Alec Stewart began his career with England as a specialist opening batsman in 1989 and took over the England captaincy from Mike Atherton in 1998 and promptly led the side to its first major Test series win for 12 years, against South Africa. He retired from cricket in 2003 after representing England in 303 matches, scoring 8463 Test and 4677 runs in the ODI format.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Stewart spoke about his past encounters with the Pakistan team, his take on the bowling partnership of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the 1992 ball tampering controversy and also looked forward to the upcoming series between Pakistan and England in the UAE.
PakPassion.net : What are your memories of playing against Pakistan?
Alec Stewart : The games were always tough, always very hard, especially against a team of highly talented individuals. I had some interesting battles against them but having said that, a lot of the team members from those sides were good cricketing friends. I played alongside Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq at Surrey and also played a lot against Wasim Akram when he was at Lancashire. There were some good and tough battles against them on the pitch but off the field, we were able to catch up and that is why I refer to them as good cricketing friends.
PakPassion.net : The 2000 Karachi Test where England won in fading light must be a match that you recall with great fondness?
Alec Stewart : First of all, I have to say that it was a great win. It was good to win the series in that manner and it was excellent from an England point of view. We won in Pakistan and then went on to win in Sri Lanka, after having been one Test match down in that series. All in all, it was a successful winter of Test cricket for us.
That particular match in Karachi was memorable for the bad-light as well as Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe’s personal performances in getting us to the finish line. However, Moin Khan who was the captain at that time would be the first one to admit that Steve Bucknor who was the senior umpire at that time did what was right for cricket under those circumstances. Pakistan had quite rightly slowed down the over-rate, something England would have also done or tried to do, if they were in that position. However, Steve Bucknor said that look we will stay here and finish the game as you (Pakistan) have slowed the over-rate down.
Cricket actually benefitted from that strong bit of umpiring. Regardless of the rules and regulations that exist on this matter, the fact is that common sense prevailed and it meant that we won. I can understand why Pakistan were less than enamored by the decision as at times, they couldn’t see the ball in that light. But, one has to say that they brought that about on themselves by, let’s say, pushing the boundaries a bit. As I said, there was nothing wrong with that but good strong umpiring brought us a positive result.
PakPassion.net : What are your memories of facing Wasim Akram?
Alec Stewart : He was obviously a fine bowler. I always say that to me Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram were the best two quick bowlers that I have ever faced in my career. Wasim Akram bowled some rapid deliveries and some rapid spells. One that I recall well is one of his quickest “speed of light” spells in 1992 at Old Trafford to me and Graham Gooch. What was special about Wasim was that whether it was the new ball or an old ball, he was at you all the time. With both Wasim and Waqar, it did not matter if you were on nought or two hundred, they could get you out due to the speed and the accuracy with which they bowled. On top of that, when they were extracting reverse swing then they were at times unplayable.
With Wasim he could bowl left arm over the wicket or suddenly jump out from behind the umpire when bowling round the wicket, he was just a wonderful cricketer and an exciting player to watch as a spectator and of course a great bloke as well.
PakPassion.net : Your thoughts on Waqar Younis who was your Surrey team mate and someone you played against as well?
Alec Stewart : He was definitely the fastest bowler through the air that I played against. He could gain pace off the pitch too but still very fast through the air. The first time I saw him was during the Nehru Cup in 1989 and then later he came to Surrey. He had this massive run-up, almost sprinted in from the boundary edge like Usain Bolt in a 100m race and then unleashed absolute thunderbolts. Just like Wasim, his skill levels were absolutely unbelievable.
People talk about how they (Wasim and Waqar) got the ball to reverse swing and all that but I always say forget about that, give the same ball to a lesser cricketer and you won’t get the same result. They mastered the art of reverse swing, they were accurate and quick and they were at you every ball you faced from them. I would much rather Waqar be playing alongside me at Surrey than facing him in an England versus Pakistan game. But that’s why you play international cricket, especially Test cricket to test your skills against others from around the world. Waqar is a great man, a great servant of Surrey and a greater servant of Pakistan cricket. He is another who is a great bloke and someone I call a cricketing friend.
PakPassion.net : What are your memories of visiting Pakistan with the England team?
Alec Stewart : Its always interesting to visit new places but it is a real shame that no cricket is happening in Pakistan due to reasons which are well documented. It's a shame because Pakistanis are so passionate about the game. Whether you are at the cricket ground, at the hotel, a restaurant or walking down the street the people want to take their pictures with you and talk cricket with you. The game of cricket is almost like a second religion for them and that’s why I have a real sympathy towards the Pakistani public that they are not seeing first hand international cricket at home because that’s what they and everyone else wants.
