Blessed with talent

2013-09-11 00:00

ERROL Stewart was a rare sporting phenomenon. From his school days, he was wickedly blessed with heaps of talent, able to shine at any sport involving a ball and achieving great heights in whatever he focused on.

Comrades great Bruce Fordyce once said that his running prowess was in his genes. For Stewart, his talent came from his mother, Shirley, who was a South African hockey centre-forward. His father, Rae, was no slouch either, playing club rugby. One can imagine Stewart seeing sport as a way of life and part of everyday proceedings.

He decided to focus on cricket and rugby and had the opportunity to claim an accolade never to be repeated in today’s world of professional sport. In 1995, he was a member of the Natal Sharks team who won the Currie Cup and the Natal cricket side who won the same honour. In those days, he could manage his time between the two sports, often finishing cricket training and then dashing down the road for his rugby session.

As the seeds planted at school matured, he grew into a fine sportsman who took what opportunities came his way with both hands and, looking back, he has no regrets in what he achieved.

“As a Westville Boys’ High School pupil, I was chosen for the 1987 SA Schools cricket side, and rubbed shoulders with Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, among others,” said Stewart. “After school, when I decided to take my career further, I played plenty of club cricket, representing Durban University, Durban Collegians and Berea Rovers. It was a tremendous learning curve as many provincial players played in those games. It gave me the opportunity to work at my game and attain the goals I had set.”

Stewart still maintains that club cricket is a vital ingredient in any aspiring cricketer’s climb up the ladder and remains encouraged that provincial players jump at the opportunity to play for their club side when a break in the domestic calendar allows.

“This is where your game, technique and attitude to the game is moulded,” he said. “It teaches respect for the game and keeps you interested, as it makes you realise there are some massively talented youngsters ready to gobble you up and step into your shoes.”

If cricket and rugby at provincial level were not enough to keep the determined Stewart busy, he found time to complete a law degree — he is an attorney by profession, but currently works in the finance world — and his pilot’s licence.

“Opportunities to fly are not as often as I would like. It’s a passion of mine that I have been enjoying for 20 years. There is thought of stepping up to a commercial pilot’s licence, but that involves great cost and is a huge responsibility once in the skies. You have to know what you are doing and not become a danger to anyone.”

Stewart will be remembered as a solid middle-order batsman for Natal, noted for his wristy play and working the ball around the park. He was reliable and could do the hard graft in preventing victory when the cause for his team was lost, or produce the goods and see the team home against all odds.

“I played under Peter Rawson, Jonty Rhodes and Dale Benkenstein. No one is more chuffed than me to hear Dale returning to the Dolphins set-up this season as batting coach,” said Stewart. “He remains an outstanding cricketer with exceptional captaincy skills. He could sum up a situation and consulted players before making a decision. When he made the decision, he was backed by his players. His record for the Dolphins and, more recently, Durham speaks for itself.”

National selection was tough for Stewart, as he was vying for the wicket-keeping gloves with Dave Richardson and then Mark Boucher. A true cricket connoisseur, he sees Test match cricket as the Holy Grail of the sport and although he never reached that level, he has no regrets.

“Obviously, I would have liked to play at that level, but it was not to be. I had been gifted with so much in life I cannot explain. I was blessed in other areas of life and the best players were selected for the job,” he said.

Stewart did get an opportunity at one-day level, making his debut in 1992 against Pakistan in East London.

He was understudy to Richardson on the 1993/94 tour to Australia and was restricted to a handful of one-day international appearances.

While he only made 35 appearances in the black-and-white jersey on the rugby field, it must be remembered that rugby back then did not start in February and was still considered a winter sport.

He played at centre and was alongside some of the stalwarts of Natal rugby.

“Jeremy Thomson, Pieter Muller, Dick Muir and Henry Honiball come to mind,” he said. “Wahl Bartmann was my first captain and then I played with Gary Teichmann, one of the game’s great leaders. He was never flashy and let his game do the talking. As an inspirational leader, he was untouchable.”

Cricket stood tall for Stewart as he tucked his rugby jersey away for the final time at the end of the 1997 season, giving cricket his full attention.

“I had to tell Ian MacIntosh, the Sharks coach, I was calling it a day. Bad injuries to some of the players had me thinking and with plenty of cricket still in my veins, decided to make Kingsmead my second home rather than King’s Park.”

It’s been 10 years since Stewart retired from first-class cricket, where he played 87 times for Natal, scoring 4 321 runs with eight hundreds and 21 fifties at an average of 34,84. He played 98 first-class matches for 5 150 runs at 36,78. His highest score was 207 for Natal B against Border at Kingsmead, a ground he rates as his favourite, alongside the Wanderers.

After his playing days, he was involved with the International Cricket Council, spending three years in Dubai as the body’s head of sponsorship, having been approached by Dave Richardson to take on the job.

“It was an adventure for me and my family, but there was no doubt we would return to South Africa,” said Stewart. “This position gave me the opportunity to look at South Africa in a different light, and realise that all the moans and groans people have about our country can quite easily be applied to many others. There is plenty of good in our fair land, and I am proud to openly state that I love this country, its people and its environment.”

Stewart also plays hockey for invitational sides against schoolboy teams, enjoys tennis, and hits the greens and fairways off a seven handicap. He never considered coaching, but is readily available to offer advice to any talented sportsman with a dream and desire to make the big time.

He is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most humble and gifted sportsmen, a man who still follows fortunes in the sporting world and has words of wisdom that cannot be ignored.

STEWART FACTS

• He won the music prize for singing in Grade 7, but has never progressed from being a singer in the shower.

• Likes a good braai and can get creative.

• Is a woman’s dream, as he classifies himself as a dishwasher and clean-up man.

• He is not much of a handyman, but can change light bulbs and plugs.

• Enjoys outdoors and is a keen birdwatcher.

• He has a broad-based taste of music — Nickelback, Bon Jovi, Timberland, Pink, Madonna. He prefers fast music.

• Top Gun was an inspirational movie. Other favourites are The Shawshank Redemption, Saving Private Ryan and Dead Poets Society.

• TV sitcoms are his preferred viewing.

• He enjoys reading novels, biographies, Boer and Zulu War history, Wilbur Smith, Ken Follet, Jeffrey Archer.

• He likes the feel of a book and newspaper.

• Portuguese peri-peri chicken is his favourite meal.

• Healthy eating is important for him.

• He supports AmaZulu.

• He does a lot of running.

• He has a weird tendency to count steps when walking up them. There are 74 stairs from the ground floor to the lounge at Cape Town International Airport.

• He is particular when making a bed and likes to do it himself.

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