Survivors do not come any more robust than Stewart, who, after a poor series last year in South Africa, yesterday broke the record of Pakistan's Saeed Anwar of 701 Test runs for 1996. That is a remarkable record considering he did not make the line-up for England's first Test of last summer, getting his chance in the second at Lord's, only after Nick Knight had broken his thumb.
Almost as heartening, after Darren Gough's four wickets on the previous day, was the gritty half-century from Stewart's Surrey team-mate, Graham Thorpe, whose miserable form has forced him to cut a forlorn figure on the cricket fields of Zimbabwe.
Battling more than the long outfield that Stewart claimed had made his century "take a bit longer than normal", Thorpe had to exorcise inner demons as well, no easy task on a pitch that is the opposite to the one found at The Oval. That also affected Stewart, whose predominantly back- foot technique had to be modified.
Resurrected careers come in many forms, but few can have been as stylish or as deserving as Stewart's has this year. But if the Surrey skipper's rehabilitation at the top has given, among others, our own John Major a great deal of pleasure, yesterday's effort brought admiring words from Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe and the country's most eminent cricket supporter.
His presence, up until just after lunch when he met the players of both sides, proved a welcome distraction for those unused to seeing heavy artillery employed in such an obtrusive way. That done, he left for State House in a cavalcade of black Mercedes, the cars and their motorcycle escorts barely having enough time to get into second gear. State house is all of two minutes walk from the cricket ground.
It was much the same with England, who, knowing they had to be batting at the close of play if they weren't to end the year as cricket's laughing stocks, proceeded with great caution. Only 62 runs were scored in the morning session, which, despite another bout of heavy overnight rain, started on time.
After Michael Atherton's cheap dismissal on Saturday evening to Heath Streak when only five overs were possible, it was imperative for England to survive the new ball. This is never an easy task first thing in the morning when the pitch has spent a night sweating under plastic groundsheets.
It was a testing time and Zimbabwe will no doubt rue missing the chance Stewart gave to Mark Dekker when he was on 15 as the batsman clipped Streak through square-leg.
Curiously, the chance had more effect on Nick Knight than on his fortunate partner, and Knight, who had looked so neatly assured in the first innings, disappeared behind the sandbags until just before lunch when he fell to Paul Strang, his edged dab unluckily ricocheting off the wicketkeeper's pads straight to Alistair Campbell at first slip.
The pitch, having given up its moisture, was now playing truer than at any time in the match. That made Nasser Hussain's soft dismissal to Strang, caught by David Houghton on the drive at silly mid-off, all the more unexpected, although not as unexpected as the appearance of Thorpe, who many felt ought to have been usurped by John Crawley on sympathy grounds alone.
However, Thorpe is a nuggety battler who, inspired by Stewart, hung on grimly until some semblance of tempo began to return to his uncomplicated footwork and crisp timing. It was not pretty and the left-hander was reprieved when Strang dropped a very difficult chance at cover point as he cut at Streak.
Meanwhile, Stewart was beginning to take command, gleefully pouncing on anything loose like a kitten on an errant strand of wool. With the new ball taken and coming nicely on to the bat, Stewart's hundred came after he twice blazed Olonga off the back foot for successive off-side fours.
It was a fine innings made under trying circumstances, and Stewart's animated celebrations showed that he was as delighted with this one as he was with the brace he scored in Barbados three winters ago.
England have now scored three centuries in this series to their opponents' one. That is not usually grounds to lose a Test series, which before Stewart's knock yesterday, looked far more likely than they do now.
Zimbabwe won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 156 (G J Whittall 4-18, H H Streak 4-43).
ZIMBABWE - First Innings 215 (G W Flowers 73; D Gough 4-40).
ENGLAND - Second Innings
Overnight: 17 for 1
N V Knight c Campbell b Strang 30
(134 min, 83 balls, 3 fours)
A J Stewart not out 101
(378 min, 267 balls, 8 fours)
N Hussain c Houghton b Strang 6
(34 min, 37 balls)
G P Thorpe not out 50
(219 min, 169 balls, 6 fours)
Extras (lb5, w1, nb1) 7
Total (for 3, 390 min, 93 overs) 195
Fall (cont): 2-75 (Knight), 3-89 (Hussain).
To bat: J P Crawley, C White, R D B Croft, D Gough, A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell.
Bowling: Streak 18-5-47-1 (9-3-29-1, 6-1-14-0, 3-1-4-0); Brandes 21-6- 45-0 (w1) (9-2-17-0, 5-1-13-0, 6-2-15-0, 1-1-0-0); Olonga 7-0-31-0 (nb1) (4-0-20-0, 3-0-11-0); Whittall 14-6-16-0 (7-4-3-0, 4-1-7-0, 3-1-6-0); Strang 26-6-42-2 (20-5-27-2, 5-1-11-0, 1-0-4-0); G W Flower 7-2-9-0 (5- 0-9-0, 2-2-0-0).
Progress: 50: 85 min, 17.4 overs. Lunch: 79-2 (Stewart 41, Hussain 2) 33 overs. 100: 192 min, 44 overs. Tea: 137-3 (Stewart 70, Thorpe 25) 65 overs. 150: 3 06 min, 74.4 overs. New ball: taken after 86 overs at 180- 3. Bad light stopped play and play abandoned: 5.02pm.
Stewart's 50: 162 min, 112 balls, 5 fours. 100: 365 min, 259 balls, 8 fours.
Thorpe's 50: 210 min, 165 balls, 6 fours.
Umpires: K T Francis and R B Tiffin.
TV replay umpire: I D Robinson.Reuse content