TO KEEP or not to keep has been a perennial question asked of Alec Stewart. On a cold windy day more reminiscent of Manchester in April than Melbourne in summer, the answer was emphatically delivered. Dispensing with wicket-keeping gloves and returning to open the innings, Stewart scored his first Test century against Australia. He now has a Test hundred against every Test playing nation save India.
If it was not overly cheery news for England - they still managed to lose their last seven wickets for 70 runs - it was good news for wicket- keepers. For now, the vacancy is being filled by Warren Hegg, a decision Stewart claimed was made 40 minutes before the scheduled start on Boxing Day morning, after Alex Tudor pulled up lame with a sore hip.
"Playing Alex was an attempt to be positive," Stewart said. "When he wasn't fit, I wanted to do something that appeared to be attacking, so I moved up to opening and gave Heggy the gloves. If Tudor had played, I'd definitely have kept wicket."
Stewart, however, has never made any secrets about preferring to open the innings. "I've kept wicket in order to give us options whether it be five bowlers, or, as has tended to happen here, seven batsmen. Obviously I'm not saying I'll never keep wicket again, or that I won't open again. Just that I'll always try and do what the selectors feel is best for the side. Obviously, if we'd have done well, I'd have kept all series."
But England have done far from well, especially in the Tests completed, and taking on three jobs (keeping, batting and captaining) against a side as combative as Australia, was always going to require one glowing CV too many.
If the theory looked sustainable, the practical has proved otherwise, and against these opponents, this, as the following figures prove, was a compromise too many.
As a keeper/batsman in Tests, Stewart has batted 76 times, scored 2,310 runs, with three centuries at an average of 33.47. When unencumbered with the gloves, that increases to 3,564 runs from 77 innings at an average of 48.78, including nine hundreds.
Mind you, Stewart's shedding of the gloves is not the only strategic pillar likely to be abandoned. Apparently David Lloyd, the coach, has intimated that he will resign after the World Cup, three months before his contract is up.
Lloyd has been under pressure this tour, but he is no more culpable than anyone else involved in management, and probably a great deal less than most of the players, who come to him the products of a flawed system. In fact, aside from the occasional ill-timed outburst, he has made sure his players have received every available tool to improve their game. With him as coach, England have not wanted for energy and ideas and he should not allow himself to be pushed.
Stewart's achievement on a two-paced pitch that had spent the entire first day of the match under covers was not without its uncertainty and fortune. Apparently, damp spots had formed under the covers and ground staff were up with the larks to dry them with giant blowers. Despite the last-minute cosseting to the pitch, the new ball was always likely to move about. Re-united with Michael Atherton, he quickly lost his partner for a duck in the opening over of the day.
Atherton is having a luckless series and, judging by the glare he gave the umpire Steve Bucknor, and the ensuing shake of the head, he obviously felt that he had not edged the leg-cutter Glenn McGrath had bowled him. TV replays, if not categoric in supporting the batsman's ire, did not confirm the edge either.
It got worse in McGrath's next over when Stewart, having seen his old partner depart, then lost his brother-in law for a duck as well. Despite his century in the opening Test, Mark Butcher has looked well short of his best and he was well caught off bat and pad by Justin Langer at short leg, a dismissal that owed much to his tentative footwork.
Having begun streakily, his first two opening shots were boundaries off edges that might easily have gone to hand, Stewart continued to score at a cracking rate. On four when joined at the crease by Nasser Hussain, Stewart dominated the 77-run partnership to such an extent that the Essex batsman had made just 19 when he pushed carelessly at a wide one from Matthew Nicholson, a mistake that gave the debutant fast bowler a fortuitous first Test scalp.
Nicholson, who took seven wickets against England for Western Australia at the start of the tour, did not find the strong winds to his liking. Apart from the wicket, his 10 overs went at nearly six runs an over, a major haemorrhage induced mainly by Stewart, who played a series of cuts and pull shots.
Joined by Mark Ramprakash, who virtually matched his partner's telling strokeplay, England began to take control. Bringing up his hundred with an all-run four off Stuart MacGill, Stewart became the first England captain since Mike Denness in 1975 to pass three figures at the MCG.
Soon after Ramprakash reached his fifty from 69 balls, a milestone that also saw the 200 up in 51.4 overs, a run-rate rarely achieved against a side as disciplined as Australia. England have been here before in the series, though, and, like a nightmare from which they cannot escape, began once again to lose wickets, despite the home side having to resort to Steve Waugh.
