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Cricket: Crunch time for captain Stewart

England selectors choose experience over inspiration as mastering pressure situations becomes the priority
IT IS A rare thing for full-time captaincy to elude someone for 75 Tests, for it suggests that important qualities are lacking. For Alec Stewart, named yesterday as Michael Atherton's successor as England captain, the eventual promotion has come more by default than from the possession of outstanding leadership qualities, though few would perhaps begrudge such an unstinting and loyal foot soldier the chance to swap his khaki for the braid of higher office.

Stewart, now 35 and looking smarter than a Burton's dummy at Lord's yesterday, is the first Surrey player to lead England since 1961, when Peter May was captain against Australia. Although he has captained England twice before - in 1993 after Graham Gooch fell ill - Stewart will be in charge for the five-match Test series against South Africa next month as well as the one-off Test against Sri Lanka in August.

If one such elevation is usually enough for a county to celebrate, the appointment yesterday of Adam Hollioake as one-day captain will have made it doubly joyful, and the Prince of Wales' feathers will probably seen flying from every flagpole in SE11 for the next week.

Mind you, that Hollioake has only been appointed for the Texaco matches this month and not the triangular tournament in August does suggest that the selectors are perhaps getting cold feet over the dual captaincy. If they are, Stewart's role, as one of a handful of players worthy of both Test and one-day places, could expand even further. Indeed, it would not be too far fetched to see him installed as England captain for next year's World Cup.

Speaking after David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, had made the formal announcement yesterday Stewart immediately scotched suggestions that he was about to put the lid on English cricket's Pandora's box once and for all.

"Obviously I'm not going to wave a magic wand and suddenly make everything hunky dory," Stewart said. "What we will be doing is our best to be competitive and to be consistent. If we do that, then we've a chance of being a good side."

Unlike Atherton, who in the end chose not to vote, Stewart has decided to be a part of the selection process, and is very certain of the kind of player he wants. "They must have the will to win. Be desperate for success, and be proud of playing for their country. In fact our biggest challenge is to learn how to come out on top in the crunch situations," he said.

With the final choice being between just two candidates - Stewart and Nasser Hussain - the decision by Graveney and his selectors, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, was, in the end at least, a unanimous one. "The deciding factor in Alec's favour," Graveney said afterwards, "was his experience and respect within the team."

The history of Test cricket is not exactly littered with captains who have kept wicket, a role Stewart will almost certainly have to perform this summer if England are to play a five-man bowling attack. For England, yet to win a five-match Test series since 1986/87, a major worry must be that too much responsibility is being heaped upon their most important player.

Having to perform three vital jobs at once invites compromise and Stewart, despite an oft-stated preference for opening - something his Test batting average also bears out, being 47 without the gloves and 32 with - will bat at either three or four, providing he keeps wicket.

But even if Stewart is happy in himself about the move down the order, any further drop in Atherton's currently modest form could leave England with an inexperienced pair of opening batsmen.

English cricket may have stopped shooting itself in the foot quite as often as it used to, but facing the new ball partnership of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock without Stewart or an in-from Atherton to combat them would be handing the opposition a huge advantage.

Stewart, a big fan of Atherton's, counters this by saying he would be surprised, despite one newspaper's ridiculous claims that the Lancashire man would no longer be welcome in the England dressing-room, if his old partner was not opening the innings in the first Test at Edgbaston.

If 35 seems an odd time to be fulfilling one's boyhood dreams Stewart, as he has already done with his batting, takes inspiration from the example of Gooch: "I always look at Graham Gooch, who took on the job for the first time at about the same age and kept playing Test cricket past the age of 40. Like him, as long as I'm good enough, I'd like to play for England as long as possible."

Ironically, it was probably due to this similarity in outlook and style as Gooch's vice-captain that persuaded the selectors to overlook him in favour of Atherton following Gooch's resignation as captain in 1993.

Perhaps therein lies a possible problem. Gooch, Gatting and Stewart are so like-minded that a more questioning mind, such as Hussain's, might have forced the selectors to search more deeply for solutions than they may otherwise do. As it is, Stewart expects to be able call on both Atherton and Hussain for advice.

With Australia to follow this winter, Stewart could not have wished for a more difficult 12 months in which to rectify his record of two losses from two Tests in charge. Pointing out that it will not be easy is an understatement. In Stewart, England have one of the great survivors and players of the last decade. They also have a man intent on teaching England how to win. Let us hope the learning curve is a steep one.