Cricket World Rewind: #OnThisDay - The versatile and selfless Alec Stewart is born
April 8, 1963 - Alec Stewart aka Gaffer remains one of the finest wicketkeeper-batsmen England have ever had. Had he not been pushed around in the batting order and played as a pure batsman, the numbers would have been far better.
Alec Stewart, along with Michael Atherton, stood out in the England side through the 1990s. However, the decade was one of the lowest for the nation in terms of cricketing returns. Had Stewart been part of an England team on better footing, he would have fared far better, but alas!
Atherton is regarded as a better batsman than Stewart, but that it probably because he was in the old-fashioned mode and had a demeanour which was easily palatable. Stewart, on the other hand, was unconventional, both in his batting and captaincy, but delivered.
In 51 Tests as a specialist batsman during the 1990s Stewart made almost 4000 runs at an average of 46.7 with nine centuries. Over the same period, Atherton scored 5463 runs in 83 Tests and averaged exactly 10 runs fewer.
Among English wicketkeepers, Stewart has scored the highest number of runs — 4,540 at 34.92. Among all wicketkeepers, he ranks only behind Adam Gilchrist and Mark Boucher. Among all English batsmen, his 8,463 runs at 39.54 ranked second when he retired, behind only Graham Gooch’s 8,900. He was also England’s most capped cricketer with 133 Tests at that time.
And this when, Stewart saddled multiple horses of wicketkeeping, batting at the top, in the middle and captaincy. The Surrey man represented England at a time when the team was struggling for balance. Originally an opening batsman, Stewart was often pushed down the order while also having to keep wickets. He averaged 35 with the dual responsibility. On the contrary, when picked purely as a batsman, he averaged a hugely impressive 46.
Stewart came of age in international cricket for the first time when scored his maiden Test hundred in the 1991 home series against Sri Lanka — a well-compiled 113 not out (and 43) in the only Test. In his next Test at Christchurch, he bettered it with 148. After a failure at Auckland, he scored another century —107 at Wellington, thereby reaching three-figures thrice in four Tests.
He took over the England captaincy from Mike Atherton in 1998 and promptly led the side to its first major series win for 12 years, against South Africa. But Stewart's leadership was based on passion not nous, and when England lost another Ashes series and flopped in the 1999 World Cup, he was harshly axed.
Stewart’s finest hour came in the Bridgetown Test of 1994. West Indies were still the best team in the world, and had attained an unassailable 3-0 lead after the first three Tests. Richie Richardson won the toss and elected to field on what looked like a seam-friendly pitch. Even England manager Keith Fletcher had admitted that they would have been fortunate to get away with a draw, more so because West Indies had won their last 12 Tests at Bridgetown.
Free from his wicketkeeping duties, Stewart scored a dashing 221-ball 118. He particularly cut loose after his 171-run partnership with Atherton for the first wicket. In the second innings, he played a totally opposite role, occupying the crease for a long time with a patient 143 in 319 balls.
It was on the back of his twin tons - the highlight of his career - that England were able to come back against a fierce West Indian side. This was the first time West Indies had lost at the Kensington Oval since their defeat against Bob Wyatt’s side in 1935.
Despite calls for him being replaced with a young wicket-keeper, Stewart played on till 2003. In fact, his batting and wicketkeeping seemed to have got refined towards the end of his career as he continued to play past 40. He finally retired at the end of the drawn series against South Africa.
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