Micky Stewart and the Changing Face of CricketMartin Chandler |
Author: Chalke, Stephen
Publisher: Fairfield Books
Rating: 5 stars
A new book by Stephen Chalke is always going to be worth reading, and it is necessary to look no further than the archive of reviews on this site to see why. That said, and having been responsible for awarding two of his books a five star rating in the past, I did harbour a nagging doubt about this one.
I wasn’t unduly concerned about the fact that Micky Stewart did not enjoy a spectacular or controversial playing career, as none of Stephen’s previous subjects have, and that has never detracted from the quality of his writing. But I did wonder whether the book might concentrate rather too much on Stewart’s later career at the helm of the England Test side, something which is interesting enough to those of us of a certain age, and would doubtless have flown off the shelves if published in the mid 1990s, but which is not particularly relevant to the here and now.
So what does one get in Micky Stewart and the Changing Face of Cricket? The first part of the book is taken up by an unexpectedly long look at Stewart’s childhood and formative years. A significant part of this represents a commentary on a trip by author and subject around the latter’s old haunts. It probably helps that Stewart’s upbringing was not entirely conventional, but most of the credit for how fascinating this account is must go to the writing. Other biographers should take note.
In addition to his very considerable talents as a cricketer Micky Stewart was also a good enough footballer to spend three winters on the professional staff at Charlton Athletic, and before that to be a top class amateur. The difference between amateurs and professionals in sport generally ought to be clear, but in fact rarely has been. In the 21st century it doesn’t really matter, but in the 1950s it did, and I now know it worked rather differently in football than in cricket. Many of the top English cricketers of the 1950s played soccer as well, Denis Compton, Trevor Bailey and Brian Close are just three of them. I have read biographies of all of them, and plenty of others as well, but until I read Micky Stewart’s story I never understood exactly how the game of football worked in those days.
As far as Stewart’s cricketing career is concerned Stephen Chalke has the priceless ability to make his reader aware of all the facts, figures and other achievements without going anywhere near the sort of dry season by season account that is the curse of this genre. His writing tells, in Stewart’s own words and those of others, just what it was like to play with that all-conquering Surrey side of the mid 1950s, and what sort of men Stuart Surridge, Peter May, Alec Bedser and all the others were. Later in the book exactly the same approach is taken to Surrey’s subsequent decline, to Stewart’s brief Test career, and his long stint as Surrey captain that culminated, at last, in another title in 1971. The mistake Stewart made in deciding not to retire immediately after that success is also the subject of a frank and honest assessment.
If the book had been written by anyone else I would have expected it at that point to move on in the space of a few paragraphs to Stewart’s tenure as cricket manager, a new concept in those days, of both Surrey and England, and his subsequent post as ECB Director of Coaching. With Stephen Chalke however the reader is given the priceless gift of context. The book deals fully with Stewart’s long and successful employment with Slazenger, and the background to his accepting the post at Surrey in 1979. I also learnt more about the sort of man Stewart was, glimpses of his two sons’ sporting prowess beginning in this period, and a description of the difficulties he had for a number of winters in taking on the task of managing one of his former football clubs, the Corinthian Casuals, as they struggled to survive in light of their strict adherence to their amateur ideals.
Moving on to Stewart’s appointment as England’s first Team Manager, that began with the 1986/87 trip to Australia when, after three consecutive series defeats the side of which journalist Martin Johnson famously said “Can’t bat, can’t bowl, can’t field”, confounded expectations by retaining the Ashes, and doing so comfortably. It is fascinating to read Stewart’s take on the tour, and how he dealt with characters as diverse as Botham, Gooch, Gatting and Gower.
Despite that excellent start the 1987 English summer saw a defeat by Pakistan, followed by another defeat in a return series blighted by the infamous Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting stand-off. For 1988 it was the all-conquering West Indies when, after ten consecutive defeats, England avoided defeat in the first Test, and did so on merit. Sadly for the manager however it was all downhill after that – this was the series with four (five if you want to be really pedantic) England captains after Gatting’s alleged indiscretion with a hotel chambermaid. As that challenge was followed by the fearful drubbing from Alan Border’s 1989 Australians, Stewart’s reign was certainly a bit of a mixed bag, although overall it is clear that he was responsible for putting in place the early versions of the framework that Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower have utilised so successfully. There are some particularly interesting new insights into the Rana/Gatting incident, and to any student of that era the book is worth buying for that chapter alone.
My initial misgivings about Micky Stewart and the Changing Face of Cricket were, I am pleased but not really surprised to say, wholly unnecessary. Mickey Stewart’s biography has, by Stephen Chalke’s standards, been a long time in the writing, but it is every bit as good a book as No Coward Soul and At The Heart of English Cricket, if not better. As I gave both of those books five stars it would be wholly illogical to do anything else here. This is a superb biography, and if you only buy one cricket book this year then it should be this one.