Faithful allies with deep love for battle'

The good thing about Atherton and Stewart is that they look forward to playing their next cricket match'
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For English cricket, the Nineties were the Age of Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart. They saw the decade in, and they saw it out.

For English cricket, the Nineties were the Age of Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart. They saw the decade in, and they saw it out.

Their commanding position in the hierarchy of contemporary English cricket has been based on results. They might not have won too many Tests between them, but no one else has scored more runs, or given so much, so unstintingly, for so long. As they both prepare to take the field at Old Trafford for their 100th Test, the statistics speak for themselves. Here is their story, told by family and friends...

Commentators commonly comment on the differences between them. David Gower, Atherton's first captain in 1989, says: "Athers will back himself to survive; Stewie to play scoring shots earlier."

On the surface, they are as different as chalk and cheese: one a university-educated specialist in mind games, the other a single-minded individual who announced to his father at the age of eight that he would be a professional sportsman. But the unspoken similarities are surprisingly strong. Mickey Stewart, Alec's father and himself a former manager of England, believes in the signif- icance of the happy home.

"You've got to be loved if you're going to be confident," he says. Both benefited from that. But there was more to their family background than stability. Mickey was himself a professional cricketer, and Atherton's schoolmaster father was sports-mad. Both have inherited an instinct for the game. Both are competitive; both ambitious to succeed at the top level. "Each has the right attitude to the game of cricket," says Gower.

The big difference between them that can plausibly be attributed to their upbringing is their attitude to personal neatness. "Atherton's mind is a lot better organised than his coffin," says Gower. His corner of the dressing-room is a mess. "How he ever gets ready in the 10 minutes between innings, I'll never know," says Angus Fraser, his England team- mate. Stewart is, of course, famous for his impeccable organisation and neatness.

A losing record as England captain is an unlooked-for similarity. It is hard to know how good a captain a cricketer is until he can relax, use his imagination, and maximise the talent of fine players. A losing captain is defensive on and off the field, and this naturally affects his demeanour. It is not a good idea for an England captain to look cheerful after losing another Test. Both button their lips on television and at press conferences. Atherton looks sulky (he's Mr Grumpy), and Stewart slips into mind-numbing cliché.

Gower is especially conscious of the gulf between Atherton's public and private reputation. On television he can look awkward, but his reputation among his colleagues suggests he must have done a lot right in the dressing-room.

"My greatest regret is that very few people know that," says Gower. Apparently both engage in dressing-room chat and share the jokes ("Half of them at the expense of someone else," says Alec's father), but that does not create a reputation.

David Lloyd, the former England manager, gives us a clue: "The reason Athers was admired was that he kept an eye on everyone, and gave them his time. Especially on tour. He always knew when to knock on the hotel-room door and tell a player he was coming to dinner with him."

The essential difference between them is temperament, which dictates the way they bat and how they captain a team. Atherton himself defines the difference shrewdly: "I think of Alec as a brave player, like Gooch; not so much in the physical department - though he is - but more in the mental side of the game. No matter what pressures he may have been under, or the number of people advising caution, healways plays an attacking game," he wrote in Wisden Cricket Monthly.

Allan Donald identified the temperamental difference at the start of the 1998 Test series against South Africa: "I'd noticed from day one of the series, Alec Stewart had made it quite clear that under his captaincy, England would be more aggressive than under Michael Atherton, and would give as good as they got on the field. So tempers were in danger of boiling over at various stages throughout the series.

"Stewart was justified in trying to outpsych us. He was far better at that stuff than Athers. His bustling aggression was just what England needed at the time. It was time for some up-and-at-'em stuff from England, and he was the ideal captain for that. Atherton just smiles and keeps chugging along. Stewart would mix it, he wouldn't turn the other cheek."

The temperamental differences are most evident at the crease. Atherton is all concentration and tenacity. Raymond Illingworth thought he detected a lot of Geoff Boycott in him: "He just closed his mind to everything but the next ball." For Gower, thegist of Atherton's skill is thathe is very well-organised and he plays the ball late; when you're watching it move, you can leave defence to the last nano-second. Donald says he is an annoying batsman to bowl at because he very rarelymisjudges a ball.

About Stewart's batting, Illingworth is blunt: "His footwork is limited and always has been, but that is not a problem if he counters that by playing straight." Atherton himself speaks of Stewart's aggression counterbalancing his accumulation. "Alec's a brilliant hooker and cutter of fast bowling, and fearless too," he says. Donald speaks for the bowler: "Stewart is such a free player that even though he can cane any attack, he still gives you a chance." David Lloyd adds: "Afraid of nothing."

Mickey Stewart's regret is that the two of them were not able to turn an alliance into a partnership more often. They opened together in 29 Tests, and these partnerships averaged 38.47, but once Illingworth insisted that Stewart become a wicketkeeper-batsman, England's most promising opening partnership since Atherton was paired with Gooch was doomed.

The last word belongs to Alec's father: "The good part of both of them is that they look forward to playing their next cricket match. That's the most pleasing thing."