Stewart's doughty innings gives his faction the high ground

Valuable innings takes wicketkeeper-batsman close to 40-run average in Tests but provides symbol of difference between teams

By James Lawton
Thursday 12 September 2013 05:42

Heroism, like beauty, can often depend on the eye of the beholder, which meant there were two utterly distinct views of Alec Stewart's score of 72 here yesterday.

One was of another doughty contribution to England's cause by the 40-year-old "Gaffer''. The other saw it as service primarily for the benefit of himself.

This is the degree of polarisation which is accompanying the last competitive days of a cricketer whose desire to leave the Test arena to tunes of glory on his home soil of Kennington has apparently been rubber-stamped by the establishment.

Yesterday the Stewart faction occupied the high ground as they asked if either of Stewart's leading challengers, the local hero Chris Read or James Foster, could have been relied upon to produce a significant tally of runs at the pivotal stage of a vital Test match.

England, they argued, do not have the luxury of choice; they have to go with what they have while they have it and let the future look after itself. This viewpoint was not exactly besieged by the brightest hope of England's fast bowling, James Anderson.

The Lancastrian has been given his head, but to what purpose? Promptly to lose it, it seemed, as the South African captain, Graeme Smith, butchered his confidence as early as his third over, taking three fours from four deliveries.

Geoff Boycott, no less, has raged about the lack of care in the development of a prospect like Anderson and, here again, we saw a young lion dwindling before our eyes while the old one, Stewart, gnawed yet again at the last remnants of the bone.

Stewart's 72 left him on a tantalising Test average of 39.99 and there were some cricket men in the ground who nursed the dark thought that Stewart was as much concerned with getting back to a 40 average - the benchmark of a successful Test career - as prosecuting the fight against tiring South African bowlers.

Has Stewart earned his right to a series of last hurrahs in a final season at the top of the game? The Australians, the world's most relentlessly successful cricketers, would say an emphatic "no''. They, as a matter of deeply entrenched policy, denied their great wicketkeeper and defiant bat, Ian Healy, his 100th cap in his own Brisbane backyard. They did this after taking him to one side and explaining, quite unsentimentally, that it was time again to re-seed and regenerate the team. Healy could jump - or be pushed. It is the Australian way, of dealing with the greatest of heroes and maintaining an edge on which they know consistent winning depends.

Stewart, whose wicketkeeping was, in late afternoon, showing some of the flaws which disfigured his performance at Lord's - and reopened the debate about the imminence of his departure - has received not so much a hint of such an ultimatum. He has earned, according to the English way, his right to go in his own sweet time.

Yesterday's batting effort now makes any other possibility quite remote and we can be sure that The Gaffer will fidget on, gleaning the runs that will restore his Test batting level to an exemplary mark, through to the end of the summer.

Many would say that it is the right of such a servant to an English game that has not exactly been teeming with heroes during his time. Mostly it has been an epoch of desperate challenge, and a failure to challenge the ascendancy of, above all, the Australians.

Now, though, the counter-argument is that England must move on and seek fresh talent.

Yesterday Stewart batted solidly and certainly helped the cause. But it was a performance without fire or brio. It was an old pro getting on with his job and maintaining his position.

It was perhaps the most glaring symbol of the difference between these teams. South Africa, after long hours in the field, came out to bat under the leadership of their 22-year-old captain, Smith. Of course, they did it vigorously and until Smith, whose first single made him the highest scorer in a series between the nations, stepped on his own wicket as he played a forcing shot, Stewart's 72 runs seemed likely to be engulfed.

But then Smith was gone and The Gaffer threw his hands in the air. It was another moment of triumph in his long battle to survive.

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