Cricket: Beware the safety catch

`Stewart is a pupil of the Gatting and Gooch school of cricket: straight down the line, nothing too fancy'
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Andrew Longmore

argues that, for all his many strengths, Alec Stewart is not England's ideal leader

FROM afar, Gerry Alexander sounds in rude health. He will be 70 in November, so he was amused to learn that his name featured prominently in the recent press conference to introduce England's new cricket captain. Students of the game will know the reason for the belated fame: F.C.M. Alexander is the most prolific of the 14 Test wicketkeepers who have been appointed captain of their country. The 15th is Alec Stewart.

Alexander captained the West Indies 18 times, winning seven and losing four. The nucleus of the great West Indies side of the Sixties was formed under his benign leadership. Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Conrad Hunte and Wes Hall emerged. Charlie Griffith made his Test debut in Alexander's last match as captain, a draw against Colin Cowdrey's England in Port of Spain in 1960, which also marked Clyde Walcott's final Test. A pinch of that sort of talent would ease the task of Stewart, the latest eager claimant to the wearying job of England captain.

"He will need help and luck," boomed Alexander. "All captains need those qualities but he is a fine cricketer and I see no reason why keeping and captaining should be a problem for him. In fact, I think it's a plus. No one has a better perspective of what the bowler is doing and what the batsman is doing than the wicketkeeper. You just have to snap your concentration between captaining and wicketkeeping."

The additional difficulty, acknowledged by Alexander, is that Stewart's duties will not diminish once he has left the field. In Test matches, the first five in the order should be primed to make 150s, to bat for three or four sessions, which is asking a considerable question even of one of the fittest and best prepared players in the team. Alexander identifies another problem. "The danger is that the wicketkeeper feels he has already got his eye in and starts playing his shots too early," he explained, an interesting reflection on Stewart's comparatively poor form with the bat when keeping wicket. "It's also fatigue," he added. "It's nice to have a night's sleep before you have to go out and bat. Alec may not have that luxury."

Stewart points out that he has done all those jobs as captain of Surrey, a task arguably more demanding, if less scrutinised, than captaining England. But it was the ancillary factors which ground down Atherton, the interviews and the sponsors, the mental wear and tear. Those chores, plus the astounding ability of some of our frontline bowlers to counter a strategically placed third slip with a leg-stump half-volley, the hair- tearing run-outs and the dropped catches, all have now been bequeathed to cricket's Mr Clean.

The inmates of the England dressing room will not even have to turn their heads more than a few inches to receive their orders. Stewart has habitually changed next to Atherton, the neat line-up of pads, gloves, socks, shirt, Corby pants press, contrasting with the student-dig chaos of Atherton's peg sums up the shifting priorities of the England captaincy. Atherton did not quite win enough Tests to justify his stubble. Once Lord MacLaurin had made the following pronouncement in a national newspaper, Nasser Hussain, Stewart's main rival for the post, could have tucked away his washbag.

"The general behaviour of cricketers and their appearance has to be addressed," wrote the chairman of the English Cricket Board. "No longer should we see international cricketers appearing on television, unshaven, chewing gum and looking slovenly." Nor flicking v-signs at opposing batsmen. In future, V will stand for "vim" or Vodafone, the team sponsors. Quite where Stewart's unrivalled instinct for rubbing every part of his anatomy other than the critical one where the ball might have hit fits into the equation is open to question. Stewart himself has a typically pragmatic view of the new morality. "The bottom line is winning, if you're winning, the media, the sponsors and the supporters are on your side anyway."

It might surprise Hussain to learn that Stewart walked out of MacLaurin's offices on the banks of the Thames - along with Adam Hollioake, the other captain - with the Test captaincy in his pocket a full week before the announcement was made to the press. He celebrated by watching his beloved Chelsea lose to Blackburn Rovers. Rather than the decision being "close", as Graveney suggested, the overwhelming sense is that the Essex man had no chance.

That no one is questioning his ability to shoulder an unprecedented workload is a tribute to Stewart's discipline and strength of character. Had tea- making and pad-whitening been part of the job spec, he would have found time for those too. He is a mighty cricketer, a world-class batsman and a revelation as a wicketkeeper. But he is a pupil of the Gatting and Gooch school of cricket theory: straight down the line, nothing too fancy. No England spinner will be getting itchy fingers at the prospect of a fat workload this summer. Spin is the bit between the quick bowling.

Under the Australian rules of "pick the team, then the captain", Stewart is the logical choice. Otherwise, the thinking is baffling. Stewart will not keep wicket in the County Championship nor did he keep - rightly - in the West Indies. "The heat", Graveney explained. It will be hot in Australia where, a disastrous summer excepting, he will lead a touring side to regain the Ashes next winter. It is an appointment from within the cabinet, the long-serving chancellor turned PM, safe and predictable, free from criticism. In what way will Stewart's England differ from Atherton's? If Stewart has his way, Atherton will open the batting.

"I'm not going to say `there's a new captain, we're going to win a five- Test series for the first time in a decade'," Stewart said. "It won't happen overnight. Athers did a great job, he captained with pride and passion and had the respect of the players. I think the side has improved over the last five years, but we want England back as the number one Test- playing country in the world and, at the moment, we're not. At the end of the summer, we're not suddenly going to be the best team in the world. All I want is a consistent level of performance. Prepare well and do your best."

Stewart is no less private than Atherton, but he is less suspicious of the media, until the cricket starts at least. The drawbridge might be lowered a little. Prepare well and do your best. Stewart himself has lived by the motto for 75 Tests. Ensuring others do the same has driven his predecessors to distraction.