Cricket: Hussain poised to replace Stewart as captain

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IT APPEARS that Alec Stewart's days as England captain are numbered despite claims to the contrary from David Graveney, the chairman of selectors. As speculation over the appointment of Nasser Hussain grew this weekend, the impression gained from Graveney was one of semantics rather than a ringing endorsement for the Surrey man.

"We are aware these matters are of interest," Graveney said yesterday, referring to certain claims made in several Sunday newspapers.

"But although we as selectors have discussed it on several occasions, and have spoken to Alec Stewart on the current situation and his fitness, I can confirm that no decision has been made. We will continue to be in contact as selectors, and we would hope to be in a position to announce something after the World Cup."

Graveney and his fellow selectors, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting (the G-force as one current Test player calls them), met last Tuesday to discuss, among other things, the England captaincy. A view favouring Hussain is thought to have been taken, though Stewart's subsequent absence from Surrey's Championship game against Leicestershire did him few favours. It may be irrational, but captains who lose, especially ones out of form, should not miss county matches with sore fingers.

Apparently Graveney is set to ring his two cohorts tomorrow to see if the views aired a week ago, have changed. If they haven't, and Lord MacLaurin has no objection, Hussain will be appointed as England captain. As tomorrow is also the day when the English and Wales Cricket Board plan to interview the four candidates - Duncan Fletcher, Bob Woolmer, Dav Whatmore and Jack Birkenshaw - for the post of England coach, a dual announcement will probably be made a few days after the World Cup final.

Both jobs may be linked and Fletcher, one of the favourites for the job and a man keen on motivation, would no doubt approve of Hussain's desire to succeed at virtually all cost. Hussain is in form too, with runs and wins under his belt for Essex. In fact, the only caveat may be that the pressure could mount on him if New Zealand are not beaten well this summer. South Africa, later in the year, will not be an easy tour for a green captain under the cosh.

Captaincy, especially the detail required off the pitch, has never been among Stewart's strong points, even when he led Surrey in the early 1990's. But if his captaincy in the World Cup was more imaginative than usual, his powers to inspire were not. Despite being the only captain to win a major Test series for 13 years, when England beat South Africa last summer, Stewart is about to pay the price for England's inconsistency.

England's failure to qualify for the second stage of the World Cup clearly required scapegoats, though by delaying his sacking as long as possible after the event, the selectors - hardly immune from criticism themselves for burdening him with three tough roles - were hoping he could avoid the tag. Captaincy is not the only issue to be considered and like many people, the selectors feel that Stewart can only manage two roles.

Providing his fingers are fine and his feet begin sychronising again, opening the batting and wicketkeeping are the ones at which he excels. He will not admit it, but after a lean trot with the bat in which he has passed 50 for England just once this year, he needs his workload rationalised and lightened.

Hussain profile, page 5