On Second Thoughts: Alec StewartArguably England's greatest wicketkeeper-batsman, his status has been eroded by the unfair comparisons with his erstwhile opening partner
The English tend to treat their cricketers kindly in retirement. Stocks rise, reputations spiral, a gloss of revisionist nostalgia is applied. The greatest tribute to Ian Botham was the decade of terribly damaging auditions for a convincing man-for-man replacement that followed his passing. Often a little longevity is all it takes. Michael Atherton's retirement in 2002 was the signal for frowning speculation over where on earth England might find another Test opener capable of averaging less than 38 and pottering along at 37 runs per 100 balls (a question swatted aside by the blossoming of Michael Vaughan the following summer).
Only rarely does this process work in reverse. In the modern era Alec Stewart is perhaps the only example of a genuinely underrated England cricketer. This is a player who has two separate claims to be in the shake-up for an amalgamated greatest post-war England Test team. Not just as wicketkeeper-batsman, a role he took on as a novice, but ended up pushing Allan Knott close for total dismissals (while outperforming Knott with the bat). But also as a wonderfully breezy and successful opening batsman.
The curtailment of Stewart's career as an opener was one of the tragedies of England's grim decade. In 51 Tests as a specialist batsman during the 1990s Stewart made almost 4000 runs at an average of 46.7 with nine centuries. And this in a boom time for fast bowling: these were runs scored against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Richard Hadlee, Waqar and Wasim, Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock.
By way of comparison, over the same period Atherton scored 5463 runs in 83 Tests and averaged exactly 10 runs fewer. And still Atherton remains one of England's modern giants, revered for his cussedness and mule-like defence - and also for his eloquence and nuggety charisma. Despite his superior playing record and blemish-free reputation, somehow it's Stewart who finds himself considered the lightweight of the two.
This probably has something to do with Stewart's versatility. For England he played as an opener, a middle-order batsman and an all-rounder in the lower middle-order. You might have thought this flexibility would be considered an asset. In fact it seems to have diluted his impact.
In part this is a problem of perception: we feel there's something slightly graceless and unappealing about such sporting pluralism. The sight of Stewart, wicketkeeper pads in place, sprinting to the end of Darren Gough's run to offer a captain's advice, and then haring back to crouch down next to the slips was frankly rather embarrassing.
Atherton, to his own lasting benefit, never changed. No attempts, Vaughan-like, to accelerate his scoring rate. No lasting drop down the order. No real innovations in captaincy or tactics either. He just kept losing, cussedly
A good measure of the two players is to compare their most memorable Test innings. Atherton will be remembered for his marathon match-saving 185 against South Africa at The Wanderers. This was essence of Atherton: a magnificent, migraine-inducing exercise in passive resistance – and ultimately pointless, as England still lost the series (in the decider Atherton got 0 and 10).
Stewart's most memorable single innings is his counter-attacking 105 against West Indies in his 100th Test at Old Trafford in 2000. Incarnated as a wicketkeeping No5 batsman on this occasion, Stewart came in with England 17-3 and took the lead in a series-turning 179-run partnership with debutant Marcus Trescothick. It's the kind of innings Atherton, for all his very linear talents, simply couldn't have played.
Like many of his peers the significant blot on Stewart's career is his poor showing against Australia. Here his record is very similar to that of Atherton (a single hundred and a 30-something average). But if only he'd been able to hang on for another two years he would surely have matched Geraint Jones' contribution to the 2005 Ashes victory. Trafalgar square and all that: canonisation for Stewart as a genuine modern great would surely have followed.
And yet, despite this willingness to compromise his own position - and notwithstanding his failures against Australia - Stewart still ended up with more centuries, more runs and a better average than Atherton. Against this, he has less of our affection, less regard, and a place somewhere to the rear of the front rank. For his selflessness we disregard him. And also for his terribly un-English insistence on doing it all, taking up every cudgel and coming across in the process like a naggingly busybody PE teacher.
There is an echo of the old divide between gentleman and player in all this. Atherton is very much a figure from the social and cricketing establishment. An alumnus of Manchester Grammar school, he's also "a Cambridge wally", as Ian Smith put it during the recent New Zealand series. Stewart turned professional at the age of 18 and seemed closer to a footballer in brusqueness of manner and body language. This is part of his failure to punch his weight in the nation's cricketing affections. Certainly, we seem to prefer Atherton's lugubrious but reassuringly old school demeanor, his air of thoughtful, comforting underachievement.
A strong personality can always triumph over this kind of thing. But Stewart, for all his reputed dressing room wit, just hasn't ever been cool. Partly it's the wicketkeeping, an unglamorous occupation that allowed Stewart to become horribly over-exposed with the invention of the stump mic and his own discovery of the phrase "Good areas!", bellowed in a nasal Surrey bray after each Ashley Giles delivery into the rough outside leg stump.
Partly it was his ubiquity. No capricious back twinges, no too-tired-to-tour, not even any really bad trots. He just kept turning up, twiddling his bat, swishing away his offside boundaries and running in that irritating fashion ever so neatly on tippety-toes. No wonder we took the Gaffer for granted.
It's as a dashing opener that Stewart is best remembered. The Boycott-like average is impressive enough. But above all it was the style of his scoring. Twin hundreds in Barbados in 1994 stand out. There might have been many more. But Stewart, more than any other player in recent times, sacrificed his own interest at the altar of the team. And a fat lot of good it did him, too, it turns out.
There is a topical point in this. Balance is a vital quality in any Test team. The most effective XI of recent times had Andrew Flintoff not just batting at No6, but batting like a No6 and offering the delicious luxury of six proper batters and five proper bowlers. There have been muted calls for Flintoff to be fast-tracked back into the England side for the forthcoming first Test on the strength of a single first class game during his latest comeback.
Flintoff was a proper No6 batsman for two seasons; Stewart kept wicket to Test standard and batted in the top six for almost a decade. This is the player England have missed: a genuine world-class all-rounder of chastening longevity.
These kinds of cricketers come around only very rarely. Stewart, England's unlamented Test match giant of the 1990s, was one of them.
On Second Thoughts: Alec Stewart | Sport | guardian.co.uk