Published: 23rd May, 2020
In the years after Micky Stewart stepped down as player and captain, Surrey found themselves sliding, prompting calls for his return. Richard Spiller focuses on what happened next.
When Micky Stewart was being sized up for a return to Surrey as the club’s first cricket manager, there was a major stipulation.
“We told Micky that we didn’t just want him to run the professional side, we wanted him to be involved in cricket across the county,” explained Derek Newton, who was just starting a reign of 15 years as chairman of the club.
“Micky said he would only take the job on that basis anyway, so we were of like minds immediately.”
That initial meeting on Boxing Day in 1978 came after a season in which Surrey had finished a lowest-ever 16 (out of 17 then) in the County Championship, followed by the retirement of the prolific John Edrich and, in the autumn, county coach Fred Titmus’s resignation.
He had left his successor one huge advantage with the signing of West Indian speedster Sylvester Clarke, who would spend the next decade terrifying batsmen up and down the country and not least at The Oval. The new pitches relaid by Harry Brind were starting to become available and proved utterly different from the moribund surfaces which had been a contributory factor in Surrey’s increasingly uninspiring cricket since they had won the Championship back in 1971.
Stewart, while taking to his career with Slazenger with typical brio to the stage that he was on the verge of joining the board, had never lost his love for the game or his county and had been asked to join the cricket committee by Peter May a year earlier.
But after the departure of Titmus, the Surrey hierarchy were pressed to bring back Stewart, off-spinner Pat Pocock among those pushing hardest for his return.
“We desperately needed the qualities that Micky Stewart had shown as captain and which we knew he could offer as manager,” recalls Pocock. “The principles he brought to the job, and the experience he gained from it, were invaluable when he went on to become England manager.”
Stewart’s knowledge and dynamism were major factors but there was something else too, as Newton underlines: “Micky has so much integrity – I’ve not meant many people in life who match him. And his professionalism.”
It took until March before everything was confirmed and Stewart, who had played at a time when cricketers wages were poor, even had to take a cut in salary – a serious concern for a man with three children – underlining his desire to return. He immediately got to work with the planning, determination to improve fitness levels and attention to detail which were to become the hallmark of a man who was singleminded in his pursuit of excellence.
His electric impact – aided by the arrival of Clarke, even though he missed half the season with injury – on a squad which had experience and talent but had been disunited and had a reputation as moaners, saw them rise to third place in the Championship in 1979 while also reaching the final of the Benson & Hedges Cup before losing to Essex.
They improved on that the following summer – Championship runners-up – but could not overhaul Mike Brearley’s formidable Middlesex side, who also beat them in the Gillette Cup final, Clarke’s ferocity and Robin Jackman’s 121 wickets major factors.
A hat-trick of final defeats came in 1981 at the hands of Somerset in the B&H but that long-awaited trophy was to finally arrive in 1982, Warwickshire being thrashed by nine wickets in the NatWest Trophy. The County Championship remained elusive, though, under both Knight and his successor Geoff Howarth.
Stewart had been busy laying foundations too, working closely with the industrious Dennis Jacobs and others in founding a county-wide coaching scheme which would offer a cricket education to thousands of youngsters over many years and yield a rich harvest of young talent like Graham Thorpe, Alistair Brown and the Bicknell brothers.
At senior level he had formed a solid relationship with skipper Roger Knight, one which might not have happened had Stewart got his way after Edrich stepped down as captain in 1977.
“At that time I felt Roger would be ideal leading a young side but not the group we had,” admits Stewart, who felt Jackman might have been better suited to handling the awkward squad.
With typical Stewart honesty, he told Knight but it was never to come between the pair as they worked as manager and captain for five years.
“The relationship with Micky was crucial and his guidance helped enormously, particularly in his early years,” said Knight.
“We had some good players and I think that most, if not all, enjoyed those years, even though there were so many occasions where we just missed out on a trophy or the top spot in the championship, which we all so dearly wanted. Players developed and some went on to represent their country as a result of the atmosphere at The Oval.”
Having played under Stewart as captain earlier in his career, Knight adds: “There is no reason why very good players should become good players because they often do things naturally without having to work out why.
“However, Micky had Surrey running through his veins and loved every aspect of cricket. He was a student of the game and an outstanding analyst of batsmen in particular, as well as a caring manager of people.”
One of the trickiest times of Stewart’s spell as manager was when his son Alec showed great promise as a potential professional, his desire to play for Surrey immense.
Knight explains: “Micky was not usually uncertain about decisions but it was an understandable concern for him. He asked me whether Alec should try and come into the game with another county as there might be resistance from players about having a father and son on the staff.
“Alec was clearly a talented batsman and wicketkeeper and I was particularly keen not to lose him from Surrey. I am sure that Micky also wanted him to stay but just needed reassurance.
“Occasionally he did call him ‘son’ but that was also Micky’s regular approach to any young player in the team.”
When England decided they too needed to have a full-time manager – having been thrashed 5-0 in the West Indies in 1985-86 before losing home series to both India and New Zealand – Stewart was always going to be among the leading candidates, Warwickshire’s David Brown and Yorkshire boss Ray Illingworth the others touted.
A move to the international arena became reality for Stewart and could not have started better, Mike Gatting’s side retaining the Ashes down under and winning two one-day tournaments down under in a triumphant passage around Australia.
Yet the 1980s and 1990s were among the most difficult periods for the national side, suffering regular heavy defeats from both West Indies and Australia.
Without the luxuries of central contracts and extensive budgets for off-field staff which are nowadays taken for granted by his successors, Stewart had to wrestle with a domestic game which struggled to produce the flow of talented young players ready to step up while also having an uneasy relationship with elements of the media keener to know what was happening out of work hours than on the field.
Reaching two World Cup finals – in 1987 and 1992 – were among the highlights of his period in charge, losing both the greatest disappointments, England making most progress when he worked in tandem with captains in Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch who shared his methodical approach.
When he stood down in September 1992, there were five more years as national director of coaching & excellence, an opportunity to bring closer together the first-class and recreational games for a man who constantly emphasises that cricket must be regarded as one game rather than divided into professional and amateur wings.
Keen to finally devote some time to his wife Sheila, there was little respite, soon embarking on a two-year term as president and a short spell as chairman of the cricket committee.
The Stewart link with Surrey is stronger than ever, Alec now the director of cricket while older son Neil is a much-valued coach involved in the development of young talent in the county.
His day to day involvement at the summit of the game might be over but Micky Stewart remains embedded in Surrey cricket. Head to a youth or club match and there is always a decent chance you will bump into him. He will be watching keenly, happy to share his experiences and happily meeting old friends, still with a curiosity and thirst for knowledge which will never be sated.