Having started positively against MacGill, Stewart tried instead to be smart by sweeping too fine, and was bowled round his legs. Had he not pre-determined the stroke, he could have met it on the full toss, though after his demise in Brisbane that is no guarantee against dismissal either. An over later, Waugh showed why it is dangerous to treat him lightly and Ramprakash paid dearly when he casually lifted a drive to mid-on.
Once again England had contrived to raise Australia's game by bringing two new batsmen to the crease. Hegg, his first Test innings not one to savour, quickly gave Waugh a second wicket, as he edged an outswinger. Like Atherton, Hegg stood his ground and looked surprised when Bucknor gave him out.
At 206 for 6, Stewart's efforts could easily have been in vain. Instead, a flurry from Graeme Hick and some solid defending from Dean Headley allowed 38 runs to be added before Head-ley nibbled at McGrath.
Hick, told to be positive when batting with the tail, took the opportunity to thump MacGill for a huge six over midwicket that must have carried all of 90 yards. Unfortunately, when Hick tried to repeat the feat a few balls later, he found the toe of the bat and holed out at mid-on. The last two wickets both fell to MacGill and the leggie finished with 4 for 61.
With 27 overs of the day remaining, Gough tore in, clocking the fastest ball of the day, a 145kmh thunderbolt. Bowling a tight line, his persistence proved too much for Michael Slater, who was plumb lbw. Not long after, Mark Taylor edged to Hick at second slip. Unlike previous Tests, this time the chance was taken.
Second day; Australia won toss
ENGLAND - First innings
M A Atherton c Healy b McGrath 0
3 min, 5 balls
*A J Stewart b MacGill 107
212 min, 160 balls, 16 fours
M A Butcher c Langer b McGrath 0
9 min, 7 balls
N Hussain c Healy b Nicholson 19
83 min, 56 balls, 2 fours
M R Ramprakash c McGrath
b S R Waugh 63
120 min, 92 balls, 5 fours
G A Hick c Fleming b MacGill 39
83 min, 67 balls, 3 fours, 1 six
W K Hegg c Healy b S Waugh 3
11 min, 5 balls
D W Headley c Taylor b McGrath 14
52 min, 49 balls
D Gough b MacGill 11
21 min, 14 balls, 2 fours
A R C Fraser not out 0
11 min, 2 balls
A D Mullally lbw b MacGill 0
3 min, 5 balls
Extras (lb7 w1 nb6) 14
Total (309 min, 76 overs) 270
Fall: 1-0 (Atherton) 2-4 (Butcher) 3-81 (Hussain) 4-200 (Stewart) 5-202 (Ramprakash) 6-206 (Hegg) 7-244 (Headley) 8-266 (Hick) 9-270 (Gough).
Bowling: McGrath 22-5-64-3 (nb5) (7-2-9-2, 8-2-24-0, 7-1-31-1); Fleming 19-3-71-0 (9-2-27-0, 4-0-14-0, 4-0-26-0, 2-1-4-0); Nicholson 10-0-59-1 (6-0-37-1, 4-0-22-0); MacGill 19-2-61-4 (5-0-20-0, 12-1-31-1, 2-1-10-3); S R Waugh 6-2-8-2 (one spell).
Progress: First day: No play. Second day: 50: 64 min, 15 overs. 100: 126 min, 29.3 overs. Lunch: 127 for 3 (Stewart 78, Ramprakash 19) 36 overs. 150: 174 min, 41.4 overs. 200: 211 min, 51.3 overs. Tea: 237 for 6 (Hick 18, Headley 14) 68 overs. 250: 291 min, 72.2 overs. Innings closed: 4.38pm.
Stewart's 50: 91 min, 66 balls, 8 fours. 100: 189 min, 142 balls, 16 fours.
Ramprakash's 50: 95 min, 70 balls, 4 fours.
AUSTRALIA - First innings
*M A Taylor c Hick b Gough 7
45 min, 29 balls
M J Slater lbw b Gough 1
19 min, 14 balls
J L Langer not out 26
64 min, 38 balls, 4 fours
M E Waugh not out 12
38 min, 31 balls, 2 fours
Extras (b4 lb5 nb4) 13
Total (for 2, 84 min, 18 overs) 59
Fall: 1-13 (Slater) 2-26 (Taylor).
To bat: S R Waugh, D S Lehmann, I A Healy, D W Fleming, M J Nicholson, S C G MacGill, G D McGrath.
Bowling: Gough 7-5-15-2 (nb2); Headley 7-1-18-0 (nb2); Mullally 3-1-12- 0; Ramprakash 1-0-5-0 (one spell each).
Progress: 50: 67 min, 14.2 overs. Bad light stopped play: 6.13pm.
Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and D J Harper (Aus).
Compiled by Jo King