricket. Over the years it produces good players and it will continue to produce good players."
"You've always got to earn the right to play," he added. "But if you don't feel a part of a set-up, you're not going to play as a relaxed cricketer, as you would when you play for your county or your state side, because it is as much about the top two inches [the brain], as it is technically."
"If you've been picked to be good enough for one game, then you're good enough for a number of games, because if you're not, then it's not the lad's fault. It's the selectors' fault."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket