Stewart retirement surprises Fletcher

England's wicketkeeper announces imminent Test retirement while Gough faces discontent in Yorkshire
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The Independent Online

Two of England's best performers of recent years will go into the first Test against South Africa starting at Edgbaston tomorrow with very different endorsements ringing in their ears.

While Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, lavished praise on Alec Stewart following the Surrey player's announcement that he will retire from Test cricket at the end of this summer, Darren Gough found himself under fire once again in his native Yorkshire over his county performances. Gough may end the summer sacked, without a county contract.

In an uncharacteristic admission, Fletcher revealed why the 40-year-old Stewart, and not England's successful one-day wicketkeeper, Chris Read, will be behind the stumps tomorrow.

"I was pretty surprised by his decision," Fletcher said. "I still believe Alec is the best all-round keeper we have by some distance. He has got better and better over the last couple of years. I have always admired his professionalism and the way he has been a role model for the younger players.''

Stewart said that after 14 years as an international cricketer he felt that the end of this summer was the time for him to go. "The body is fine and I still believe the performances are very good, but it's a decision that I've come to and I'll be sticking to it," he said.

Stewart had already announced his retirement from one-day internationals and had pondered whether to leave yesterday's announcement until later in the year. By making it public now he does reassure the young men in the queue - Read, James Foster, of Essex, Geraint Jones, of Kent, and Mark Wallace, of Glamorgan - that two of them will be touring Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies before next summer.

Tomorrow will be Stewart's 129th Test and he stands second to Graham Gooch in the number of runs he has scored for England. His fitness is such that he could probably have managed three or four more years playing just as a batsman.

He will be assured of a warm reception on his return to The Oval for at least one more season. Keith Medlycott, the county coach, made it plain he would be very welcome to continue. "He has been as good an all-rounder as there has been in the world for the last 10 or 12 years,'' he said.

Gough, meanwhile, faces a far less certain future back home. The 32-year-old fast bowler has made a brilliant recovery after three knee operations, but there are mixed feelings in Yorkshire, particularly after his performance last week, when Yorkshire lost to Durham for the second time this season. Gough's contribution in four days was four runs and a duck and a bowling return of 2 for 145.

Gough's remarks - that he was delighted with his performance and ready to rejoin England - infuriated the travelling fans and lit a fire through the county. The Yorkshire Post is asking its readers: "Is Darren Gough a luxury that Yorkshire can afford to live without or is he an ambassador for the county?''

Gough has had a love-hate relationship with the Yorkshire public almost from the time he became an England player in 1994. He moved to Buckinghamshire and held most of his benefit events in 2001 outside of the county. He is probably the only Yorkshire player never to have had a collection on a county ground during his benefit year. Many believe that the Yorkshire team has served only as a vehicle for Gough's England ambitions.

As the Yorkshire Post put it: "Supporters are bound to ask why a bowler who is regarded as essential to England as long as he is on his feet cannot orchestrate a championship victory when the opposition needs 251 to win on the last day?''

With Yorkshire still millions in debt, the Board is rumoured to be planning to shed six players at the end of the season. Gough could be one of them.