Cricket: End of a great knock by the 'Colonel': Retirement is imminent for another of the game's most popular figures. Derek Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN STEPHENSON would make a richly festive Santa Claus. He has the build, the twinkle and could no doubt manage a convincing 'Ho, ho, ho'. A proper Father Christmas does not so much communicate as radiate goodwill, which Stephenson does to great effect. And when the holly starts to fade, John Stephenson will have gone, too, for he retires on New Year's Eve.

January will come sharp to Stephenson and his wife, Karen; what does a Secretary of Marylebone Cricket Club do in later life? It is rather like asking the Pope how he intends to spend his retirement.

In the 206 years of the club there has been no more popular secretary, with the staff, with the players, with the public, even with the members. The media, who have spent much of the double-century sticking needles into the MCC secretariat, honoured him with a presentation.

John Stephenson played cricket and rugby for the Army, ending his career as a Lt Colonel in the Queen's Regiment and joining MCC as assistant secretary 15 years ago, when 47. He would admit to having an inside track: he had played in the same Christ's Hospital School XI as the then MCC secretary, Jack Bailey, and the current MCC president, Dennis Silk.

Stephenson was soon referred to as 'The Colonel', and was greatly admired and respected by the Lord's staff, from the young professionals to the gate men, as a man who

insisted on having things done properly but who was always absolutely fair in his judgements, usually dispensed with a touch of humour.

What brought about his arrival on to the international stage, seven years ago, was the almighty row his predecessor, Bailey, had with the Lord's establishment about the

demarcation lines between the newly formed Test and County Cricket Board and the Marylebone Club. Bailey resigned and Stephenson, who the Establishment possibly reasoned would do his duty as an uncomplicated military man and not rock the boat, got the hot seat.

But by then the secretary of MCC had also become the secretary of the International Cricket Council and the man with two hats became uncomfortably aware that the occasional pot-shots from Wapping or High Holborn were spreading to volleys from Bombay, Port of Spain and Karachi. As the ICC became

increasingly notorious for either passing the buck or ignoring it altogether, it was the Colonel who had to stride forth to meet the massed ranks of cameras, microphones, arc-lights and tape recorders and to accomplish the impossible, explain an ICC decision.

Stephenson rode jokes about all his gate men being given time off to attend charm school; when the tabloids attempted to caricature him as 'Colonel Bogey', as an inflexible and anachronistic representative of what they saw as a snobbish, elitist, outdated institution, he sent their reporters away laughing. When Sunil Gavaskar, India's former captain and greatest batsman, was refused admission at Lord's (he had no credentials and the gate man did not recognise him) the row rumbled on for some time until the Colonel pronounced, straight-faced: 'The best way to approach a gateman at Lord's is with the correct ticket.'

Stephenson's greatest achievement has been to give MCC a human face for the second millennium. The ground has never looked better; the Compton-Edrich stand has given a better balance and line to the Nursery End, the Mound Stand is a glorious expression of English architectural design, and Middlesex feel less like humble lodgers with their imposing new club room in the Allen Stand.

This sparkle is reflected in the attitude of the staff who now see a position at Lord's as a privilege. The sad fact is that the creator of this happy ambience is now himself, at 62, looking for a job. 'I accept that, having been secretary here, it won't be easy to go elsewhere in cricket but I do feel I have something to offer. I certainly don't want to be seen as just a hanger-on.'

Moving into the MCC secretary's house, just behind the Pavilion gardens, in the new year will be Roger Knight, a former captain of Surrey and headmaster of Worksop Collge. Knight has some outstanding qualifications for the post, perhaps the best of all coming from the Colonel: 'Absolutely the right man. They couldn't have made a better choice.'