As for my experience of visiting Pakistan, it was always interesting whether it was the journey from the airport to the hotel or trying to get to the ground on time and those types of things that can happen in the sub-continent. At times you almost wanted to get angry as it hadn’t worked out quite like how you wanted it to be but then you thought, why? This is how it is so live as you are in Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka and that’s how it needs to be. I really enjoyed my time there and the thing that I really recall is the passion that the Pakistani public have for cricket. Not just for their own cricketers but for world cricket and visiting teams as well.
PakPassion.net : Your thoughts on the 1992 ball-tampering controversy involving Pakistan and England?
Alec Stewart : Yes that controversy happened in 1992 and has been stuck in memories since that time. It is what it is. We all have opinions about how the ball gets roughed up. Now whether that is through the outfield or an abrasive surface or, is it by other means such as scratching the ball via finger nails or whatever it may be. However, like I said, it is what it is but take the same ball and give it to a lesser cricketer and they will not be able to do what Wasim and Waqar could do with the ball. I have played in teams with Waqar Younis and I know what goes on but the two bowlers had skills that only a few other cricketers in the world have had.
PakPassion.net : How highly do you rate Inzamam-ul-Haq?
Alec Stewart : Quite obviously a great bloke and a cricketer. I first came across him in the 1992 World Cup when he played that match-winning innings alongside Imran Khan in the final at the MCG. He was a wonderful cricketer and people do look at him and how he changed shape from the 1992 World Cup to the time when he retired, but what a player! He held the Pakistan batting line-up together but what really impressed me was how he scored runs not only in Pakistan but all over the world. He was his own player and his own man. You wouldn’t expect too many quick singles when he was batting but put that to one side, in terms of pure batsmanship, he was up there with the very best.
PakPassion.net : Does the 1992 World Cup final defeat still hurt, especially given that you were the best team up until the final?
Alec Stewart : But then that’s what finals are, they are one-offs. Right up until that final, we were the best side. If it hadn’t been for the rain in Adelaide Pakistan would have gone out of the World Cup. As the competition went on, Pakistan got better and better and played us in the final. Simple as that. So, does it still hurt? Of course it does but you can’t do anything about it. Imran Khan led the team to the final and we just tailed off towards the end. Now, whether it was due to age or just simply wear and tear, the fact is that they had the better of us.
PakPassion.net : England play Pakistan soon in the UAE. How do see this challenge for England?
Alec Stewart : It will be tough. Pakistan have a good record there. England went there a few years ago and got beaten three nil. I would expect the pitches to be full of spin and I don’t expect the pitches to have any help for the pace bowlers. So Pakistan will start as favourites and they are a good side. Although it can never be said with confidence about what Pakistan team will turn up. However, if the proper Pakistan team shows up then they will be a handful for England who are an emerging side and one that is getting better and better. They are a young and talented side but it will be hard work for them. I can see that there will be a lot of spin and we will need to see who can deal with spin better, England or Pakistan? It will be a good series and it would have been more interesting if Mohammad Amir had been selected. If he had been selected and started to bowl anything like how he had bowled when he emerged onto the international scene then he could have surely enhanced the quality of the Pakistan eleven.
PakPassion.net : How do you feel about the ban which was imposed on Saeed Ajmal and his future in international cricket?
Alec Stewart : There are rules and regulations in place which put a limit on the degree of flexion a bowler is permitted in his action which I believe is fifteen degrees. In Saeed Ajmal’s case he exceeded this limit and therefore has had to remodel his action. That’s only happened in the last six months or so and he hasn’t got back to the levels he had beforehand. So the pace he bowls at is a lot slower, he doesn’t spin the ball as hard now so if he still has the desire to play international cricket, then he has a lot of work to do.
It is very difficult if you have bowled in a certain way most of your life and then you are told that it’s actually illegal and you have to remodel it. If the selectors are patient and he is also patient, then there is no reason why he can’t get back to what he was able to achieve before, but this time within the fifteen degree limit.
PakPassion.net : Pakistan will be visiting England in 2016 and given the bad blood from the previous series, are there any bridges to be built during their next trip?
Alec Stewart : I would hope that the attitude is that what’s happened has happened. Yes, it was bad for the game but people have learnt their lessons and we won’t have a repeat of those type of incidents again. I always say that if you want to play tough cricket or if you want to play hard cricket, then make sure you play that type of cricket within the regulations, rules and spirit of the game.
PakPassion.net : What are your views on the return to cricket for Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt?
Alec Stewart : They have done their punishment. That’s what we expected which is that once you have completed your ban, you are entitled to come back into the game and play again. But let’s make sure that there is no repetition of what they did before, because if there is then life bans have to come into the picture.