Brian Halford
8th March 2018

Record-breaker Stewart speaks in Former Bears special

Somerset off-spinner Brian Langford could be a devilishly difficult bowler to score off, as illustrated by his Sunday League analysis, against Essex at Yeovil in 1969, of 8-8-0-0.

Birmingham-born Langford was a master of flight and control and, abetted by the vagaries of uncovered wickets, notoriously hard to get away. But one sunny afternoon in 1961, Jim Stewart sorted him out good and proper. When Warwickshire visited Millfield School for a championship game, Stewart hit the spinner for six sixes in half an hour on the way to a rollicking 104.

In all, Stewart hit 11 sixes in that match. Two years earlier, against Lancashire at Blackpool, he struck 17 sixes, a world record for a first-class game. He hit 32 sixes in all that season and 30 the following year.

"Wilf Wooller was a selector and he liked me and put my name forward. But the chairman of selectors Gubby Allen told him: ‘He’s just a slogger.’ Wilf said, ‘well he's slogged 2,000 runs this season."

Jim Stewart

Stewart's batting, a happy fusion of strength and timing in a big man, was notable not just for its quality but for its entertainment value. There was no limited-overs cricket back then, of course, just the County Championship, and for much of Stewart's time with the Bears - 1955 to 1969 - it was far from a golden era. A lot of batting was deadly slow, leading to cricket that was deadly dull. But that was not Jim's way.

He peaked in 1962 when, on the way to 2,318 runs, he reached 1,000 15 days earlier than any previous Warwickshire batsman had done. Against Leicestershire at Hinckley, he scored 252 in the match including 23 from an over from John Savage. Against Sussex at Edgbaston, Stewart and Billy Ibadulla thrashed 122 in 48 minutes.

In an era of stodgy batting, Stewart, Wales-born but a proud Coventry boy from the age of eight, stood out a mile. It was England form, surely. But were England ready for such a mould-breaking batsman?

“Wilf Wooller was a selector and he liked me and put my name forward," Stewart recalls. "But the chairman of selectors Gubby Allen told him: ‘He’s just a slogger.’ Wilf said, ‘well he's slogged 2,000 runs this season!’"

Stewart was to remain one of the best batsmen never to play Test cricket. During the following winter, 1962/63, the amputation of a big toe meant he had to reinvent his game. He had to curtail his attacking style, and though remaining a good, productive batsman, his chance of Test cricket had gone.

Now 83, and still living in the house which he bought with a mortgage from Warwickshire County Cricket Club, he reflects upon that near-miss ruefully, but without rancour.

"I scored a lot of runs in 1962 and was in the 12 for the Test at The Oval but that's as close as I got, he said.

"I was up against some good players at the time - Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Kenny Barrington, Doug Insole and others.

"I would have loved a chance to show what I could do in Test cricket because, although I was always prepared to hit the ball, I could bat. Warwickshire always wanted me in the team in difficult conditions because I was good on bad wickets.

"But it all changed when I had to have a big toe removed after a bunion went wrong. Losing the toe put me out of line so, although I could still bat, I became a grafter.

"I've no regrets though. I had a very good career. It was a lot of fun and am still in touch with MJK Smith, Bob Barber and some of the other fellas."

Stewart scored 14,826 first-class runs at an average of 34.08. That average, delivered on uncovered wickets, would equate to one in the mid-forties at least on today's much more benign surfaces. It was very much Warwickshire's gain and rugby's loss when, as a promising youngster with Coventry rugby club, he chose to pursue a cricket career which began in earnest one day when he was on 14 at the non-striker's end in a friendly against the Birmingham Parks League at Edgbaston.

“Tiger Smith was umpiring," he recalls. "And between overs he said to me ‘how would you like to be a professional cricketer? Come to my office after the game.' I did that and Leslie Deakin, the secretary, was there and we spoke to my mum and dad and that was it. I signed a contract for £3.50 a week.

"The only worrying time was when we got to the middle of August. August 15 was always a day to remember. We only ever got one-year contracts and on August 15 we would go in to the ground and to the board with all the envelopes and some players would come out smiling and others were in tears."

Jim Stewart

"I always loved cricket and, as a small boy, I operated the old manual scoreboard at the Courtaulds ground but enjoyed rugby too. I played for Coventry and was offered a contract by Leigh rugby league club but loved playing rugby union with Coventry so stayed there until Warwickshire asked me to stop because of the risk of injury.

"There was quite a big Coventry contingent in Warwickshire's squad then: Fred Gardner, Tom Cartwright, Clive Leach and I. We would get the 8am train from Coventry, then a tram up Bristol Road to Edgbaston. Lunch wasn't provided so it was over to Cannon Hill Park for a sandwich. Then we'd have to bowl at the members for an hour in the evening, so would get back to New Street just in time for the 8pm train home.

Eventually the four of us scraped up enough money to buy a car!

"I was twelfth man a lot in 1951 when we won the championship under Tom Dollery and I went on the celebratory trip to Torquay. I soon forced my way into the team and it was a great life. Edgbaston is a superb ground now but was a bit of a concrete jungle in those days. I loved playing on the outgrounds – Dover, Maidstone, Clacton, Hinckley.

"The only worrying time was when we got to the middle of August. August 15 was always a day to remember. We only ever got one-year contracts and on August 15 we would go in to the ground and to the board with all the envelopes and some players would come out smiling and others were in tears. That could be difficult. I think I'd have been a better player if I’d had two-year contracts. It wasn’t good to be under that pressure year after year. That lack of security is not ideal when you have a family to look after. "

After Stewart left Warwickshire he ran two sports shops in Coventry for many years while spending the summers coaching at Rugby School and, through a connection at the school, played a few one-day games for Northamptonshire. Strangely, for a batsman of his buccaneering style, Stewart did not relish limited-overs cricket, though he fondly recalls his two Gillette Cup final appearances - one win and one defeat - for Warwickshire.

“I didn’t take to one-day cricket,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t because it was so new and we didn’t really know how to approach it. But I did enjoy the one-day finals. We stayed in a hotel in St John’s Wood and I remember walking with my wife up the road to Lord’s, carrying my spare shirt in a plastic bag. Some supporters were walking beside us and I heard one of them say ‘I can’t wait for the first ball’. I thought 'neither can I – I might be facing it!’ Most of all I remember the great noise in the ground, then suddenly a hush as the bowler came in.”

You get the feeling that Stewart would have been a big hit in Twenty20. He did, after all, manage to clear the ropes regularly in days when uncovered wickets stacked the cards heavily in favour of bowlers.

"These days a batsman looks amazed if the ball swings or seams," he said. "On uncovered wickets you were amazed if it didn’t!

"But I look at the game today and see a lot to admire. The fielding is absolutely brilliant. And the running between wickets is fantastic, turning ones into twos and twos into three. They all mount up. I think I would have quite liked Twenty20!"