Cricket: End of the innings for Mr 120 per cent: Micky Stewart's reign as England team manager comes to a close on Monday. Martin Johnson assesses his contribution to a turbulent era and wonders how history will remember him

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR someone so fond of statistics (he once claimed half-way through a losing series that England were ahead on 'sessions') Micky Stewart might not care to be reminded that he has presided over the not so grand total of 12 victories in 58 Test matches.

However, the job of England team manager is not yet ready to be judged purely on results, and perhaps never will be. To borrow Graham Gooch's melancholy phrase as he contemplated the wreckage of the last Ashes tour, the position has involved too much farting against thunder for any such simplistic judgement.

Stewart, who retires at the age of 60 after the final international match of the summer on Monday, has spent the past six years attempting to orchestrate a domestic playing structure aimed at nourishing the national side rather than working as a separate entity. Getting your toe in the door is not easy when so many county chairmen dive behind the curtains at the approach of what they consider to be the equivalent of a double-glazing salesman.

Ironically, given that he was instrumental in installing the politically unacceptable Graham Gooch as captain, the cancelled 1988 tour to India represented Stewart's first real break. He was able to spend the winter putting together three different age group sides (Under-19, 17 and 15) in an attempt to identify the best talent, and he will continue to have a role in the structuring of English cricket for some years to come.

'Cricket in this country is unique,' Stewart said, 'in that it is so much a social game. In Australia and the West Indies, where they lack this village green structure, the most talented players gravitate to playing together much earlier, which is why England rarely sees the equivalent of a Tendulkar or a Mushtaq arriving early on the Test match scene.

'I reckon that the gifted teenager in this country will play 75 per cent of his cricket below his own standard, and you can only progress so far in this way.'

It is this sort of grass-roots input, according to Gooch, that has helped Stewart elevate the role of team manager to something more than baggage wallah and pocket-money dispenser. 'When I first started,' Gooch said, 'all the assistance that a captain got was the chairman of selectors strolling up to the nets and offering what advice he could.'

Nowadays, you have as much chance of sighting Halley's Comet as the chairman of selectors in a net, and if Lord Ted is inclined to stroll up and offer advice, it is just as likely to be on the 4.30 at Uttoxeter, or how to play a sand-iron from a plugged lie in a bunker. Dexter is a deliberately low-profile overlord (he makes David Gower look highly strung) but Stewart has lived and breathed the job with an intensity that would have had most 60-year-olds rattling with blood-pressure pills.

How, then, will he be remembered? As a 'sterling servant' (Gooch), a 'loyal patriot who has shown the necessity for a full-time manager' (Raymond Illingworth), or an 'inflexible, robotic character, who would prefer his players to have a brain implant programmed to his own outlooks and attitudes' (unnamed, for obvious reasons, England cricketer).

Stewart has certainly not found it easy to adapt his own simplistic outlook on harnessing talent - hard work, clean living, and what he himself would describe as 'giving it 120 per cent' - to individuals. If he had got hold of Beethoven at an early age, some might say, Ludwig would have become so bored with Stewart making him practise his scales, that he would have packed it in and taken up the tuba instead.

In some ways, Stewart's greatest strength - devotion to his players - has also been his greatest weakness. Right from the start, he allied himself closer to the closeted world of the dressing room, with all its inherent whinges and prejudices, than to the real world. He disliked intrusion so much, especially from the Press, that he gave the impression that he was running a private club instead of the national team.

In his first home series, against Pakistan in 1987, Stewart formed an early opinion of those newspapers who rarely offer their readers anything in shades of grey. Mike Gatting, with whom he formed a siamese twin-like attachment, failed to appear with his team after a rain interruption in the Edgbaston Test, and was regaled the next morning with headlines of 'Cap'n Cock-Up' and 'Gatt The Pratt'.

Ever since, Stewart has been so much on guard with the Press that he has almost perfected the art of speaking without actually saying anything. Stewartspeak would cause an Admiralty decoder to give up the ghost in a fireworks display of exploding valves, as typified by this explanation of Michael Atherton's omission from a one-day international.

