Cricket: Stewart beats off challenge

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IF THE England selectors had any lingering doubt about Alec Stewart's captaincy qualities after they appointed him in May, they have long since disappeared. As England prepared for their one-off Test against Sri Lanka at the Oval yesterday by sending for another spinner, the England and Wales Cricket Board announced that Stewart had been made captain for both the Ashes campaign as well as next year's World Cup. In short, cricket's two holy grails.

Considering that England began the season with two captains sharing Test and one-day duties, the return to an all- embracing role confirms the regard in which Stewart's leadership is now held, something Adam Hollioake, the one-day captain until recently, has not been able to match.

"We are all very impressed with how Alec has taken to the job," said the chairman of selectors, David Graveney. "To begin with we were unsure of his workload, but he has done very well. His appointment to both jobs puts an end to the speculation surrounding the World Cup, and hopefully we can now start building a team."

Stewart, who as captain, wicketkeeper and top-order batsmen, has had to cope with a trio of demanding roles, was typically upbeat. "Captaining your country," he said, "is the highest honour you can have in the game and I'm enormously grateful to be given the chance to continue in that role.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed both the challenge of leadership and the success we have had this summer, and I hope both I and my team-mates can repeat that success in the coming months."

There is nothing quite like a Test series victory for making up minds and the appointment by the selection panel was apparently both prompt and unanimous. What did take time, however, was the decision over whether or not to send him to the Wills International Cup, due to be held in Bangladesh during October.

The contest, which is being held to raise money for the International Cricket Council's development fund, clashes with England's arrival in Australia. Over the years the Aussies have made enough laughing stocks out of recent England teams without one arriving there captainless.

After much prevarication, not least because the ECB had undertaken to send their strongest possible side, it was decided that it would be better for Stewart to be with his side preparing for the Ashes in Perth.

In other words, England have plumped to send their captain to the Waca, rather than Dacca, arguing, rightly in this instance, that the idiosyncratic conditions - high bouncing pitch and strong wind - needed to be experienced before the second Test there in early December.

It is a delicate situation and one that will no doubt attract criticism from certain quarters of the ICC. At the moment England are skirting the issue by pointing out that 38 players were shortlisted for the World Cup and that they are still some way off knowing what their strongest one- day team is.

However, with one dilemma seemingly resolved, another rolled into view as the teams arrived at the Oval for practice. Expecting a typical hard bouncy pitch, the players were instead confronted with a bare low-bouncing surface. Sri Lanka, with about six spinners to choose from, could barely contain their delight, England packed off Alan Mullally and sent for Robert Croft.

The state of the pitch has clearly caught England on the hop. Should both spinners play, as now looks likely, Ben Hollioake, as earlier in the summer at Old Trafford, will again be the man to miss out.

Still, as big brother will no doubt tell him, there is always Bangladesh.