Alec Stewart talks all things Wicket Keeping ahead of Legendary Wicket Keeper's Dinner
THE WICKET KEEPERS’ UNION
We caught up with former England Test captain Alec Stewart about his craft, his peers and his career as he looks forward to next year’s Legendary Wicket Keepers Dinner, which will bring 30 Test keepers together under one roof for the first time.
On 27 September 2016, the London Hilton on Park Lane will host the largest ever gathering of Test wicket keepers, after household names from far and wide accepted invitations from Taverners stalwart Brian Downing OBE to attend the latest in a series of ambitious fundraising dinners.
Adam Gilchrist, Kumar Sangakkara and Ian Healy headline an all-star list of ‘Legendary Wicket Keepers’ spanning different eras and continents, including 13 who have played Test cricket for England.
Of that group of England players, none have played more Test matches than Alec Stewart, who donned the gloves in 82 of his 133 Test appearances, and who is now Director of Cricket at his county, Surrey.
Here, Stewart talks to The Long Room about his glittering career, the unique skill set required to be an international Test keeper, and his thoughts on being reacquainted with idols and rivals at the Legendary Wicket Keepers Dinner.
What do you think are the attributes needed to be a great wicket keeper?
Firstly, you’ve got to be able to catch the ball! I know it sounds obvious, but that’s how a wicket keeper is judged – on the number of times they catch the ball. So that’s where you work from, but obviously there’s far more to it. Technique is vital, both standing up to spin bowling and standing back to pace bowling, so that you can adapt to different types of conditions around the world. You also need energy and concentration, and you’ve got to be thick-skinned as well. If a batsman plays a bad shot or a bowler bowls a bad ball then it isn’t usually a major talking point, but if the wicket keeper drops a catch or misses a stumping it’s there for everyone to see – and as a result, you have to be able to cope with everything that can be written or said about you in adversity.
Which wicket keepers did you learn from when you were working on that aspect of your game in the early part of your career?
I was a late starter – I didn’t keep as a youngster – and, growing up, I was a top-order batsman who was a good fielder. When I first turned professional, I used to spend my winters in Australia and that’s when I first started to keep wicket properly. I wasn’t the regular wicket keeper when I first came into the side at Surrey – that was very much Jack Richards – but there was a dearth of wicket keepers in English cricket at the time and it progressed from there. Alan Knott is someone who, growing up, I always admired and looked up to, and when I broke into the England set-up he was the part-time wicket keeping coach. Bob Taylor and Jack Russell also had a major impact on my keeping career, but Knott would take the biggest credit for all the hours he put in with me on the training ground, and for the time we spoke on the phone or face-to-face about how I could improve all aspects of my keeping.
Some of the best keepers in the history of Test cricket will be at the Legendary Wicket Keepers Dinner. Will those in attendance notice a strong camaraderie between you all?
It’s a real keepers’ union. You’re on your own at times in that position, but there’s a rare understanding among wicket keepers of how tough the job is, and of the levels of energy, fitness, strength and agility that you must have to do it properly. It’s like being part of one great, big family, and you can see that from the number of people who are attending from all parts of the cricketing world. I think there’s been a dinner for captains, batsmen, and bowlers, but quite often the wicket keeper is taken for granted. So it’s a one-off opportunity for so many top-class international keepers to be in one room at one time, and there will be a real common bond between all of us, because we all understand what wicket keeping is all about, and what a challenge it is.
Who was the best wicket keeper you played with or against?
I always say Ian Healy, because keeping to Shane Warne was a challenge in itself. Warne bowling around the wicket to a right-hander into the bowler’s rough was as tough as it gets for a wicket keeper. Healy was an athletic keeper who was good both standing up and standing back, and made brilliant one-handed diving catches. So I’d say him overall, but Jack Russell standing up to the stumps was as good as any during the time that I played.
Who was the toughest bowler to keep wicket to?