'He is not on the best of terms with himself sort of batting-wise, obviously, and we wanted, on the tempo we were looking for in this particular game, for him not to force things outside his natural game. And therefore he's not playing in this one.' Translation: 'We've dropped him for slow scoring.'

There are numerous other one-liners, mostly with the motive of protecting his players.

'It was understandable disappointment' (batsman scything his stumps down after dismissal).

'If we'd been playing well we'd have been more successful' (disastrous Ashes tour, 1990-91).

'He's bowling too many wicket-taking balls' (anyone bowling rubbish).

Away from the environment of the on- the-record quote, Stewart is an honest, relaxed and friendly man, who enjoys a drink with individual journalists. When he was team manager with Surrey, he never failed to spend time in the press- box volunteering information, but a series of bad experiences, not to mention a close friendship with the former England football manager, Bobby Robson, has taught him not to go swimming in alligator- infested waters.

'I'm aware of the newspapers, but I try not to read them,' Stewart said. 'Some of the more scurrilous stuff leaves me feeling terribly hurt - not for myself, but for the image of cricket.

'People might call me out-dated, but I have huge respect for the game of cricket. The way it is projected in some newspapers is a million miles from the genuine stories of, say, the guy who walks out for a vital innings, gets a thin edge, and walks.'

Some might suggest that this does not sit easily with his failure to invoke disciplinary action when one of his batsmen almost required a stick of gelignite to leave the field, let alone walk. It also ought to be documented that in the same match as Chris Broad's one-man sit-in in Lahore in 1987, Stewart had marched on to the field at the end of a morning session to glare at both the umpires.

Then last winter he tangled with a New Zealand television cameraman when David Lawrence was being taken away on a stretcher in Christchurch, but if this kind of thing is not really acceptable, Stewart's burning patriotism at least makes it understandable.

What is slightly less acceptable is how Stewart feels able to square his low opinion of the popular press ('sick, sick sick' was one of his outbursts) with asking for payment for volunteering an article for one of them, as he did with the Daily Express earlier this week.

He hates losing, which is why he has always had more in common with Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch than David Gower, who does not care to lose, but neither does he convey the impression that defeat might make him contemplate jumping off a 10-storey building.

Stewart, by the way, would like it known that he is a long way from being anti-Gower. 'It is not correct to say that I only like regimented hard workers. In fact, I hate that sort of player. It's boring. However, it also makes me bridle if exceptionally talented people fail to use their abilities to the full.

'When David was captain, I don't think he appreciated how much the players looked up to him. You have to recognise your responsibilities in this area, and at the time, I don't think he did. Having said that, we got on OK by and large, and this summer he has been really excellent. He knows, or he should do, that I love quality players like him.'

Stewart played his cricket in a more chivalrous age, but is emotionally well- equipped to deal with the modern high- pressure game. 'I was trained to fight in Korea,' he said (although he did not have to go in the end) 'and top-level cricket is like going over the top.

'Everything is more professional now, and the one thing that pleases me from my term of office is the improved fitness. When I had been in the job a year, I wrote to the Board complaining that English cricketers were more unfit than any apart from the Indians. That's now changed.

'Success is not expected, it is demanded, although it is sad that some of the enjoyable things have gone out of the game, such as walking. In all my career, I failed to walk twice. However, cricket today merely reflects life today.'

And what about life, for Stewart, tomorrow? 'I hope to stay involved as long as I can. I love being part of the modern game, and feel very lucky. I get bored with people talking about the past. It will be a wrench to leave this particular job, but the biggest wrench of all - always - is when you stop playing.

'I'll perhaps have a little more time now, and as sports people are always selfish with time, it would be nice to spend a little more of it with my wife Sheila. It might be nothing more romantic, mind you, than her sitting next to me watching the Arsenal.

'She's also thinking about taking up golf, although it might not be such a good idea to play with someone like me. I'm not the sort who concedes a six-inch putt - not even to family.' As both player and manager, the most accurate description of Stewart is the one that he would regard as the biggest compliment. He was a competitor.

----------------------------------------------------------------- England under Stewart ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W L D Test matches 58 12 20 26 Test series 13 4 7 2 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

Comments