Cricket: Fastidious, fierce and groomed for the top

Immaculate image hides a hard edge. Jon Culley on the new man in charge
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PARADED before the cameras and microphones at Lord's yesterday, Alec Stewart delivered the kind of performance we can expect to become typical during the months ahead. Self-assured without being cocky, positive without being unrealistic, patriotic but not jingoistic, courteous but not fawning.

As a matter of form, he paid generous a tribute to his predecessor, a good deal of which was born of genuine admiration. There will not be much of Michael Atherton, however, in Alec Stewart.

For a start, he will never be seen sprouting stubble, whether fashionable or not. Stewart's grooming is immaculate. He resembles, it has been said, an old-fashioned American golf pro.

With his close-cropped hair and his upright stance, others liken him more to a marine, especially when he thrusts out his chest and strides forth to fulfil his duty on the field, each innings approached as a military mission. He loves his country. So much so that, if he had his way, the England team would start every Test match by signing the national anthem.

He has been accused of being superficial and has at times mocks himself for having a personality that lacks depth. None the less, he plays and lives with an uncluttered philosophy.

Put another way, he has made himself the consummate professional. Summer and winter, he trains every day, determined at 35 years old to keep himself at his physical peak. He fastidiously minds what he eats and takes alcohol only occasionally. He also keeps videos of himself in order to analyse and correct technical flaws.

What is more, he is fiercely competitive - too much so, it was said, in his younger days. In part, this was inherited from his father, Micky, the former Surrey captain whose hard-edged brand of management changed England's whole attitude to Test cricket. He credits his father with instilling the view in him that dedication and commitment are as important as ability and that self-belief is paramount. "He told me that if I did not back my ability, why should anyone else," Stewart once said. "That is not arrogance, just common sense."

When he won his first Test cap, Micky was in charge, which inevitably led to suggestions of nepotism. In fact, although Alec would teasingly call his father "manager" at home, in a cricket setting the two went out of their way not to acknowledge their relationship. Ian Greig, Alec's predecessor as Surrey captain, believed that far from enhancing his Test career, parental involvement held it back.

It was Australian grade cricket that made a fighter of Stewart. From the age of 18 in 1981 he went to Western Australia every English winter for seven years, playing for the Perth team Midland-Guildford. He kept wicket and because he would bat only once a week learned to make every innings count.

He also learned how to attack an opponent verbally, which did not attract the universal approval of his peers and most certainly not of his masters. In only his second Test, he became embroiled in a slanging match with Desmond Haynes and on his first tour was fined for dissent after over- reacting to an umpire's decision.

He was accused, like his father to some extent, of having the mentality of a footballer, although given both their pasts this should come as no surprise. Micky played professionally for Charlton Athletic, while Alec turned out for Corinthian Casuals in the Isthmian League when he was 17 and for a long time was more interested in a career in the winter game.

But having chosen cricket he has reached this point in his career with no doubts over his ability or his temperament. The only unanswered question, curiously, concerns whether, as a captain, he is a winner. If the shadow cast by his father bothers him at all it is because under Micky's leadership in the 1950s, Surrey dominated the County Championship, winning title after title. During his own five-year tenure at The Oval, from 1991-96, only in the final year, in the Sunday League, did a team awash with talent come up with a trophy.