Cricket: Rich legacy of Stewart

Andrew Longmore bids farewell to the man who became England's Mr Cricket
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The Independent Online
The "corridor of uncertainty", now permanently enscribed in the cricketing dictionary, will take on a new meaning for the man who coined the phrase six summers ago. On 1 January, Micky Stewart will wake up to a day not entirely devoted to the welfare of English cricket. Officially, Stewart should have retired from his post as director of coaching and excellence in September, but being as irrepressibly bonkers about the game he first played at the age of five he stayed on an extra few months to ease Huw Morris, his successor, into the job. Besides, when cricket has been in the blood that long, a transfusion of idleness needs to be lingering.

Stewart will take with him into retirement an unmatched portfolio of experience. A player (xx years, five championships), Surrey manager (nine years), England manager (six years), six years as chief steward of the game, combined with a 14-year involvement with Slazengers in the retail sports trade; no one knows more about the state of English cricket than Stewart, which makes his recent claim that more kids are playing than ever before, that the structure of excellence has never been firmer and that a talented young cricketer now has a clearer path to the top than ever before, a cause for genuine rejoicing.

"Our age group squads are pretty healthy, the national coaching scheme can only get more healthy, the work with the Premier League clubs is right, but players can't maintain an international schedule with the current domestic programme," he said. "That has to be looked at. There's plenty of cricketing talent about now. It's just that the hand-eye co-ordination of the kids coming into school is way below that of kids 10 years ago. That's a fact."

The weighty tome which hit the table last week is one of the last planks in the structure painstakingly erected by Stewart and the national coaches over the past 18 months. The coaching manual, designed to help teachers popularise cricket in the playgrounds of primary and secondary schools, reflects Stewart's vision of "one game".

"That's the one thing I've always believed in. That Test cricket and village green cricket are the same game as long as there is an obvious path from one to the other. When I first went into the professional game, I would hear people talking of someone as a 'only a club player', and I would say, 'Well, I'm only a club player' because I was playing for my club at the time. Just because I got paid a couple of shillings a week I couldn't see that made me any different."

Initial success as England manager on the 1986-7 tour of Australia could not mask the failings of a creaking system. Too often he was the public face of defeat, and he was never a very convincing apologist. His tour report in early 1987 was highly critical of the way some of his most experienced internationals went about their business and the empty winter of 1988, when the tour to India was cancelled, gave him the time to work on the blueprint for change. The one tour, he points, for which the team had time to prepare properly ended in a narrow and undeserved defeat at the hands of a strong West Indies side in the Caribbean. That - and two defeats in World Cup finals - were his lowest moments in the game.

Otherwise, Stewart has remained essentially his own man; robust, single- minded, bubbly, passionate, loyal, a little old-fashioned. In the week in which Chris Adams switched clubs for a reputed annual salary of pounds 85,000, Stewart was left to reflect on a different era when his first wage at Surrey was pounds 8 a week (including a pounds 2 bonus for playing first-class cricket during national service). His departure will be typically low key and much of his backroom work will not be appreciated until England start winning Test matches.

"We're very close to having the right structure now," Morris said. "And that's a tribute to the work Micky and the national coaches have put in. It's been a real eye-opener for me."

It is hard to envisage Stewart retiring to grow his marrows and mow the lawn. He is more likely to be trimming his golf handicap. In the spring he becomes president of Surrey, completing a neat circle. "I want to see England considered as the No 1 country in the world before I pop off," he says. If not, from New Year's Day, it will be someone else's turn to take the blame.

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