The Electronic Telegraph carries daily news and opinion from the UK and around the world.

The prince who will not be king

By Scyld Berry

22 February 1998

CROWNS and titles have been denied Alec Stewart. Only last autumn he was pencilled in to lead this tour in the event of Mike Atherton's resignation, and as he will be 35 in April, his chances of the England captaincy must now have gone forever. What is more, he has had to live with the slightly galling knowledge that the better he has done in England's cause over the last five years, the more secure he has made Atherton's captaincy and thereby reduced his own prospects of the crown.

His similarity to a professional footballer, all tracksuits and work-rate, has further lessened the public esteem in which Stewart has been held. Gleaming efficiency is more Australian and South African, not for English cricketers who must have some vulnerability to inspire our affections. Yet he deserves, at least, the honour of being recognised as one of the supreme handlers of West Indian fast bowling.

Already he has scored more Test runs in the Caribbean, 906 at an average of 45, than anyone else since World Series Cricket ended and the West Indian era of four fast bowlers began.

If the title of the best player of pace in that time has to go to Graham Gooch, Stewart is one of only eight batsmen to have averaged more than 35 against the West Indies, home and away, over any considerable period in that time. If he can continue his peak form on the truer pitches which should prevail in the rest of this series to make 348 more runs in his six remaining innings, he would supplant Gooch at the top of a distinguished list.

In this series Stewart has scored more than a third of England's runs off the bat, moving back and across his stumps, ready to work off his legs or on-drive, or to crack the short ball past point, all with precision timing. Perhaps his most remarkable shot in Trinidad came when a ball dribbled halfway down the pitch and stopped after his back-foot force. Mistiming and Stewart do not go together.

The waste, of course, has been hideous. For half his England career some numbskull or another has made Stewart keep wicket instead of concentrating on opening and shredding attacks. Against Australia last summer he and Atherton should have been launching England with more than the five century partnerships they have managed for the first wicket so far. Against lesser powers, like Zimbabwe and New Zealand last winter, Stewart would have scored so quickly as a specialist opener that even if England had only four specialist bowlers, they would have had time.

Still, it is not too late to seek a newer world, and Stewart has done so at 34 - or, at any rate, he has found himself again in the West Indian world that he has subdued before, while the new part is that he has slotted in as a second slip with the same effortlessness that marks his batting. ``Great hands'' says his Surrey team-mate, Mark Butcher; and great vision too, to take over as a specialist slip, who has yet to drop anything, at this late stage of his career, thus allowing Nasser Hussain to sharpen England's cover fielding.

Stewart uses a common device of making his runs in tens. ``Against West Indies it just takes that much longer,'' he said while recuperating pool-side in Guyana. ``That's the main thing I've learnt, to be patient.'' Even on the first of his three tours here, in 1989-90, he was one of the few England batsmen to be up with the pace, only to open the bat's face or drive at something not quite there.

``I've been reading Steve Waugh's diary about Australia's last tour here and realised what he says is so right: even more so than usual in cricket you have to concentrate on the next ball and nothing else. You can't even look one over ahead because even when they have spread the field and are waiting for something to happen with the old ball, if they take a wicket they come right back at you and turn on the heat.''

And what heat it was in Port of Spain when England made 225 runs spread over three days to produce a mirror image of the first of these back-to-back Tests and so win, not lose, by three wickets. When Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh took the ball and responsibility, they showed that age and years of county cricket need not dull the passion. Indeed, the three oldest Test cricketers around fought it out as Stewart stroked his 83, while the rest of England's team needed 108 overs to score the other 113 runs off the bat.

``They give you nothing,'' said Stewart, not unfondly. ``Everything that Curtly does is straight, and I can only recall hitting one four off him and that was a thick edge. Courtney, because he bowls from so wide, might angle one in that you can work to leg or drop one short enough to force square.''

Even so, the profligate Walsh bowled his eight overs for four runs on that final morning as the screw kept exquisitely turning and England's captain manned the sightscreen as a break from his nail-chewing.

This sort of heat can forge a team. In Atherton's time, only the two wins against the West Indies at home in 1995 have been as influential upon the course of a major series as this one. If the series is going to be won by the side who prove their batting more, then the West Indies must surely have the greatest scope if only because their batsmen are so hasty at present.

Most of them will not have to change their tempo when the one-day series commences in April. They do not have the patience which Stewart has acquired, to go with his other senior pro qualities, like jollying the umpires along when in the field, or his lobbying at Sabina Park - ``You don't want to bowl on this, do you, Curtly? It's not a fair contest'' - which paved the way for Atherton's diplomacy.

Let Jack Russell open the bowling for England, and Phil Tufnell the batting. Anything but Stewart keeping wicket in a Test match again.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
Editorial comments can be sent to The Electronic Telegraph at
Contributed by CricInfo Management

Date-stamped : 22 Feb1998 - 18:19