Inspirational pair of inductees to England's 100 club

From slow bowling to straight bats, there are many departments of cricket that used to belong to England but don't any more - and the 100-Test club is one of them. Colin Cowdrey was the founder member, followed by Geoff Boycott. Gower, Botham and Gooch all joined in 1988 to '92, but for eight years now barely an Englishman has got within 40 caps of the club, while hordes of foreigners have rushed past the hall porter.

From slow bowling to straight bats, there are many departments of cricket that used to belong to England but don't any more - and the 100-Test club is one of them. Colin Cowdrey was the founder member, followed by Geoff Boycott. Gower, Botham and Gooch all joined in 1988 to '92, but for eight years now barely an Englishman has got within 40 caps of the club, while hordes of foreigners have rushed past the hall porter.

England now account for only five members out of 21, and none of the top eight, who range from Allan Border, with a phenomenal 156 caps, down to the even more amazing Courtney Walsh, with 119. But next week we finally get another 100-Test man, in fact two at once (you wait ages for a bus analogy ...): Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart.

To call them part of the England furniture would be an understatement - there have been times when they were the only furniture, apart from a rather bare cupboard. As such they tend to be taken for granted. But they are a fascinating pair, half similar, half diametrically different. Here are 12 things they have in common.

1. Test runs: Atherton has 6,713, Stewart 6,733. That's a difference of 0.3 per cent, or two runs a year. It is now quite possible that they will end up dead level, assuming Stewart doesn't carry on till he's 60.

2. A privileged background: They tend to be painted as being from different classes, but Atherton's dad, Alan, was a headmaster and Stewart's, Micky, a professional sportsman turned coach, so it would take a finely calibrated anthropologist to find much of a socio-economic gap between them. Both went to grammar schools. Atherton (Manchester) had the advantage of an exceptional all-round education, not least at home. Stewart (Tiffin, Kingston) had the advantage of an exceptional cricketing education, not least at home.

3. Moustache, lack of: Atherton may be the first man to have kept the same hairstyle throughout a long England career since Peter May. Stewart almost matches him, but early photographs reveal a long-forgotten Douglas Hurd crinkly back-comb effect.

4. Passion: They both have a pride in their own performance which has never wavered. Post-Cronje, cricket fans have been left wondering about many of their heroes: not these two.

5. Build: Atherton is 6ft exactly and 13st 5lb. Stewart is 5ft 11in and 13st 2lb. Fat is for youngsters.

6. Opening partnerships: They have opened together in only 29 Tests, putting on a total of 1885 runs at an average of 38, well above Atherton's record with 10 of his other 11 partners. The shining exception is Gooch, with whom Atherton averaged 55 in 23 Tests. When Atherton and Stewart lifted English hearts by putting on 171 for the first wicket in Bridgetown in 1994, straight after England had been all out for 46, it was the exception rather than the rule. They ought to be the perfect foil to one another, but something has held them back: this next item, perhaps.

7. The England captaincy: Neither was vice-captain when he took over - Atherton leapfrogged Stewart when they were the only candidates for the succession in 1993, and Stewart leapfrogged Nasser Hussain in 1998. And like so many recent skippers, neither won more matches than he lost: Atherton had 13 wins and 19 defeats, Stewart four wins (including Lord's the other day) and seven defeats.

8. Portraits: Both men have their admirers but neither is exactly a pin-up. To say they are no oil paintings would, however, be quite wrong. Both have just been immortalised in oils by Andy Pankhurst, a young portrait painter working under commission for MCC. The finished portraits went on show in the Lord's Museum last week - a rare honour for a current player. Both are very good.

9. Line and sinker: Against South Africa at Old Trafford in 1998, when England followed on and a defeat would have left them unable to win the series, both men rose to the occasion, Atherton with 89, Stewart 164. But both got out hooking, and it was left to a motley crew of tailenders, led by Robert Croft, to bail England out. The series was duly won - the only five-Test series the two of them have won.

10. Struggling against Australia: Their fine Test records share a single blot. Atherton averages 31, Stewart 28.

11. Greatness, lack of: Both are very good players, but are not widely rated as great ones, partly because of (9), and partly because of a shortage of really big scores - neither has ever reached 200 for England. To join the greats, they will have to do a Courtney, and go up a level in their dotage. Following their performances last week - Stewart suddenly producing the biggest run spree in England one-day history, Atherton pointedly putting in his best sequence of scores for Lancashire in years - I wouldn't put it past them.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com

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