Back in 2008, Jonathan Batty paid this glowing tribute to his friend, guide and mentor, Alec Stewart.
Published in 2008
Growing up in the 1980s I loved all things cricket, from the contemporary greats like Gower, Richards and Botham, to the legends of the game from the past. Reading about Bodyline had got me excited about the Ashes and the battle with the old enemy, but there was something special about the current West Indian team, the calypso kings of world cricket. Their fast bowlers terrorised batsmen and their batters destroyed opposition attacks. In England’s three previous series against them, they had lost 5-0, 5-0 and 4-0. I remember looking forward to the 1990 series in the Caribbean, probably a lot more than the England team due to tour this brutal paradise.
There was a young Surrey player on that tour waiting for his chance to make his Test debut. There was much talk of nepotism, because his dad was the England manager, but I’d never even heard of him, and anyway, I was more interested in Nasser Hussain, who I’d heard about playing for the British Universities. If someone had suggested to my undergraduate self that Alec Stewart would go on to become the most capped England player ever, that he would become the England captain, be awarded both the MBE and OBE, and become a close personal friend and team-mate of mine, I’d have demanded a glass of whatever they were drinking.
He did make his debut in the first Test of that series, getting off the mark first ball, and while he only scored 13 in the first innings, and 0 not out in the second, he was there at the end to see home a famous England victory. In truth Alec didn’t give us too many clues in that series of what was to come, but we would get plenty more opportunities to see what he was made of, and by the time I eventually met him, his icon status was already assured.
Our paths first crossed just before the 1997 season at a benefit function for Martin Bicknell. I’d just signed for Surrey and was pretty nervous about meeting a few of the boys. Alec immediately made me feel at ease, exuding self-confidence and showing his very dry sense of humour. I knew straight away that I wanted to try and emulate this man. The major debate through Alec’s career was the wicketkeeping and opening issue. It takes a certain type of person to want to face the new ball being bowled at high speed, against bowlers wanting to either get you out or knock you out. To watch Alec caress the ball through the off side while up on his toes and punching it on top of the bounce was awesome; and then his ability to dispatch the bouncer, the fast bowler’s deadly weapon, was just inspirational. He was an attacking opener before attacking opening batsmen were fashionable.
I loved watching him open, so was saddened that he had to drop down the order because of the demands of keeping wicket. But Stewie never did anything half-heartedly. If a job needed doing he would do it diligently and with great commitment; indeed, by the end of his career Alec had become an outstanding keeper, and I certainly can’t remember too many mistakes with the gloves on.
He never dealt in half-measures. Who could forget the way he led from the front during his outstanding 164 against South Africa at Old Trafford when he was captain? The passion he showed by running onto the field when the match was saved, people may have thought it was a little over-the-top when England had only drawn the match, but that last day changed the context of the entire series which Stewie’s side went on to win. And was his batting tainted by the demands of keeping? Probably. At least we were robbed of seeing the best of it more often. And yet his willingness to subsume personal preferences in favour of the team’s requirements didn’t affect his eye for the big moments. I remember his 100th Test, at Old Trafford, against West Indies. The chat in the Surrey dressing room was all about what a great achievement it was, and someone suggested wouldn’t it be typical Stewie if he got a hundred in his hundredth Test, and of course, what happened… By this time, I’d played and trained with Alec, and he’d become the player I looked up to most. There can’t be too many better examples of the perfect role model for youngsters. He trained like a man possessed and played with the heart of a true competitor.
In the dressing room he was quick-witted and funny, but nobody commanded more respect from his peers. When Stewie spoke, people listened. And you just had to look at his famous kit bag. Immaculate, everything neatly folded and ironed, each piece of his kit organised with the precision of a surgeon preparing to operate. Nothing left to chance. For a man to be fit enough to play top-class international sport at the age of 40 shows a desire and dedication few could match. Alec always handled himself admirably in public, and in particular with the media. When things hadn’t gone well, there was always a brave face, a couple of footballesque clichés, and move on to the next game or challenge.
Here’s the XI they ended up with:https://t.co/5YTXJMcfDC
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) November 22, 2020
But there have been testing moments. When the allegations that he had taken money from an Indian bookmaker arose, Alec found everything that he stood for in the game, and his own integrity, viciously challenged. It must have been an incredibly frustrating time, as the allegations and the investigation dragged on for months. There was never any proof, and he handled the whole scenario with great dignity until eventually he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Another fine example of his astonishing self-control came after he was sacked as England captain after only 13 months in charge. Fresh from a series victory against South Africa, a poor World Cup campaign led to his demotion, intriguing when you consider he was originally only appointed Test captain and Adam Holliaoke was one-day captain. I think it would be fair to say he might have been harshly treated. But again there were no complaints from the Stewart corner and he carried on being one of the main players in the side.
I open the batting, keep wicket and have captained Surrey: sound familiar? I’ve tried my best to emulate my icon, but there can be only one. 133 Tests, 8,463 runs at 39.54 and 277 dismissals: Alec Stewart OBE.
Published in 2008