Cricket: Second in command with a first-class attitude: Alec Stewart is backing the man who pipped him for the England captaincy. He talked to Martin Johnson

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IN A STRAW poll of the England dressing-room, few players would emerge with more popularity points than Alec Stewart. However, neither would it be a total surprise if most of his team-mates were not quietly thankful that Mike Atherton eventually pipped him for the captaincy.

After three years when days off were doled out with all the profligate abandon of Dickensian gruel, England under Atherton have already had almost as much wear out of their beach lounging gear as their cricket kit on this tour. Under Atherton's first lieutenant on the other hand, given that Stewart's attitude to hard work would have made Graham Gooch look like the captain of the Skylark, they would have been better advised leaving the flip-flops at home and packing a pair of army parade ground boots.

Relaxed and self-effacing though he is off the field, Stewart is an overtly hard-nosed competitor on it, an attitude partly gleaned from playing in Western Australia for nine winters, but mostly, one suspects, inherited from the old man's genes. Micky, the former team manager, was scarcely from the turn-up- for-a-net-if-you-feel-like-it school of dedication, which is why he privately regarded David Gower's appointment as the equivalent of making Ronald Biggs chairman of British Rail.

Alec, a near teetotaller whose major form of relaxation is a night in at home in Epsom with wife Lynn and nine-month-old son Andrew, and whose idea of a racy day out is nipping down to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea, also inherited Micky's football-playing ability, and was close to signing schoolboy forms with Wimbledon before deciding on cricket.

If he had chosen differently, he would undoubtedly have been the one shouting at his defence every 10 seconds, and failing to retreat 10 yards for the free-kick until the defence got itself organised. His will to win is total, and, as was the case with England when Micky was manager, occasionally leads to him sailing close to the wind in the increasingly cloudy field of what qualifies as acceptable deportment.

As captain of Surrey, he was warned by the club when the team were twice fingered in 1992 for ball- tampering (although there is not a professional team in the world that does not have at least one bowler with thumbnails that could open a can of corned beef) and was fined (privately) in Australia three winters ago for a relatively mild display of dissent in the Sydney Test match.

He also has a reputation for body language that leaves the umpire in no doubt of his opinion when he thinks he has been given out incorrectly, an image he is well enough aware of to be working on improving. When he was on the wrong end of a dodgy lbw decision in St Kitts earlier in the tour, he shot off for the pavilion as though he had been jabbed in the posterior by an electrified cattle prod.

Stewart also has a reputation for being quick to offer his twopence worth when there is a spot of sledging going on, although this is regarded as unfair both by him, and by everyone who has played with him. It is, he says, 'part and parcel of getting tagged by the media', who do not, he believes, wholly comprehend what an intense business modern Test cricket has become.

'When we were getting hammered by the Aussies last summer, everyone was saying that we should play it as hard and nasty as they do. But if we do, we get slated. I believe in being competitive, and in controlled aggression, but I certainly agree with stamping down on anything the wrong side of that line.

'As for not walking, no one does that in Test cricket any more, and I don't give a hard time to any batsman who nicks one and gets away with it any more than I expect a hard time back. I am aware that I have stayed in the crease too long at times after being given out, but I promise you that I do not do it on purpose, neither do I show dissent to umpires.

'Often it's a case of knowing you've played a bad shot and thinking: 'Bloody hell, why did I do that?' and then realising when you are walking off that it might have looked bad. As for sledging, I simply don't get involved.

'The reputation started in the Trinidad Test here in 1990, when Allan Lamb and myself were batting in what looked like a certain win for us on the final day, and Desmond Haynes, who was deputising as captain for Viv Richards, gave me no end of stick when I was out there.

'It was only my second Test, and what appeared to be me arguing with Desi was in fact me saying: 'Look mate, I'm not listening to you.' Lamby, in fact, came up to Des during a drinks break and told him he was out of order, and at the end of the game Des came up and apologised to me. He said he felt under so much pressure that he thought defeat would not only mean getting dropped, but also having his house burned down. Anyway, that was the end of it, and Desi and me have always got on well since, whether playing Tests, or in Middlesex-Surrey matches.'

That Test, after which England would have been 2-0 up with two to play but for a combination of rain and blatant West Indian time-wasting tactics, is enough to convince Stewart and the other survivors from that tour that England set off this time with a far better chance than the 14-1 shots they were quoted as at the time.

'I think,' Stewart said, 'that 14-1 must have been a bookies' gimmick. We accept that they are favourites, but there is seriously not a huge gap between the sides. If we can get off to a good start here in Jamaica, they are the sort of team whose heads can just drop a little.

'However, where they are dangerous is in suddenly carving into you when things are apparently going well. If they take a wicket they go up a gear, bowl even faster, and have a totally sharper edge. The old theory about looking at the scoreboard and imagining that you are two wickets worse off is the best way to guard against complacency.'

As for losing out on the captaincy, Stewart was the first to send Atherton a congratulatory telegram, and he is, in any event, the archetypal team man. If England asked Stewart to run backwards around the boundary with a pair of wicketkeeping gloves on his head, he would do it.

'Basically, it's an honour to play. There's nothing worse than being out of the side - as I have been - and making do with reading about it, or watching on TV. That's why, while I much prefer to open the batting, or at least to be in the top four as a specialist, I'll happily stand in as wicketkeeper/lower-order batter if they ask me. Jack (Russell) is the best keeper in the world, but if they want me to do the job for reasons of balance, or whatever the reason, then it's OK by me.

'In terms of the captaincy, I can honestly say that I never expected to get it once we hit a losing trough against India and Australia. If we had been winning, it would have been a natural progression from Goochie to myself, and I'd have been disappointed to miss out under those circumstances. But when things had gone wrong, and myself being closely associated with Goochie's style of leadership, I always thought they would go for a different type of character and outlook.

'The job went to Mike, and he knows he's got my full support. To his credit, he's already established a very good dressing-room atmosphere, and this tour in particular has been very enjoyable.'

Whether it is also successful remains to be seen, but in order for that to happen, a lot depends on players like Stewart. He has worked (as is his nature) tirelessly on his defence since his debut tour in 1990 here revealed technical deficiencies outside the off-stump, and he is now, after Robin Smith, the second most capped player in the team.

Stewart is also, lest we forget amid all the references to his professionalism, a wonderfully gifted strokeplayer, a vital attribute against opposition that can make a scoreboard grind to a halt by its attritional style. Stewart Jnr has more natural talent than the old man - a chip off the old blocker, you might say - and if the day is not already here when it is more a case of 'Alec's dad' than 'Micky's boy', then it soon ought to be.

(Photograph omitted)