Cricket: Stewart finds his way back to form

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The Independent Online
reports from Pietermaritzburg

Combined SA Universities 269-8 dec; England 186-2

There may only be two shopping days left until Christmas, but even fewer are now available for England to prepare themselves for the festive season and the crucial last two Tests.

Unless England get a second innings today, the only purpose this game has served is to confirm to yet another candidate - in this case, Jason Gallian - that the No 3 slot remains jinxed, and that when the mood takes him, Alec Stewart, who spent just over four hours over an unbeaten 89, has not entirely lost the ability to play a long, responsible innings.

It was a significant knock for Stewart, who needs to prove to himself as much as anyone he is not just a dasher down on his luck. On a slow pitch against some accurate if slightly negative spin bowling, by Nicky Boje and Mark Davis, he played the ball on merit, something few Test batsmen do when returning to their counties after a Test match. True, he started off with some trademark swishes outside the off stump, but once his captain had departed for 50, he knuckled down, blending languid drives with hard graft.

Stewart has not scored a Test hundred since the Lord's Test against New Zealand in 1994. Since that occasion, he has passed 50 only three times in Tests, having not played a major innings in his last 14 attempts.

During that time, a spate of finger injuries as well as a spell in the middle order - when he was asked to keep wicket - could well have proved distracting, but it is still a worrying record for such a fluent player, and one who nearly always gets off to a healthy start.

Whatever the reason, he has clearly been distracted of late. His dismissal in the second Test, when he missed a straight half-volley from Brian McMillan, was the dismissal of a man whose mind had wandered off at the Wanderers and his lazy cut to gully in the last Test, the hard work done, was culpable behaviour for a man of his talent and experience. A fact he is at least aware of, as yesterday's hard-won runs clearly showed.

But if Stewart's day proved of some value to the selectors in sorting out the top order, they learnt nothing from Gallian's attempt at No 3, the Lancashire opener cutting his first aggressive shot straight to square cover.

Having just done well in Pakistan, a country famous for the slowness of its pitches and the cunning of its slow bowlers, Gallian should have been primed and ready to go. He was not, and unless the captains contrive a finish that allows England a second innings he will go into Boxing Day's Test with the almost unprecedented record of having been selected with only three runs to his name in Africa.

(Second day of three; SA Universities won toss)

COMBINED SA UNIVERSITIES - First Innings

(Overnight: 253 for 6)

N Pothas c Smith b Watkinson 147

N Boje c Atherton b Ilott 51

B P Horan not out 1

Extras (lb2, w1, nb3) 6

Total (for 8 dec, 86.1 overs) 269

Fall: 1-6, 2-19, 3-23, 4-23, 5-23, 6-108, 7-265, 8-269.

Did not bat: J D Albanie, J September.

Bowling: Ilott 24-6-89-6; Martin 11-5-33-1; Gallian 5-0-19-0; Watkinson 17.1-4-54-1; Illingworth 24-3-65-0; Hick 5-0-7-0.

ENGLAND - First Innings

*M A Atherton c Liebenberg b Boje 50

A J Stewart not out 89

J E R Gallian c Wessels b Albane 3

G P Thorpe not out 37

Extras (b4, w1, nb2) 7

Total (for 2, 78 overs) 186

Fall: 1-86, 2-104.

To bat: G A Hick, R A Smith, R C Russell, M Watkinson, P J Martin, R K Illingworth, M C Ilott.

Bowling: Albane 9-2-32-1; September 12-2-29-0; Davis 31-8-43-0; Horan 4-0-11-0; Boje 13-1-45-1; Wandrag 9-2-22-0.

Umpires: R B Shah and S F Marais.

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