Episode 76: The shocking sight of a dive in the field – Micky Stewart remembers highlights of a vanished world of cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Micky Stewart’s service to English cricket began in the 1950s as a county cricketer for Surrey – a stylish opening or top-order batsman and one of the finest close catchers in the world. He played eight Test matches. He captained the county from 1963 to 1972, winning the County Championship in 1971. He was Surrey’s cricket manager from 1979 to 1986, and then England’s from 1986 to 1992. For another five years he was England’s Director of Coaching and Excellence. He shares highlights of his career and reflections on English cricket past and present as the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their cricket-themed podcast. In Peter’s unavoidable absence, Roger Alton replaces him as co-host.

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Micky gives his view of the factors contributing to England’s recent Ashes disaster. It was always hard for English batsmen to adjust to the bounce and lateral movement of Australian wickets which were quite unlike English ones. He has some sympathy for the present England players, whose task was made more demanding by a cluttered domestic and international programme and pandemic restrictions. He notes especially the failure of so many English batsmen to judge when to leave the ball alone.

Over the longer term he traces the impact of continually whittling down the deliveries in each new short form of English cricket – from 390 (65 overs) each innings in the first Gillette Cup year in 1963 to the Hundred today. He recalls a gloomy prophecy by Tom Graveney at the end of his first John Player League match of 40 overs that this process would lead to the inevitable decline of batting technique. He describes the early impact of limited-over cricket on his great contemporary, John Edrich. Although Australians have also come to play more and more short-form cricket, he believes that their top players are better prepared for long forms by their passage through Grade cricket and its system of matches played over successive Saturdays.

Micky helped Stephen Chalke to produce a fine book on himself, subtitled “the changing face of cricket”. He picks out some stories and themes from his early days which illustrate this and recapture a vanished world of cricket.

He contrasts the all-day cricket children used to play amongst themselves outdoors with the highly organized cricket activity for thousands of children today. For a talented child today the cost of equipment, clothing (to be outgrown), coaching and other fees, transport can reach £2000 a year – a major burden for families. He recalls the 1965 price of a lesson at Alf Gover’s famous indoor school in South London – 75p. A lesson of comparable standard today could be £50 or more.

He wonders whether the tempo of long-form cricket which dominated the game for so long (and made him want to play it) is compatible with the temperament of modern generations of players and spectators, who expect rapid satisfaction from leisure and have many alternative ways to pursue it.

He describes his dramatic induction into National Service and assesses the impact on English sport and national life.

He describes the double sporting life he led as a professional cricketer and amateur football international who later played professionally. He mentions other 1950s cricketers who were able to combine both sports in a way which is now impossible given the demands of both and the overlap of seasons. He tells the entertaining story of negotiating his first wage packet as a professional for Surrey – £8 a week (around £160 in today’s money). He makes a telling comparison between the best year’s earnings of a capped professional colleague of his time and modern professionals at Surrey.

The amateur/professional divide was still in force in English cricket at the time, although increasingly reliant on “shamateurs” – people given undemanding or even nominal jobs to maintain the pretence that they were not being paid to play cricket. It was even more prevalent in amateur football. He describes one contemporary amateur cricketer who was paid for three years as “Assistant Secretary” of his county without ever finding where his office was. Micky had a chance to follow that route, but thought it lacked integrity. This was the value most inculcated by his father – and the basis of the latter’s success in the betting industry of the time, especially as  its youngest“tic-tac” man (settling and communicating odds). Micky’s status as a professional cricketer cruelly deprived him of the chance to represent England as a still-amateur footballer at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Micky analyses the deep loyalty inspired by Surrey and the Oval. He attributes it principally to Surrey’s strong focus on the interests of its members. This led the club into deep financial difficulty in the 1960s: he describes the efforts of the people, led by the late Bernie Coleman, who rescued it without sacrificing the membership ethos. These included the first advertising board, which horrified Gubby Allen. He hails the county’s present administrators as outstanding.

On the playing side, Micky describes the experience of learning to play on a wide variety of uncovered pitches. He never encountered a wicket with a true fast bounce where batters could hit the ball “on the up” in his first three years of professional cricket, until a private tour of the West Indies under Jim Swanton. He sets out his one-ball-at-a-time philosophy which allowed him to face seriously fast bowlers like Frank Tyson and Fred Trueman, without helmets and flimsy pads and gloves on those uncovered pitches. Without even the protection of a box, Micky fielded regularly at short leg, where he took six of his still-record seven catches in a single innings in 1957. Batsmen did not sweep so much in the 1950s, he recalls. Micky shocked colleagues by diving in the field. One asked him if he knew what it cost to dry-clean his flannels: he learnt to avoid the bill with a damp cloth and talcum powder.

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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