Meticulous Stewart prepares for clean break on own terms

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The Independent Online

Alec Stewart prepared for his 129th Test yesterday at Edgbaston in the same meticulous manner he has for the past 14 years. England's second greatest all-rounder warmed up diligently, went to a corner of the ground and began his usual practice routine. He then took some edged catches from the England coach before visiting the nets for a bat. England's most-capped cricketer was not about to start taking things for granted, even if he had announced he would retire from Test cricket at the end of this summer.

Before Stewart went through this habitual process the England captain, Nasser Hussain, said a few words to his squad as they gathered in a huddle. Hussain's address was followed by a gentle round of applause, a few handshakes and the odd pat on the back.

England's players were not the only people to be caught out by the Surrey veteran's sudden decision. There have been rumours knocking around, but judging from the bewildered look on Duncan Fletcher's face as he sat next to him at the press conference, neither had he known anything until breakfast yesterday morning.

The timing of Stewart's decision is strange because the last thing he would want his actions to do is overshadow England's preparations for an important five-Test series against South Africa. The limelight has never been something the 40-year-old has looked for. Respect and admiration - yes. Glamour - no. Stewart has always been a private man who has attempted to protect himself and his family from the headlines.

It is only on reflection that the timing of Stewart's announcement becomes understandable. Throughout his career few colleagues have got close to the elegant right-hander. During his 22 years in the game he has given little away and has kept most people at arms' length. This was the main reason why captaincy did not sit comfortably with him.

Stewart has, however, always wanted to be in control of himself and things around him, which could explain why he seldom touches alcohol. Like all top players he would have wanted to be responsible for the end of his career rather than to be told by the selectors. Following Chris Read's impressive display during the recent one-day series Stewart may have felt this time was approaching.

Stewart was 26 when he made his Test debut at Sabina Park, Jamaica, in February 1990. His selection for the Caribbean came after England lost the Ashes, but had as much to do with the bulk of the side deciding to go on a rebel tour to South Africa as the runs he was scoring for Surrey. His father, Micky, was coach, but to their eternal credit no player ever felt he was treated differently to the rest. Stewart struck his first ball for four, scored a breezy 13 in the first innings and was at the crease in the second when Wayne Larkins scored the runs to seal a historic victory.

Even then his attention to detail was the cause of great humour in the England dressing room. When sharing a room with him you had to make sure you got in first. If you did not, there was no space left for you and your kit. His bags would be neatly laid out around the room, the hangers would have his perfectly ironed clothes on them and any shelf space in the bathroom would have skin moisturisers and vitamin tablets on them. My gear would be piled up in a corner.

Such a meticulous nature carried on through to his cricket and the comparison of his corner of the dressing room to that of his opening partner, Michael Atherton, was astonishing. Atherton's coffin would have a pile of gear hanging out of it. There would be gloves, pads, bats and sweaters lying all over the place. How he managed to change in the 10 minutes between innings was a constant mystery to us all.

Meanwhile, Stewart's chosen area was immaculate. Three pairs of shoes - rubbers, full spikes and half-spikes - would be laid out, each with the initials AS on the heel. On his seat would be a pile of batting gloves numbered in pairs. Shirts would be hanging from hooks and his bats, again numbered, would be leaning against a wall or locker.

As well as being the part, Stewart has always wanted to look it. An example of this came on England's tour of the West Indies in 1998. During the match in Barbados Stewart's stock of white sweatbands, which he wore while batting, was running low. At lunch he asked his sister, Judy, who was at the time married to his Surrey and England team-mate Mark Butcher, whether she would rush into Bridgetown to try and get him some new ones.

This she duly did. However, she could only find tennis headbands. Showing wisdom Judy bought them, and a sewing kit, and rushed back to the ground. She then proceeded to cut them and lovingly stitch them to size. On presenting her work to her brother at tea Alec looked at them and tossed them back. Apparently they did not look right.

Although Judy struggled to see the funny side, these are the traits which have made him the player he is. The streetwise Stewart may not have been to university, but he is as sharp as they come. Few players catch him out and he seldom comes out on the wrong side of an argument.

Coming from a sporting background - his father played for Surrey and England - obviously helped and it has been Micky to whom he has turned for advice and encouragement when it is needed. To bat in the manner he does highlights his natural talent, but it has only been through combining this with hard work and dedication that such results have been achieved.

At the start of his career Stewart did not keep wicket. Both he and England have used this extra dimension to their advantage when it has suited, but it is his batting for which he will most be remembered. With 8,281 Test runs to his name Stewart needs a further 619 to overtake Graham Gooch and become England's highest run-scorer. This landmark is probably out of his grasp now, but there are many others which he can look back on with pride.

On the field my lasting memory of Stewart will be of him fearlessly hooking and cutting the West Indian fast bowlers in Barbados. In England's win he scored a hundred in each innings and nicked the man of the match award off a certain fast-medium bowler.

ALEC STEWART: HIGHS AND LOWS

Born: 8 April, 1963, Merton.

1981: Makes Surrey debut.

Feb, 1990: Makes Test debut against West Indies in Jamaica. Dropped for series against India after scoring one half-century in first 13 Test innings.

1991: Scores first Test century in one-off match against Sri Lanka at Lord's.

1992: Captains England for first time against India in Madras after Graham Gooch falls ill the night before the Test.

1994: First Englishman to score centuries in both innings - against West Indies in Barbados.

1996: After disappointing tour of South Africa is dropped for series against India. Scores 170 at Headingley against Pakistan in second Test back. Becomes leading Test run-scorer during the calendar year with 793.

1998: Appointed England captain. Guides England to a 2-1 victory over South Africa.

1998-99: Leads England to defeat in Australia.

1999: Loses captaincy after England's World Cup exit at the opening stage.

June 2000: Back as captain after Nasser Hussain breaks thumb and guides England to victory over West Indies at Lord's.

3 August: Marks his 100th Test appearance with a century against West Indies at Old Trafford.

June 2001: Takes charge for Test against Pakistan at Old Trafford.

2002: Records 200th Test wicketkeeping victim. Becomes first England player to win 150 one-day international caps. Passes Gooch's England record of 118 caps.

2003: Exceeds David Gower's 8,231 Test runs during the second Test against Zimbabwe to stand second behind Gooch (8,900) in his country's all-time list.

14 June: Awarded an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

22 July: Announces intention to retire from international cricket at the end of the summer.

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