The heart, zest and desire to keep going


WE thought when one-day internationals began 30 years ago that we were watching a young man's game full of athletes diving around the field, with hawk-eyed batsmen hitting the ball out of the park. No one has ever cared a jot about the wretched bowler.

Through the passage of time it became, briefly, a paceman's paradise as the likes of Joel Garner dug the ball in short and made it whizz past your Adam's apple. Soon those not quite stars known variously as batting and bowling all-rounders, bits and pieces players or "what in the name of sanity is that man doing in international cricket" held sway. Then came the era in which bowlers of all sorts took the pace off the ball.

Ronnie Irani, who put in a late claim to be man of the recent NatWest series is just such a one-day cricketer although I will tell you - in the strictest confidence of course - that when two teams of commentators all with Test experience named their composite sides before his wonderous feats at The Oval, only one gave him a mention.

Irani is a big, strong man with a slingy action, hitting power to die for and an attitude best described by his own favourite phrase - "I'm up for it."

Never likely to be a Test star, not in the same class as the men who have won Ashes matches for either Australia or England and certainly not a great cricketer. Unless you are talking about heart, and zest and desire.

Alec Stewart has all those qualities plus a standard of batting and wicket-keeping that has kept him in the Test side for a dozen years.

But did you ever think he might be playing in a final in his 40th year and aiming for the World Cup final on the eve of his 40th birthday? Of course not.

When he ran down the steps of the Lord's pavilion and leapt on to the field ahead of his mates, prancing like one of those high-stepping dressage horses, Stewart was 39 years and 96 days old. The final of the World Cup in Johannesburg will be staged just 16 days before he passes the birthday that gives ladies extra worry lines.

Bob Taylor was 42 when he last played a one-dayer for England, Geoff Boycott 41 and Eddie Hemmings nearly 42 but none of those heroes played with the intensity that marks Stewart's game. He is up for every match, every ball, every practise.

Will he and his well-twirled bat be there for the final next March? Only the sporting gods know the answer and we know just how cantankerous they can be. In this series Stewart has been a better wicket-keeper than Romesh Kaluwitharana, Kumar Sangakkara, Rahul Dravid, and Ajay Ratra; he has stood up to Irani's 69 miles an hour semi thunderbolts and taken the spin of Ashley Giles and Jeremy Snape.

He does not seem the slightest concerned that 10 matches have been squeezed into less time that it takes to play back to back Tests, combined with motoring 1,500 miles and changing hotels half a dozen times.

Stewart has fronted up crisp and clean, wearing all the right gear, always first at the jogging and last to leave the nets and, whatever gremlins have struck his batting or his keeping, the voice has been in excellent trim.

Bowled, Ashley. Bowled Gilo. I'll have it; I'll have it. Hey, kill that ball; give it here. RUN him out. Run HIM out. Run him OUT. Great stuff, Goughie. Nice one, Nass. Great catch, Collie. Now we have got them just where they don't want to be." It might be repetitive but it is not as boring as "Shabash, shabash."

I knew India had won the final when Stewie went quiet. I suspect he knew too. All of his words are intended to be encouragement and there is no sign that the England players baulk at his non-stop chatter.

There have been times when his batting has been too stereotyped, too Test-paced, too regular for the biff and bash of one-day cricket but there have been other moments when he has been the epitome of extemporisation.

Those are the ways of the one-day game 2002 and Stewart with his 4257 runs and respectable average above 30 has played more one-day games than any other Englishman. These figures hardly seem worth mentioning alongside the feats of Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammed Azharuddin and Steve Waugh, for instance, but if he had been asked to play 1,000 one-day games in his lifetime Stewart would still have been batting and keeping and shouting in the 999th. Graham Gooch has been Stewart's role model as he heads into generation next. Gooch is one of the few England players who batted on into their 40s. Like Stewart, Gooch made cricket his life. He looks out of place in a suit, he knows nothing except the chatter of the dressing room, the smell of the linseed, the whack of the ball on willow. Gooch has found a niche at Essex; now Stewart has to find a place for his retirement.

His cricketing life has been an exposition of what can be obtained by hard work and constant application; plus a willingness to do whatever was asked of him. For nine winters he went to Perth where he played club cricket with the same intensity as any Australian devotes to his sport and where he no doubt heard those approving words: "Oh, well talked, Pommie."

That is the highest tribute an Australian can pay to any fellow cricketer; no wonder they all approve of Stewart. Which reminds me that before he goes to South Africa for the World Cup he must also lead the way as wicket-keeper batsman in Sri Lanka for the mini World Cup and Australia in the fight for the Ashes and their own one-day series.

Perhaps a quiet prayer to those sporting gods might give Stewart a career lasting to his 40th birthday. That will be worth another 1,000 words and I look forward to writing them eight months from now.

In that time England will have to find new stars like Yuveraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif if they are to achieve supremacy in one-day cricket. Nothing told you more about the relative strengths of the two sides than the sight of these two fine young batsmen.

England could not afford such a gesture; especially now that Graham Thorpe has quit. The search for his replacement begins immediately and there is no obvious candidate. Here are a few words I never expected to write. On the eve of the third Test between England and India at Headingley four men who have not always seen eye to eye will line up to open the new East Stand. A team effort for a county whose teams have often consisted of 11 highly different, bickering individuals. A great deal of diplomatic activity has been necessary to bring the quartet together and it is only in the last few days that I have heard the words: "It's all agreed. We're opening the stand together and a brass plaque will be erected to mark the occasion."

The men concerned are the greatest modern Yorkshire players: Fred Trueman, Geoff Boycott, Raymond Illingworth and Brian Close. All except Trueman, who took 307 Test wickets, have captained England but Trueman is probably the best known for his controversial opinions on TV and radio and in the newspapers. The other three are also the friends of bitter battle and indeed the whole county lives by blunt argument, heated discussion and intense aggravation.

You will remember the furious rows last summer when the Len Hutton Gates were opened by his son Richard. Hutton was shown playing a shot he rarely used, against a background of Asian ladies in saris and in the local newspaper - batting left-handed.

Now peace reigns; but that is not the best atmosphere for a Yorkshire team. They were champions a year ago. Now they languish at the bottom of Division One, certain to be relegated and the victims of considerable abuse from their own fans.

Never mind. The next big row will bring back the side back to their peak.