Micky Stewart – Surrey’s captain, manager and then president – is celebrating his 90th birthday. Richard Spiller profiles the life of a legend.
Born in the reign of King George V, Micky Stewart could be forgiven for feeling he has seen just about everything life has to offer.
Yet the enduring appeal of a man whose 90th birthday is being celebrated this week is that he approaches each new day as an opportunity to learn something new and takes delight in encouraging others to do the same.
Stewart’s qualities are summed up by Angus Fraser, the England fast bowler, assessing the man who became the first national team manager.
“He was always communicating, making sure everything was alright, working on your game with you. He took a real interest in you. It was his job to get the best out of you and he did it very well.”
Amid the cost-of-living crisis, it’s worth recalling that when Stewart was born in 1932 it was in the teeth of a worldwide depression which threw millions out of work and made fertile ground for the totalitarian regimes who sparked the Second World War just seven years later.
Yet he took to heart the advice from bookmaker father – “never let money be your God” – and it was much to cricket’s benefit that instead of the opportunities of studying at Oxford University, he became a professional cricketer, setting the path of his life. Academic excellence at Alleyn’s School was all very well but studying was distinctly second to the notion of being a professional cricketer, which was achieved once national service had been completed.
Kent were keen to recruit him but having been a member of Surrey since the age of 14 there was only one club for Stewart – born in Herne Hill – and having joined the staff in 1953, he graduated with speed to becoming an integral member of the team who would win seven County Championship titles in as many seasons through that decade.
His all-round sporting prowess was such that he had been signed as an amateur by Arsenal, followed by Wimbledon, Hendon and Corinthian Casuals – and rapid progress saw him gain England amateur caps but his professional status as a cricketer meant he was ruled ineligible for the Commonwealth Games at Melbourne in 1956. That was one of his greatest disappointments and he became a professional footballer with Charlton Athletic in an age when it was still possible to play both sports at high level.
Cricket would dominate Stewart’s life, though, scoring a century against Pakistan in only his second first-class appearance and his steady output of runs in the top-order being augmented by a prehensile catching ability at short-leg which would prove invaluable to Surrey. A panzer division of bowlers – led by Alec Bedser, Jim Laker and Tony Lock – needed support in the field. In a ring of catchers he stood out, snapping up 77 catches in 1957 including a world record seven in one innings at Northampton.
Limited overs cricket had not been invented then but the challenges were every bit as great for batters at that time, pitches being left uncovered, and matches played at a wide variety of outgrounds which meant any number of challenging surfaces. Success was hard won and Stewart’s consistency was finally rewarded, when he was almost 30, by an England call-up against Pakistan in 1962. It would be the first of eight Tests, the last coming 18 months later when vice-captain of the tour to India when food poisoning brought an early return home.
By then he was married to Sheila – their honeymoon, in the final days of the 1957 season would include a few days at the Scarborough Festival – as they raised a family which brought sons Neil and Alec and daughter Judy.
The vast changes of the 1960s included many in cricket. Stewart was at the cutting edge of them, charged with rebuilding Surrey after the 1950s team had faded away. The distinction between amateurs and professionals, increasingly blurred, was swept away in the winter of 1962, Stewart playing in the final Gentlemen v Players match in 1962 and then becoming his county’s new captain the following season by succeeding May. Physical preparation other than nets had never been part of life for county cricketers but the new skipper introduced circuit training, a nasty shock for some of his colleagues.
Observing how the likes of Surridge, May, Bedser and Bernie Constable had gone about their business, he set about his task of building a new team. There were John Edrich and Ken Barrington to depend on for runs but replacing a world-class bowling line-up and dismissing teams on the increasingly insipid pitches at The Oval were awesome challenges.
Another came with the arrival of limited overs cricket but it offered Surrey their first chance of honours in the Stewart regime only for hopes to be wrecked by defeat to Yorkshire in the Gillette Cup final of 1965. It would take another six years before a trophy was secured; the County Championship finally brought home in the final match of the season at Southampton – with a walk on part for Sheila underlining just what the moment of glory meant to both of them.
It attracted comment from the Daily Telegraph’s patrician cricket correspondent, EW Swanton: “The champagne was brought out and a lady, reputedly Mrs MJ Stewart, broke the long cricket custom of wifely anonymity and embraced the triumphant captain while the wine was being drunk.”
Retirement in 1972 sparked a rapid rise through the ranks with Slazenger but cricket drew him back, Surrey in desperate need of his dynamism as a depressing decade saw them slide to a new low of 16th place in 1978.
That meant taking a pay cut given there was little cash to spare at The Oval but he could not resist the invitation to rebuild his county. Responsibility for the county’s first-class fortunes was twinned with a mission to build a network of youth coaching which would pay dividends over the coming decades. In tandem with skipper Roger Knight and powered by the frightening pace of Sylvester Clarke on the re-laid square came a sudden transformation of fortunes. Third place in the Championship in 1979, runners-up a year later and three successive one-day finals were all encouraging if frustrating, silverware finally won by the capture of the NatWest Trophy in 1982.
When England’s tempestuous fortunes meant a manager was required – following a whitewash in West Indies and home defeats to India and New Zealand – Stewart was the ideal candidate, taking on responsibilities in time for the successful defence off the Ashes in 1986-87. Yet triumphs at Test level came amid a line of defeats, mostly to West Indies and Australia, over the next six years.
Running the England team then was a world away from now, when central contracts allowing control of the players were no more than a dream. Back then the country’s elite were still expected to return to their counties between Tests to play two three-day matches and a Sunday game before meeting up again. It was no surprise there was such a large turnover of players and captains at international level, Stewart’s distaste obvious at the way some newspapers were keener to follow the off-field fortunes of leading lights as an aid to their circulation war.
Reaching the final of the World Cup in 1987 and 1992 brought Stewart’s England close to a first global trophy but glory was to evade them, and he stood down in 1992 despite an invitation to extend his stay, being awarded an OBE for services to cricket soon after stepping down. There was other important work to do as director of coaching and excellence for the ECB over the next five years, building an infrastructure in which players of promise could advance quickly to the top.
Just as at Surrey, son Alec had risen to national prominence and the professionalism with which a potentially tricky situation was handled said much for Stewart’s integrity and the high regard in which he was held. Retirement was a relative term, helping his old friend and ally Bernie Coleman run his charitable foundation, much to the benefit of young players in Surrey.
And “having only been around for four years of our first 40”, Micky could finally spend more time with Sheila. He became Surrey president in 1998-99 and another great honour was a similar role at Corinthian-Casuals following the death of his great friend Jimmy Hill.
The isolation of the lockdowns was a challenge which Sheila and Micky worked through as diligently as everything else they have faced, family support proving invaluable, and there is inevitable sadness at the passing of friends as time wears on, one of the penalties of longevity.
It would be easy to describe Micky Stewart as the grand old man of Surrey cricket but dangerous too without good footwork to avoid a clip round the ear. He’s never been grand and makes few concessions to age. One former team-mate, on hearing that his old captain had been given a faulty pacemaker joked: “He’s probably worn it out already, keeping up with him was always hard.”
You will often see Micky Stewart watching at The Oval and other grounds around the county, whether it’s following the fortunes of grandson Max or keeping an eye on the game which has dominated his life. For Micky, age is just a number.