Cricket: Script and polish for Stewart

After Allan Donald, it was Brian from Birmingham against the England captain. Andrew Longmore watched
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The Independent Online
The subject had to crop up sometime. Brian from Birmingham wanted to know about umpires. What did the England captain think of some of the umpiring decisions at Headingley? Like a juicy half-volley on his off- stump, Alec Stewart was ready and waiting. "Hardest job in the world... have to respect the umpires, which England do... takes eight or nine slo- mo replays to make a decision when the umpire has a split second..." And what, asked a youth from Woking, was Ian Salisbury doing in the side? "Solly's had a great season and the two Test wickets he's had to bowl on have not been conducive to spin... at the same time, he'd be the first to put his hand up and say he didn't do himself justice."

It has been a while since an England cricket captain was able to parade some significant success through the nation's studios. And the nation responded with an instinctive passion by getting on the blower. Most guests on Nicky Campbell's morning show on Radio 5 Live are despatched after half an hour. John Major received eight calls in 30 minutes. A mere former Prime Minister, him. The England cricket captain, the job Major really wanted, has the three phone operators scrambling calls for an extra 15: 142 calls logged, questions shuffled into categories - women and children first - and despatched to the studio. Given the standard working ratio, a tally of 400 calls made, one-third successful in reaching the operators, barely a handful actually aired. Eight-year-old John from York never did get to ask his question about bat-twiddling.

After three days of reflection, Alec Stewart has emerged blinking into the media spotlight. His schedule for the morning reads: 9am Channel Nine, 9.30am Cricket Focus, 11am Radio 5 Live. A hand-picked series of interviews, from the hundreds requested, designed to appeal to the constituencies which matter. Australia will wake up to the fact that England has a cricket team again; Grandstand is an obvious stop and the morning show hosted by Nicky Campbell is rapidly becoming the nation's parliament, though unknown to Stewart. "Nicky Campbell, is that a him or her?"

Win or lose, this was still the public bit Mike Atherton hated, the lines of the job description he would consign to the bin. Atherton suffered from the lynchings, adopted a defensive, suspicious persona that those close to him knew was a disguise. The sweet smell of success never quite touched his nostrils for long enough; cordite was the usual whiff. Atherton's successor had to be designer-labelled, media friendly, smiling. The chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, said so. And once he had, only one man had crisp enough creases in his hair and cricket whites. That he also happened to be the premier batsman in the side, its most experienced international performer and a wicketkeeper of growing stature seemed to be secondary. Alec Stewart looked the part.

First up, the lady from Channel Nine. The questions are gentle, the replies predictable enough. The word "grovel" is left on the cutting-room floor. Stewart has to be upbeat, confident but respectful, a line he treads to perfection. Yes, he would like Shane Warne to be playing so that victory, if it came, would be sweeter. "Top Test team in the world... been on the losing side three or four times... gain more consistency... learn from them." The Aussies know Stewart to be a tough, uncompromising character and they like him for it. They could see him under a Baggy Green. Stewart's grey Armani tee-shirt, his clean-cut, bronzed image, framed by the Lord's pavilion, will flag the mother country's intent this winter. "You can't say we're going to win 5-0, can you, even if you think it inside. You could look stupid, couldn't you," he says on the way to a rendezvous with Steve Rider on the bench by Thomas Lord's roller.

Rider is an experienced, consummate interviewer. But this is a victory tickle. Not 100 yards from where Stewart's vigorous shake of the head earlier in the summer was viewed in some quarters as a sign of dissent, Stewart practises his text on umpiring. The BBC are out to inform and congratulate, not provoke, and Stewart answers each question politely and succinctly, revealing just enough of himself, but not too much. "What you see is the working me," he says. The private "me" remains hidden, more so than Atherton, strangely. Stewart knows his press, good and bad, and notes the writers. He will read this, he says. So, unsaid, be careful. One cricket correspondent was pulled up for factual inaccuracy at Headingley, another praised for a good piece. Those who wrote him off two years ago have been logged for future reference. "I don't bear grudges," he says. But he remembers.

Rider enjoys the interview, which develops an easy rhythm. "You know where the full stop is with Alec," he laughs. "But he answers the questions." The producer, Martin Smith, who has worked with the England team throughout a topsy-turvy summer, endorses the praise. "Ten out of 10. He's been flawless. Even when England were down, he would come and talk. He's never knocked us back. Above all, he's punctual." They still think he looks a bit nervous. Stewart denies it. "It's part of the job," he says.

Contrary to modern fashion, he has had no formal media training, other than an informal chat with Charles Colvile, Sky's front man and a member of the Surrey Committee. "He told me to be honest and natural and that's what I try to be," Stewart says. "That's the best way. I'll say what I think." Up to a point. Rehearsals on the way to the 5 Live studio are minimal. Brian Murgatroyd, the media relations officer of the ECB, knows his man is a pro - "been round the traps" as he says - but runs through a few of the potential issues just the same. Umpires, Gazza, the rumpus about Hoddle's book. Stewart doesn't need a dope sheet.

In the studio, he is attentive and relaxed, slowly luring Campbell, an abrasive, unsettling interrogator, into fireside mode. Callers are uniformly euphoric. Almost. An invitation to one to become an umpire provokes a sharp response. Stewart's antennae twitch. "I'm glad to hear your comments," he says as Birmingham Brian disappears into the ether. Gazza is praised and admonished, Hoddle defended - Stewart knows him a bit - and Graeme Hick's Test batting average, just over 37, as it happens, is plucked from the air. Stewart admits he is not averse to a good football-style cliche, but the "at the end of the day" counter stops at one. Just part of the job. And why does he twiddle his bat? "Dunno, just always done it." There, little John from York, now you know.