Cricket: Steadfast Stewart takes centre stage with confidence

England's cricket captain intends to be his own man. Derek Pringle hears his plans for a new era
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The Independent Online
FOR the first time in almost five years, somebody other than Michael Atherton will be walking out to flip the coin on England's behalf. Fifty- one Tests is a long time to be under another, but Alec Stewart is about to step from beneath his predecessor's shadow and embark on a journey that even he was beginning to think he'd never make.

As adventures go, captaining England at cricket is not known for its bump-free ride. Stewart may be a veteran batsman of 74 Tests, but as captains go, he is still a chrysalis. When he walks out with Hansie Cronje tomorrow, butterflies he long thought extinct will flutter once more.

Nothing can prepare you for the skipper's job, the most exposed of all sports. All talk of captaining school sides and county juniors, or even county first teams (Stewart has done them all) cannot equip you for the harsh light of the spotlight about to pick out your every nuance, blemish and quirk. As for the more obvious things like success and failure, they will be hung high for public consumption on a grand scale - at least when the dust in France and Gazzaville has finally settled.

A sensible and proud family man, Stewart, now 35, does at least know what he is letting himself in for - something Atherton, only 25 when he was appointed in 1993, patently did not. With Dad having played for England as well as captaining Surrey, Stewart has long been aware of what is expected.

"There was always cricket chat about the house," explained Stewart. "In fact, there still is, and his advice to me as England captain is to ensure that my performance with bat and gloves are good. That way, the other part will hopefully become easier."

Stewart says he has been around long enough to know how international cricket works. But while that experience may help him avoid some of the pitfalls, it will not necessarily help him find a route to the peak, which is where England must find themselves - with or without match-winning bowlers - for his captaincy to be considered a success.

"South Africa's record," he concedes, "says they are a hard team to beat, and we'll have to play to our full potential to win the series. In the past we've played winning cricket, though too many indifferent matches have meant it has been the exception rather than the rule. As captain I'll be trying to make sure that ratio improves to the point where we are more successful."

Educated, at least in the cricketing sense, via Surrey's swingeing school of old pros, Stewart straddles two eras. It may explain why he upholds the traditional standards of tie and blazer while indulging in the sharper modern practices of gamesmanship, such as appealing when the ball has passed, but not actually taken, the edge of the bat.

However, the fact that he is no angel - despite the blonde hair and juttingly clean shaven chin - is a good thing. Providing the old farts and the constant drip drip of Lord Maclaurin's "image is everything" don't emasculate him completely, England will hopefully begin to flex the spine they had begun to find under Atherton.

"I'm not going to change the way I play just because I'm England captain," Stewart said. "I've played Test cricket for eight years and I believe I play hard and fair. In any case, as Athers said the other day, the most important thing is to win. If you do that, the microscope is not so harsh."

Interference from outside the dressing-room, can present a problem to any captain. Apart from the sapping demands of keeping wicket and batting in the top four - which surely threaten to spread even his supreme energy and focus too thinly - one of Stewart's potential flaws is that he is a populist.

In a game where so-called experts seemingly outnumber the playing population 100 to 1, it is easy to become disoriented, even by well intended advice, and if there is one rule his predecessor insists he should adhere to, it is to be his own man.

"I'm definitely going to do it my way," he insists, a victim no doubt of the recent aural pummelling handed out in recent weeks by Old Blue Eyes' signature tune. "You might see a bit of Atherton, or a bit of Gooch, or any of the captains I've played under. It's inevitable really as you absorb bits and pieces from everyone."

Captaining his country is something Stewart has always wanted, a desire in his case that comes from deep in the genes more than from any craving for power."I don't want any of the players to look at me differently now I'm skipper," he says. "I'm determined to remain the same open person in the dressing-room that I always have been."

Ambition can be a dirty word, especially in cricket, where it is better dressed up in sheep's clothing than presented in its naked state. However, although a conspicuous lack of trumpet blowing on Stewart's part perhaps betrayed his need to conform in the past, the dream never faded. Indeed, when I interviewed him in New Zealand 14 months ago, he still harboured desires to captain England.

Having been close once before, when Graham Gooch resigned in 1993, Stewart probably reasoned he could be close again, despite having been replaced as vice-captain by Nasser Hussain, ironically his only rival following Atherton's resignation.

A swell-chested patriot - something else he inherited from Dad - Stewart can assume what most other captains have to earn: the undying loyalty and respect of his players. As a hard worker in the Gooch mould, he will also expect others to match his exacting standards of preparation and fitness.

But hard work, so often the disguise for other weaknesses, has been tried before with only sporadic success. Surely it was time to admit that while England have become less prone to collapse, they still lack the ruthless streak that divides the cricket world into its two distinct species - predators and prey?

"As someone who has played Grade cricket in Perth as well as many Test matches against them, I respect the Aussies enormously. More than any other team, they recognise the moment to go in for the kill. If we are going to compete, that is what we must do."