Alec Stewart on cricket in England, the Ashes and walks up Box Hill
When England finally won the Ashes series against their old enemy Australia last month, there were few people more happy than former England captain and Surrey cricketing legend Alec Stewart. Here, the Epsom resident chats to Crispin Andrews about everything from his views on the current England side to his involvement with the new Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, and why you can’t beat a walk up Box Hill...
In 1968, a little boy from Merton Park went to The Oval to watch his dad play cricket. Forty three years and one hundred and thirty three Test matches later, that same boy’s name now adorns a set of gates at the hallowed cricket ground, the home of Surrey County Cricket Club.
England’s most capped cricketer, Alec Stewart is nothing short of a Surrey legend. Between 1983 and 2003, the wicket-keeper batsman played 951 times for his county scoring more than 40,000 runs and taking over a thousand catches.
“Usually, you have to be dead to get gates at a cricket ground named after you,” laughs Stewart, when we meet at The Oval for a chat. “It’s a great honour that they chose to recognise what I did, both for Surrey and England, while I’m still around to enjoy it.”
Surrey born and bred
Stewart is the epitome of a Surrey man, yet his voice has an unmistakable West London twang. Straight-backed and immaculately turned out, he could easily pass for a stockbroker strolling off the Waterloo line at Surbiton after a long day in the city.
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Equally at home at Stamford Bridge, where he spends his Saturday afternoons and Wednesday evenings cheering on Terry, Lampard and co, as director of sports marketing agency Essentially, or on The Oval balcony as batting coach during a Surrey match, Stewart personifies his county’s diversity.
“Surrey is where I grew up, and it has everything you could wish for,” says the 47-year-old, who lives with his wife and two children near Epsom. “It has great restaurants, like the Grumpy Mole at Tadworth, the Dining Room in Reigate and the Arkle Manor at Betchworth, beautiful countryside such as Box Hill, where the views are magnificent, and then it’s close to London as well. You couldn’t ask for more really.”
Also a patron of the new multi-million pound Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, which offers world-class facilities for everyone from grass roots beginners to international athletes, he says he’s delighted to be involved with the venue.
“It’s a superb sporting complex for both elite and recreational sports people,” he adds. “It’s something that Surrey should be very proud of indeed.”
All in all then, it’s unsurprising really that, for 47 years, Alec Stewart has been happy to live, work and socialise in Surrey – give or take the odd winter in Australia, the West Indies and Sri Lanka, that is.
At the height of his career in the Nineties, when an England team very different from the one that has just won the Ashes was struggling against the West Indies, Pakistan and particularly Australia, Stewart was one of a small band of English cricketers who made their mark on world cricket.
“Our team wasn’t anywhere near as good as today’s England side,” he says. “We had maybe seven or eight top players and had to make up the team with others who’d had a good week or two for their county. Now England has strength in depth. If someone is injured, there’s a quality player to come in.”
Whilst victory in the Ashes may have eluded his own team back in the day, he says he couldn’t have been happier to see England finally triumph in the series last month.
“It’s been a 24-year wait, but it’s all been worthwhile as we’ve hammered the Australians 3-1 to retain the Ashes,” grins Stewart, who has been a regular commentator on Sky Sports during the series. “As a former England captain who never managed to win the little urn, I have loved every minute seeing us totally dominate the Old Enemy.
“I send my congratulations to each and every one of the England team on this historic achievement.”
Certainly one of England’s greatest ever all-rounders, Stewart can look back on a fair few achievements of his own over the years.
In the Nineties, he took three centuries off a Pakistan side that included the great fast bowlers Waqar Younis, his one-time Surrey teammate, and Wasim Akram. And whilst he may have avoided the devastating four-pronged West Indian pace-attacks of the Eighties, two of the Caribbean’s best, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, were still in the West Indies team in 1994 when Stewart hit two centuries in the same Test match, as the West Indies lost in Barbados for the first time in 59 years. Six years later, against the same opposition, Stewart became only the fourth player in test history to score a century in their hundredth Test match.
As England captain, his team beat South Africa, but after losing the Ashes down under, and being knocked out in the first round of the World Cup, on home soil in 1999, Stewart was replaced by Nasser Hussain. He still played on for five more seasons, though, before bowing out of Test cricket at The Oval, in September 2003, scoring 38 in a series levelling victory over South Africa. Earlier that year, he was awarded the OBE for services to cricket.
“I’ve always gone about my cricket in a professional way and to be honoured in this way makes me very proud,” Stewart said at the time. “It’s a moment I’ll treasure.”
A good sport
For Alec Stewart being a professional means playing hard, but fair. Before a big game, he’d prepare meticulously, occasionally sledge opponents on the field to gain a psychological advantage, and always wait for the umpire to give him out before leaving the pitch.
However, deliberately using unfair means to gain an advantage is abhorrent to Stewart. He is scathing of ball tampering and of the alleged betting scandal that plagued last summer’s Test series with Pakistan. He even has uncomfortable memories of an incident at school when a rugby teacher stepped over the mark to make sure their team won.
“We were unbeaten going into the last game of the season and no side of this teacher’s had ever achieved that,” Stewart says, explaining that with full-time approaching and his team seven points behind, the teacher who was referee played 14 minutes of stoppage time, only blowing the final whistle when his team finally got in front. “We knew we hadn’t won in the right way,” he adds. “If you take short cuts to success, it might work for a while, but eventually you get found out.”
In fact, sportsmanship means a great deal to Stewart altogether, and he recounts the now famous moment where Andrew Flintoff consoled Brett Lee after England had beaten Australia by two runs at Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 2005.
“The rest of the England team were carried away with the euphoria of winning, but Flintoff took time out to shake Brett Lee’s hand and congratulate him for almost getting Australia over the finish line,” Stewart says. “That, for me, is what true sportsmanship is really all about.”
In the family
Stewart learned his respect, and indeed his love for the game, around the Surrey dressing room in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He’d be thrilled carrying the cricket whites for his dad, Micky, who is still a keen supporter of the team now, or sitting on the balcony when Surrey were in the field
Today, father and son share a healthy rivalry over who was the best cricketer of the two of them...
“Between us, Dad and I got 141 England caps,” says Stewart. “But I always remind him that he only got eight of them!”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The Grumpy Mole at Tadworth and The Dining Room in Reigate. The food and atmosphere are excellent at both.
Place to shop: The shopping centres in Kingston and Guildford are both great and cover all needs.
View: From the top of Box Hill – the rather steep climb is all worth it when you take in the breathtaking views across the Surrey countryside! You can see for miles.
Activity: Walking at Headley with my dog.
Place to visit: My mum and dad’s house in Cobham!