Probably Saqlain Mushtaq while I was playing for Surrey, because he was so different. He introduced the doosra to cricket, and making sure you could pick that delivery was always a challenge, but a challenge I thoroughly enjoyed because you were in the game the whole time. You knew there would be a catch or a stumping opportunity coming your way, which was great because as a keeper you’ve got to believe every ball is coming to you. So Saqlain was probably the most challenging but also the most rewarding. Keeping to any quick bowler who makes the ball wobble, dip and swerve when you’re standing back is also difficult, and can make you look silly. So it‘s a real challenge when the ball starts misbehaving once it‘s gone past the stumps and instead of going easily into your gloves it can be an achievement just to stop it! Only someone who has kept wicket and experienced this may appreciate this!
You played for your country both as a wicket keeper and a batsman. How has the role of the wicket keeper evolved over the years?
The skill level has always been there, but I think the biggest thing now is that the wicket keeper has to be able to bat – he has to be a top seven batsman. Years ago, you had top-class wicket keepers who were very much lower order batsmen, but now you have to be looked upon as an all-rounder. The days of being a top-class keeper and batting at nine, 10 or 11 have gone.
We recently saw Alastair Cook play the longest innings by an England batsman in a Test match, which came after standing in the field under the Abu Dhabi sun for nearly two days. How difficult is it to open the batting after a long session behind the stumps?
With the concentration levels required for a keeper – every day, every over, every ball – to have just a 10-minute break between innings to gather your thoughts and go out to open is a near-on impossible job. Most keepers bat at five, six or seven for exactly that reason. You could [open] on a one-off occasion, but at Test level I wouldn’t be recommending it. It’s not a problem in one-day cricket, but in four or five-day cricket one or both of your skill sets would suffer.
You captained England many times during your playing days. Was it hard to captain and keep wicket at the same time, or is the keeper the best person to lead the team?
It’s a good position to captain from. The keeper is a key part of how the mechanics of a team works, and has first-hand experience of what the bowlers are doing. Most captains will use a keeper anyway to discuss field settings, get feedback on bowlers, and get their thoughts on any possible tactical changes.
Who out of the emerging crop of keepers has caught your eye as having the potential to be the next star?
Ben Foakes. He’s at Surrey now after joining us from Essex, and I seriously believe he has all the attributes to be an international wicket keeper/batsman.
What advice would you give to Jos Buttler in his attempt to make the wicket keeping slot his own in the England Test side?
It’s a challenge, but we’ve seen what he can do in one-day cricket and his keeping is actually going from strength to strength. Show me a top-class wicket keeper who has peaked by the age of 25. You never stop learning, and most wicket keepers – like spin bowlers – will say the older they get, the better they get. Most spin bowlers are in their late twenties by the time they understand their craft and become frontline spinners, and it’s the same with wicket keeping. Buttler’s going to be in and around that England camp for a long period of time working on his keeping and batting, and will bounce back.
This is the largest ever gathering of Test wicket keepers for a fundraising event. Do you have a message for anyone looking to buy tickets?
Just get along! Any wicket keepers – or anyone who likes cricket – should be there. When people put their hand in their pocket for a great cause they also want to enjoy what their money is being spent on, and I’ll be staggered if anyone walks out at the end of the evening having not enjoyed it. There will be some seriously good people in that room – and some serious characters – and there will be a lot of money raised for a very worthwhile charity.
The Lord’s Taverners is all about giving young people a sporting chance. Who gave you your first sporting chance?
My dad, Micky, who played cricket for Surrey and England. He introduced me to sport and I haven’t looked back since.
How important is the work the Lord’s Taverners does for disadvantaged and disabled young people?
For many years now the Lord’s Taverners and cricket have gone hand in hand. There are so many brilliant charities out there, but I think anyone who is involved in cricket also has a real alliance to the Taverners. The work they do is fantastic.
- This is the Lord’s Taverners’ seventh unique commonwealth cricket dinner – Brian Downing OBE being the main man behind each one
- Each of the six previous events have sold out
- With 30 keepers due to attend it makes it the largest ever gathering of Test wicket keepers
- Event includes 13 keepers who have played Test cricket for England
- Brian Downing’s six dinners have raised over £560,000 between them
- Big names attending include Adam Gilchrist, Rod Marsh, Ian Healy, Kumar Sangakkara, Alec Stewart, Matt Prior, Andy Flower, Ian Smith, Deryck Murray, Jeffrey Dujon plus 20 more
To book tickets for our Legendary Wicket Keepers Dinner please click here.