A complete sportsman

ALEC STEWART was — and is — a mass of contradictions. He was never a great batsman; such types average 50-plus in long Test careers. Yet, in many ways he was one of England's greatest cricketers, in 133 Tests, with the second-highest aggregate of runs, a decent captain at home at least and an incredibly successful wicket-keeper.

TED CORBETT

ALEC STEWART was — and is — a mass of contradictions.

He was never a great batsman; such types average 50-plus in long Test careers. Yet, in many ways he was one of England's greatest cricketers, in 133 Tests, with the second-highest aggregate of runs, a decent captain at home at least and an incredibly successful wicket-keeper.

Wouldn't we all like to have achieved any one of those targets?

In addition he was a devoted, successful and committed county batsman, wicket-keeper and captain for Surrey. He never missed an opportunity to blow their trumpet, never avoided a duty for the team that was also home to his father Micky, fitted into whatever he was asked to do for them and never used the excuse of his England burden to miss a match.

Stewart was the complete sportsman in the way we English like best. Modest — well, to a degree — hard-working, a team player. You could not ask for a more intense cricketer yet it was always balanced with a nice sense of humour. (He once told me off during a Press conference for asking a question he considered too far the wrong side of cheeky but as soon as he had finished he came across and apologised. "You and I cannot afford to fall out," he said as if it might be the most important consideration in his life.)

He was never — in the 22-year career that ended recently in the final Test at The Oval — less than courteous, rarely out of sorts and, although his phone number remained a secret, he always rang if a reporter had a question and left it with Surrey's staff.

Not all professional cricketers are so considerate, I can tell you.

Yet, for all the good manners I have described above Stewart was desperate to be the boss, determined to get to the top, unrelenting in his bid for the England captaincy. "Call me the Gaffer," he said when he was made Surrey captain and he meant it.

Alec Stewart poses with a framed picture of himself and character sketches of all the England captains he has served under, prior to the start of the final Test match between England and South Africa at the Oval on September 4, 2003. Stewart retired from international cricket at the end of the Test.-AFP

"I want to ask you about the England captaincy," I said to him during the 1993 tour of India when it became clear that Graham Gooch was shortly to retire, when Mike Gatting was no longer in the mix and when Mike Atherton was still someway short of establishing a Test place. Stewart was to lead the side in Sri Lanka without producing any evidence that he was captaincy material but it appeared to be the first step on the ladder.

He turned from smooth and polite Stewart to very cross Alec in a flash. "No," he said, very firmly. "I don't want to be seen to throw my hat into the ring. I don't like all this talk of me and the captaincy. I will not talk about that." Interview finished.

I suddenly came to realise that he wanted the job so badly he could taste it. It was another five years, after the Atherton reign, when he finally took charge but it was a disaster since, immediately after a victory against South Africa, there was defeat in Australia and humiliation in the World Cup.

Stewart was blamed, quite wrongly in my opinion, for the strong line he held during talks about money for his players before the World Cup. In fact, it was the dilatory ways of the England and Wales Cricket Board that meant the talks went on late. All Stewart did was what any representative of his men would do — call it a trade union tactic if you will but there is nothing wrong with that — and hold out for more cash.

He had already had one disappointment when — just before the 1999-2000 tour of West Indies — it seemed that Atherton would quit. I went to Lord's expecting to see Stewart enthroned and there suddenly we were given Atherton once again.

I know Stewart had held himself in readiness for a week but Atherton returned from a week's holiday in the Lake District and declared himself prepared to give it one more go. I cannot imagine how Stewart felt. Wretched is the nearest word that can describe his misery and, of course, England went to the Caribbean and, unluckily I have to say, lost the series again.

At the end of it Atherton announced his decision to go a few minutes after England lost the final Test.

These were miserable moments for England were in need of a fresh mind, a new voice of authority, another way of saying, "Come on lads we can win this one."

Besides he was at home in the Caribbean. It was there in 1994 that he scored two hundreds in the fourth Test and won a match there for England for the first time for 60 years.

It was there that Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh bowled in vain against him and made it clear that even if the full might of Holding, Garner, Roberts and Croft had been available they would not have torn down the Stewart defences easily.

No fast bowler ever did. When the going gets tough, as he loved to say, the tough get going. When the ball dropped short he was armed with a square cut as powerful as anything unleashed by Steve Waugh or Robin Smith; and a pull and a hook. And, under the tutelage of Duncan Fletcher, the England coach in the later stages of the Stewart Test career, he learnt to play spin too, although that was never his first choice.

Stewart was a good captain at Surrey where he spoke without subtlety; as you might expect of a man with such bold shots against the fast men.

I visited one of their games soon after I had heard — on the quietest of grapevines — that Ray Illingworth would ask him to open the batting and keep wickets against the 1995 West Indies side at Lord's.

It was considered an outrageous step — by the massed hordes of the anti-Illingworth brigade — but I thought I knew my man so I made the three-hour journey to the Sussex ground at Horsham to ask how he viewed the double jeopardy.

But first an insight into Stewart the Surrey captain, training with his men on the edge of the ground for a Sunday League match.

"Alec," I began, "I want to ask..."

"Just excuse me a minute, Ted, I want to sort something out first." He strode a few yards and pulled a youngster out of the squad.

"Jimmy, you're not playing today because this is simply not your sort of pitch. On Tuesday we have a pitch you will like and you will play. All right, don't think you're dropped. It is just that we want you full of life and raring to go on Tuesday."

The lad actually looked pleased to be given the news of his afternoon as 12th man in front of all his mates. I liked the honest presentation.

Then he turned back to me. "Yes, where were we?"

I put my question. "Look, I don't think I am going to be 'keeper and open the batting but if I am asked of course I will do the two jobs. I want to play for England and it is up to the selectors — actually there was only one who mattered — how they use me. But I will always give my best for England. I always have." No one could deny that.

What none of us knew was that a few minutes later Illingworth phoned Stewart to tell him what was in his mind. By this time I was busy at my laptop convinced I had the story.

On the eve of the Test, Illingworth appeared in the Press Box as we were all writing our previews. You could tell from the look on his face that he was pleased with something he had decided.

"I've sent "Bumpy" Rhodes back to Worcestershire and Stewart will keep wickets," he said.

"And open the innings?"

"Oh, yes, he's a fit lad and he won't come to any harm," said Illingworth, grinning mirthlessly.

Stewart caught up with me later that day. "Sorry, but you'd gone when he rang me," he said.

"Two big jobs," I suggested.

"Just one question," he laughed. "Do I get double money?"

No, but he did get the glory. He caught Brian Lara — I can see the catch now — stretched far in front of first slip off Dominic Cork, who went on to be Man of the Match on his debut. Quite right too. But I know that my Man of the Match might have been Alec Stewart.

In fact he was the greatest Surrey player of the last 20 years, for all the brilliant captaincy of Adam Hollioake, the wonderfully consistent bowling of Martin Bicknell, the terror inspired by Sylvester

Clarke, the belligerent hitting of Ally Brown and the smooth stroke-play of their late transfer Mark Ramprakash.

I'm sure he will be remembered when they are long forgotten not just because he could defend or attack, not just because he scored masses of runs and not just because he was so fit, so smart and so youthful.

But just because in his own way he loved cricket, which in his book meant putting his heart and soul into every game he played.