Back-and-across: Alec Stewart
The 1990s Man
A year or so ago, while answering one of those cricket quizzes online, the following question confronted me: who scored the most runs in Test cricket during the 1990s? Was it Brian Lara, the West Indian prodigy with the quick eye, the outrageous back lift and the ability to make big hundreds? Was it Sachin Tendulkar, the Indian maestro with the perfect technique, the great balance and many thousands of fans behind him (already)? Or might it have been the tough-as-nails New South Welshman Steve Waugh or the Sri Lankan wizard Aravinda De Silva? The answer, perhaps because it is the name of a wicket keeper, albeit second choice for his team during the decade in question, had me stumped; the answer was Alec James Stewart.
Alec Stewart, when he played, had a mean pull shot and a neat back foot cover drive. He could come down the wicket to a spinner when the mood struck him and slap him down the ground. His touch-game was endowed with the precious gift of timing, and he looked like a free-spirited but unhurried painter when in full flow.
What struck me most about Stewart, however, was that he fidgeted at the crease (in which respect he predated Sanath Jayasuriya, the man who, apart from revolutionising batting in the first fifteen overs in one-day cricket, took fidgeting to a different level). I can still visualise Stewart's brief fidgeting ritual before the ball bowler ran into bowl, as though I last saw it this morning. A finger of his gloved right hand brushes his nape, just below the helmet... the Kookaburra bat is twirled…it taps the ground, one, two, three, four as the bowler runs in...
As the ball left the bowler's hand -- and there is the second thing I remember about him -- Stewart took his back foot towards the middle stump, a signature back-and-across movement that made him a classic LBW candidate. The front foot would then come into the picture as he worked the ball to the leg side around his front pad almost in sub-continental style, or as he lifted it to play one of his trademark whip-pulls to square leg, so that shutterbugs, if any, might delight in the Chesterton-ian majesty of his imitation of the one-legged stork.
That I remember Stewart more for his mannerisms and less for his runs and the manner in which he scored them has to do with the fact that, during his more prolific decade, I was a partisan Indian fan and was not too interested in how any cricketer who was not Indian fared.
Also, there was no cable television at home back then, so I remained uninformed about Stewart's barnstorming twin hundreds at Barbados against Walsh and Ambrose in their prime and his fluent 170 at Leeds against the rampaging duo of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
Stewart played these knocks not only against the finest attacks of their time, but also from the opening position, where he responded to incoming fire with understated aggression and a free-flowing blade. Since I did not watch the innings in question live, however, my imagination coloured them with a scintilla of mystique, so that when I catch them on youtube even now, I experience a poetic thrill that cannot be captured in words.
There must have been a great deal of method to Stewart's batting, but it often gave best to the instincts that seemed to fire his stroke play. Hand-eye coordination, anyone? It is therefore unsurprising that Stewart batted best when he was playing shots rather than while shelving them.
His passion in playing for England and innate aggression manifested in these shots, and rarely on his sleeve which, like the rest of his clothing, was free of the creases of emotions, though he must have battled through a good many of them, as a major part his career coincided with a prolonged period of under-performance in English cricket, especially against arch-rivals Australia.
Perhaps because Stewart was stoic (outwardly at least), however, treating victories and defeats as impostors as his countrymen Kipling counsels one to do, his captaincy, despite a brilliant inauguration, never gave a middling team the external spark it needed to be a force in international cricket.
Three hundreds in a day
So, it is with a little sadness, poetic again, that I usually recall Stewart's Test career, which spanned 133 matches and brought him over 8000 runs at an average just south of forty. That sadness though cannot obliterate Stewart's name from my own personal hall of fame. Nor can it compete with the impersonal but sincere joy I feel every time I watch Old Trafford stand and applaud his hundred in his hundredth Test match on the Queen Mother's hundredth birthday. It is not easy now to impugn the symmetry of such a performance, is it, seeing as it emerged from the depths of 17-3?