Rocking the boat is not something that comes naturally to Alec Stewart. The freedom and expressiveness of his strokeplay has yet to surface in the rest of his life. Tidy to the point of being obsessive, wary to the point of being wooden, patriotic to the point of wanting the national anthem to be played before the start of play, he has spent most of his 38 years choosing the road more travelled. His service has been very much of the national variety, complete with the hairstyle (short-back-and-sides, £4.25 at your local barber). And yet he has become, in his cricketing old age, the most unlikely rebel since the then-unknown Ian Duncan Smith voted against the then Government over Maastricht.
Stewart first fell out with the ECB as England captain in the 1999 World Cup, when he sided with his troops, not his bosses, in a modest revolt over pay and conditions. Like a Polish shop steward circa 1979, he was rewarded with the sack. But then he reverted to type, returning to his allotted role as the trusty old retainer who would accept whatever job the management threw at him. Wicketkeeper and top-order batsman? No problem, coach. Drop down to No 5? If you say so, Nass. Stand-in captain? Always an honour, chairman.
Stewart balked at being dropped from the one-day side in September 1999, but only in the manner that selectors tend to encourage, vowing to win back his place – and he did, at the earliest opportunity. And he made his displeasure clear when he was demoted to No 7 for the last two Tests of this summer: tennis-smashing Brett Lee around the Headingley outfield was an eloquent way of showing what he thought of the decision, and one that, typically, worked in the team's interest, not against it. He was so incensed, he even came up with a good quote. When it was put to him that David Graveney thought he batted well with the tail, he tartly remarked that he had thought he batted quite well with the top-order.
It was absurd to see Stewart coming in only one place above Andrew Caddick at The Oval, seven weeks after they appeared six places apart at Edgbaston and shared a whacky last-wicket partnership of 100. Instead of demoting Stewart, the management should have sent him up the order, while handing the gloves to someone else as they did in the middle of the last Ashes series. The case was made in this column earlier in the season, probably ad nauseam; it was made again, with rather more authority, by Stewart's father, Micky, on Test Match Special last Sunday.
It was the one obvious way of strengthening the batting when Hussain and Thorpe were out injured. (Mike Atherton, meanwhile, should have been gently steered in the other direction, down to No 5 or 6 to stiffen the team's soft underbelly, and avoid the sad fate of ending a very fine career as a sitting duck for Glenn McGrath. But that's another story.) The vagaries of selection are bound to deny certain players the chance to reach the very top. Stewart has been denied that chance while being an automatic selection. As an opening batsman, he averages 47 for England – as good as Boycott and nine better than Atherton.
Yet he has been forced to keep wicket and bat down the order for half his career. He has put up with it manfully, and has packed his trunk (very neatly) in England's cause for 12 successive winters. But now he wants a break.
A galaxy of precedents are on his side: Ian Botham gave India a miss in 1984-85, leaving David Gower to balance his side with Chris Cowdrey; Alec Bedser never went there at all, Ray Illingworth never played there; Graham Gooch stayed home with Brenda and the girls in 1986 -87, and went to Pakistan but not New Zealand in 1987-88; Graham Thorpe took the winter off in 1999-2000, and returned both a better player and a more rounded and relaxed individual. Yet the selectors can't take it from Stewart. It is as if he has risen above his station.
To be fair, Stewart and Darren Gough would have a sturdier leg to stand on if they had said they were available for only half the winter, and had let the selectors choose which half. But that would have been to ignore the fact that for their small children, December is special. Those who point out that the ECB has managed to get the players home for Christmas are not living in the real world. It is one thing to show up on Christmas Eve with jetlag and exhaustion from three back-to-back Tests; quite another to be there to lug the tree home, ship the booze in for the in-laws, and queue at Hamleys for PlayStation 3.
In any case, if the selectors had been given the choice, they might well have left Stewart out of the Indian tour. His record in the subcontinent is sketchy, and the allegations against him, unlike those against Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, are fresh enough to hang in the air like the smell of rotting flesh.
The answer is not to victimise him and Gough but to build a framework for the age we live in. Sabbaticals should be encouraged, and if necessary formalised: half a winter off after five years, a whole winter (or indeed summer) after 10. It could be the England stalwart's version of a benefit.
Tim de Lisle is editor of the new Wisden website, www.Wisden.comReuse content