England's most dedicated player in the last decade

Alec Stewart has decided to call it quits after the Oval Test. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.

TED CORBETT

Alec Stewart announces his retirement from international cricket during a press conference at Edgbaston on July.-Pic. TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

JULY 21: I decide to make the whole of this week's diary a tribute to Alec Stewart, who for the last 13 years is the most dedicated England cricketer, and who by the calculations based on research from a team of statisticians twirls his bat 63,561 times during his 128 Tests.

July 22: First Alec Stewart, the thinking man's wicket-keeper, showing a sense of history. He announces it is time to quit as an international keeper, give one final year to Surrey and then look round for another job outside cricket. He chooses precisely the right moment since England have half a dozen young wicket-keepers ready to jump into his gloves. He picks precisely the right venue since, with luck, he will end his career at the Oval, his home ground with Surrey. What an occasion that will be.

The followers of Surrey love him to bits, not just because he is a great player like Jack Hobbs, the Bedser twins, Ken Barrington and Peter May but because in his time as their captain he helps create the family atmosphere which is part of their rise and rise. They are going for three trophies this season and they may just pick up all four next summer. What a way that will be for Stewie to finish his country career.

July 23: But what of Alec Stewart's future after cricket? There is a limited amount of room in the Press and commentary boxes and those who already sit behind the lap tops or don the earpieces — Mark Nicholas, Bob Willis, David Gower, Michael Holding and their pals — surely do not want to hang up their media boots just yet. Coaching, perhaps? Will so famous a player want to start at the bottom again? I doubt it. Perhaps someone will have enough good sense to encourage him to settle for a place as chairman of selectors. All the obvious candidates are sitting in television boxes, using their wisdom for any cause save that of the game itself. Remember, as I tell you no England captain since Ray Illingworth in 1973 plays any part in English cricket administration. It is time one of them set out to play a prominent role. But at this moment there are too many ex-cricketers chasing too few jobs; the word retirement seems to be on everyone's lips, even though the first rush in the aftermath of the World Cup is done. Just a few days ago Wasim Akram goes home to nurse the diabetes which is always difficult to combine with a sporting career. Ed Giddins, a far better fast bowler than he is given credit for, and a lad who does not give up easily, also quits. Even now it takes a very firm word from his doctor to persuade him that his long-term knee injury makes a full-time career impossible.

July 24: Next, Alec Stewart, the complete sportsman. As a schoolboy he wants to be a pro soccer player but for 20 years he gives England and Surrey everything. Behaves properly. Dresses smartly. Keeps fitter than many men half his age. Twice decorated by the Queen, and once honoured by the BBC who invite him to take part in This Is Your Life. There his wife reveals that while he is making his second hundred in the fourth Test of the 1993-94 series in Barbados she has what she describes as "an important date on the sun bed." Graham Gooch is Alec's hero so he will be pleased to hear his first Test captain describe him as "the centre piece of the England side which will seem strange without him." Yes, Alec is a truly outstanding cricketer but where does he rank among the England wicket-keepers? Behind Godfrey Evans (2,439 runs, at 20.49 and 219 dismissals in 91 Tests), Jack Russell (1,897 runs in 54 Tests at 27.10) and Alan Knott, (4,175 runs at 33.66 and 252 dismissals in 89 Tests). They outrank him as keepers pure and simple. He is undoubtedly ahead of Jim Parks, who plays in 46 Tests, hits 1,962 runs at 32.16 and has 114 victims and Les Ames, who scores 2,434 runs at 40.56 and pulls off 93 dismissals. They are the best of the batsmen-wicket-keepers.

Stewart has wonderful figures. His 127 Tests is a record just as his 132 Tests will be if he bows out at the Oval. He is second only to Graham Gooch with 8,281 runs and at various times he has been captain, wicket-keeper and leading batsman. He still finishes with an average of 40.20 and one of 45 in his last two years. He is undoubtedly the best of the new brand of chatterbox wicket-keepers. Never short of a word or two and not afraid to try something new. At one time in Pakistan he is persuaded that a shout of "Shabash, shabash" will disturb the batsman and, true enough, the poor chap's head fairly spins round when Stewart gives it full voice. We will miss him from his crinkly hair to his colour coded wrist bands and his twirling bat; a way of steadying his nerves, he says. One of a kind, I think, and a credit to his sports-mad family, his county Surrey and England and, most of all, to himself.

July 25: Cricket's publicity machine absorbs the news that we are coming to the end of a wonderful career and tries to find a suitable finale for Alec Stewart, also known as Peter Perfect, because there is never an unwanted crease in his clothing nor a tie knot out of place, or more often, The Gaffer. That nickname comes from Stewart's remark when he is made captain at Surrey. "What shall we call him?" asks one of his familiars. Stewart hears the remark and comes out with a classic line. "I don't care what you call me," he grins. "Just remember I am The Gaffer." Or The Boss to anyone whose family comes from outside the East End of London. His father and mother, as well as his sisters, have little time for formality when they address one another. They call each other "Stewie." Endearing, isn't it. That extended clan will probably gather at the Oval for his final appearance when at least one television company plans a protracted special programme and a sponsor is thinking over an award — perhaps the first of many to other cricket heroes — of a lifetime achievement award. Just like Hollywood. I think Peter Perfect, The Gaffer and Stewie all deserve such recognition.

July 26: I think I know what Alec Stewart will do with his increased leisure. Spend more time with his second favourite sporting institution Chelsea whose new Russian czar Roman Abramovich buys every worthwhile footballer in the country and will probably sign the England manager Sven Goran Erikson unless those players blend into a good team in double quick time. I know what Stewart will not be. The sort of retired cricketer who pops up in the dressing room, the committee room, the Press Box, the commentary box and the free drinks bar and who is always on the telephone shortly before a Test match wondering if it is possible for him to have a couple of tickets. No one has much regard for these characters; and they will be better off carving out a new life for themselves instead of hanging on to their one-time friends and pretending they are still in the big pool. By the way, and I don't know why I suddenly remember this little known fact, Yorkshire are to have umpire Dickie Bird's portrait painted and hang it in the Headingley pavilion. No one can deny Bird's popularity. At the Test today there are 40 or so umpiring look-a-likes with Bird printed on the back of their long white coats and all ready to raise a finger or try a broad Yorkshire accent. Not surprisingly they win the prize on the day now officially called Dress Up Saturday.

July 27: "He played the game for all he was worth — as though, indeed, a kingdom depended on it." Thus Neville Cardus on Monte Noble, the Australian captain of the early 20th century. The words are just as appropriate to celebrate the worth of Alec Stewart, batsman in any position, part time wicket-keeper who turns into a star and a cricketer willing and able, with a smile on his lips, to compete with the best.