During the last 10 months I found my mind wandering back to the early 1990’s and when I first fell in love with cricket. For all its faults it seemed a simpler time, no T20, all teams played each other and most in meaningful Test series of 5 matches.
I vaguely recall watching Gooch go to 300 in 1990, I remember more of Smith and Stewie scoring big hundreds in 1992 versus Pakistan. Then I really tuned in during the 1993 Ashes series which should’ve been painful as Border’s Aussies hammered us (and we used something like 40 players) but I loved it. As far as England highlights go Ath getting 99 before the run out sticks in my mind, and Thorpie getting a debut 100.
It was not a series where I noticed a much of Alec Stewart, but that was soon to change when Atherton took his young team to the Windies in 1994. Stewie opened and he was brilliant! Not just the back-to-back 100’s at Barbados but throughout, he was just class. Collar up, zinc on his lips, bat twirl – back and across and a crisp back foot shot before he set off running on his tip toes. He didn’t just score runs but he took control and scored at a strike rate of approx. 50 runs per 100 balls – I’d found a hero.
Thorpe was utterly world-class, and later in 1994 Gough would burst onto the scene. These two players would’ve walked into the Australian team, they’ll deny it, but they never had a no.6 or 3rd seamer better than those two. When asked about my cricket hero’s, Thorpe and Gough are often the names I think of first – but the more I think about it … it’s the Gaffer.
A remarkable bloke who captained England in 15 Tests, kept wicket in 82 Tests and played another 51 as a specialist batsman. Overall, 133 Tests for England, and I can’t recall him complaining or whinging, not even when he got out to that shocking LBW against Jayasuriya!
It won’t bother Stewie, but it kills me that his average is 0.45 below 40, this was the benchmark for Test match batsmen when the game was tough, and it was really tough when he played. To put this in context he averaged just shy of 47 as a specialist batsman over 51 Tests!
His record as a keeper is also very respectable, both in front and behind the stumps. However, this was an era where England could’ve used an opening batsman with an average of 45+. Atherton was brilliant, especially between 1994 and 1996 before his back really troubled him, Hick flickered during this time too averaging mid 40’s before fading away. Thorpe was consistent, Smith declining, and Ramps had a good spell between 1997 and 2001 – but none were in Stewie’s class. (And its not like we didn’t have Jack to keep – but I’ve been on that rant already!).
What makes Alec really special for me is the bowling he faced during the 1990’s. Some will say the standard is getting better, but I’m not convinced that is true of Test match cricket. The leading wicket taker’s Alec faced in the 1990’s:
Every player on that list would walk into any current Test side, they are all-time greats! Pace, swing, reverse swing, spin – it is all there, and he played against each of them. His best innings in my memory came against a seriously good Pakistan attack in 1992 and 1996. I also have read just how highly the Windies attack rated him, and I don’t think they gave out all that much praise.
It is a well-known fact he topped the run scoring for England during the 1990’s – he also was the leading run scorer in Test cricket across the whole world during that decade.
No one in this group is matching Steve Waugh’s average, but his record is right up there with Mark Waugh and better than the others!
It was not unusual to see Alec shuffled about the batting order, not long after his heroics in Barbados he found himself batting at no5 in a Test versus South Africa. Then during the Bumble era, he did the heavy lifting as a keeper and no3 batsman. That is a serious workload that few have endured successfully. By the close of his career, he batted everywhere from 1-7 for England, and with reasonable success in all positions.
For me, my hero is the man who averaged 45 as on opening batsman peeling off 8 centuries!
The same man who averaged 47 as a specialist batsman with 9 Test centuries!
All done against one of the greatest generations of bowlers that the game has ever seen.
All done as part of an England set up that offered no security over one’s place in the team or role in the team.
All without a hint of complaint, or a bad word against his employer or teammates.
Alec will never see it this way, but I think my hero was hard done by too. He is an England great regardless, but I think he would’ve gone down as one of our best opening batsman/batsmen ever if he had been allowed to just bat.
What offsets the average of 39 for me is the pleasure in seeing Stewie the captain throw aside the gloves and revert to specialist opening batsman for the 1998 Boxing Day Ashes Test. In front of a full crowd at the MCG and proceeded to stoke 107 on the opening day with 16 fours at a strike rate of 67. (But for that run out he’d have had a drawn Ashes in Australia on his captain’s CV)
Absolute class, collar starched upright, zinc on the lips, twirling that bat… back and across and another four to Alec Stewart. The most underrated player I have ever seen represent England.