Cricket: Stewart floored by the flawed

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ALEC STEWART has been on enough tours with England to be acutely aware of the danger of battered morale leading to a fatal loss of self- esteem. The litany reads: Australia, 1990 and 1994; South Africa in 1995; West Indies, 1993 and earlier this year.

When he was asked in Adelaide, after losing to Australia by 205 runs, whether such a disintegration would not happen again, he did not deny the possibility, as David Lloyd, the team coach, might have done. "I've been a part of that when we've been losing here," he said, "and we've got to make sure it doesn't happen again. You've got to keep your heads up. There are a lot of disappointed people in our dressing-room, and somehow we've got to make sure we improve come Melbourne."

On Monday, Stewart's form had been a significant part of the problem. A first-innings duck brought his average for the series down to exactly 9.80 after five innings. When he came in to bat late on Monday, after the nightwatchman had been out fourth ball, we watched the bizarre spectacle of England's No 5 batsman refuse an easy single to protect the No 4 batsman from the bowling.

Dire muttering broke out immediately, but the salvage operation on Stewart's reputation began the next day - on the field, where, to his relief and to ours, he scored a positive 63 not out, staying in 148 minutes and facing 122 balls. But the off-the-field salvage had also begun.

Stewart's press conference at the end of the game was important because of the impact it has had on the Australian public. He appeared head up, jaw square, wearing his England cap, and an expression that ranged from penitent ("First, you've got to apologise"), to challenging ("All you guys said Australia were going to win the Ashes, so in my view it shouldn't come as a surprise to you that we haven't won it").

The impression is of a dignified man, capable of admitting what had gone wrong and refusing to give up. "He's not a whinger. I like his attitude," said my man in Melbourne, who thinks, perhaps unfairly, that Mike Atherton defines the whingeing Pom. It was not Atherton who insisted on complaining to the match referee after he had been given out caught by Mark Taylor at first slip. Apparently, that was a management initiative.

Stewart's recovery has more to do with a positive attitude than shrewd analysis: his explanation for England's inferiority in the series is that other teams have improved while England have stood still. "It's a matter of swings and roundabouts, and at the moment we're on the wrong end of them," he said. This begs the question of how England will move from the roundabouts to the swings. But Stewart goes on to defy logic and experience by adding: "If people outbowl us, outbat us and outcatch us, we're not winning, and that's what's happening, but there's no reason why we can't fight back here to draw the series."

There are plenty of reasons, of course, not least Stewart's description of Mark Taylor's Australian side as "magnificent, best in the world". But a good captain has to deny reason and select those aspects of experience that might prevent the mood of his team from crumpling. (Here's one: of the 18 Tests in the last 25 years at Melbourne and Sydney - where the last two will be played - England and Australia have each won nine. That's swings and roundabouts in operation.)

Most Australian cricket writers believe that performance is all in the head, and that England's batsmen are now fatally intimidated by Australia's bowlers. One so liked his remark that there are two types of bowling England can't play - speed and spin - that he used it twice in the same edition of his paper, The Australian.

Stewart is a plain man who doesn't have time for intangibles. "I'd like to think the people we've picked are strong characters, and we've come unstuck because of the way we've played." Some are stronger than others. Graeme Hick and John Crawley qualify as strong characters very intermittently indeed. Nasser Hussain seems self-absorbed. Mark Butcher is still hard to assess. No doubts about Stewart and Atherton; not many runs either - so far.

The sole character who appears stronger at this stage of the tour is Mark Ramprakash. Although the Australian players still like to provoke him, the crowds are warming to Ramprakash, applauding generously as he returns to the pavilion. His average of 68.50 from six innings - two not out - is the highest on either side. (Justin Langer is the best Australian with 67.00.)

Emphasising the positive, Stewart speaks well of England's bowling - "pretty good so far" - though that does not show in the averages. Gough, the top wicket taker with 10, is at 42.50; Cork, 41.25; Mullally, 40.00. This compares with 16 wickets at 18.56 for the Great McGrath.

I find Stewart's bewilderment over the consistency of England's under- performances sympathetic. "We've worked hard in the nets, and on the practice ground," he said, "but where it really counts, out in the middle, we haven't managed to do it."

To explain why is to harbour misgivings about the team's whole ethos, which elevates hard work into an end in itself. This infects every level of the England management - Stewart's captaincy, David Lloyd's and Bob Cottam's coaching, Graham Gooch's management, and the input of David Graveney and Mike Gatting as selectors.

Frankly, they are a pedestrian lot in a game that demands skill and flair as well as persistence and hard work. There are no trouble-makers on the team: no Andy Caddick, no Phil Tufnell. The selections of Alex Tudor at Perth and Peter Such at Adelaide were a pleasant surprise.

England may do as Stewart says they will try to do and square the series ("not an easy task," he admitted), but this sounds hopelessly improbable because the England team, unlike Australia, have never learned how to win. They lack the belief required to do so. As Stewart said: "Australia get into situations when the going gets tough, and they know how to come out of them. Because we haven't had as much success as we'd like, when it goes like that, we've gone down and they've gone ahead of us."

England don't learn to deal with crisis situations on the field by working hard in the nets. Surviving them requires simple self-belief from the players, not least in their talent, a strong dash of old-fashioned patriotism (Gough has it), and authoritative and imaginative leadership.

That last attribute is an important difference between the teams. There is now no alternative to Stewart, but Mark Taylor is in a different league. My friend in Melbourne says that Taylor is the best captain in the history of cricket (followed, incidentally, by W. G. Grace and Clive Lloyd).

He may not be kidding. But even if he is exaggerating, there is enough in the proposition to show how hard it is for Alec Stewart to bolster England's shaky morale.