Cricket: Positive Stewart slow to defend

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THIS TEST is in danger of turning into a long hard road to nowhere as far as England are concerned. It is certainly proving a testing match for Alec Stewart. After having won the toss and having had the South Africans by the throat at 46 for 4 on the first day things took on a different complexion yesterday.

He may have claimed his 100th Test victim as a wicketkeeper, no mean accomplishment, but it is likely that he would have traded that personal landmark for a lower South African total.

The tourists' innings was beginning to stretch out ahead of them, its end lost in a shimmering vision of high South African scores and low English morale. It was a situation that would have tested the leadership qualities of a far more experienced Test captain than Stewart.

Whether he has come through with flying colours is a moot point. There is no denying the good aspects to his captaincy. He was frequently seen running up to bowlers between deliveries to impart a suggestion and going out of his way to give them encouragement at the end of an over. He has also been happy to consult with Nasser Hussain, the Essex captain and the possessor of an astute cricketing brain.

But there was little sign early yesterday of everything going England's way as it had on the first day. Too often, as Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes applied a winch to their troubled innings and pulled it well clear of the mire, there was the thought that perhaps the England captain was sticking too blindly to his positive philosophy and setting attacking fields, instead of making them work harder for their runs through a defensive barrier.

As the morning wore on the South African pair grew in confidence. The highest South African fifth-wicket stand at Lord's - a mark that had stood at 94 since 1951 - was swiftly overtaken, their century stand followed soon after.

Stewart did at least try to break the batsmen's concentration with frequent changes of bowling. Just as pundits started to wonder whether Angus Fraser had been overcooked Cork was switched to from the Nursery End to the Pavilion End and Dean Headley was introduced to the attack while Fraser had a blow. Cork's second spell lasted only four overs before the off-spin of Robert Croft came into the frame.

Unfortunately the juggling appeared not to disorientate either batsman as their joint venture took them into new waters for any South African fifth-wicket pairing against England anywhere. Tony Pithey and Johnny Waite's 157, set at Johannesburg in the 1964-65 tour by England, fell long before lunch.

Stewart finally woke up to what was needed and shut down the run flow after lunch, and somewhere around the seventh of more than a dozen changes of bowling came the breakthrough. Mark Ealham, operating from the Pavilion End induced a loose shot from Cronje.

It was a critical moment, since the South Africans were just 16 runs away from a double-century partnership. In the end they did not quite get away, but Stewart cannot be satisfied with a performance that let the South Africans back in.