Cricket: Stewart has to work hard to inspire global domination

With England's first match in the cricket World Cup 11 days away, their captain, wicketkeeper and opener is short of runs.
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The Independent Online
WITH CHAOS and clutter breaking out at every turn the last months of the 20th century have not been a good time for those seeking order and certainty like Alec Stewart, England's captain, opening bat and wicketkeeper. Drastically short of runs himself, and with most of his team looking as rusty and washed-up as a scuppered Liberian tanker during their pre-season tour of Sharjah, the omens of England lifting the World Cup for the first time are not looking promising.

The frustration does not end there and Stewart's inability to win the toss, coupled with a niggling pay dispute with the England and Wales Cricket Board, has further prevented him and the team from focusing on this so- far elusive goal. Meanwhile, efforts to put his run drought behind him by spending valuable time in the middle have been hit by inclement early season weather and the death of his grandmother. In short, turmoil has taken over and last week found him returning to that time-honoured therapy for ailing cricketers: net practice.

"I've been working here at The Oval with Alan Butcher, the Surrey coach, who knows my game well. When I'm playing at my best, everything flows and I just go out and do it. But if you are not scoring runs, and I haven't passed fifty in my last 18 one-day innings, each visit to the crease becomes a bit more desperate. The key is to be relaxed, which even with my vast experience is easier said than done."

Regaining confidence is never easy at this time of year when there is moisture in pitches and just as he makes the point, the third Surrey second- team batsman of the morning departs to some extravagant movement off the seam. Stewart is a finesser of a cricket ball not a biffer, and is not of the opinion shared by some that one juicy shot out of the screws is enough to cure his woes.

"My play relies on timing and as such I have never really been a huge front-foot player. At the moment it is the timing of my movement, including my feet, that is out of sync. By getting it right in the nets I can hopefully transfer it to the middle. I know when I'm playing well and when I have to work hard for my runs, and at the moment I'm having to work hard."

The England captain, at least outwardly, has never been one of life's panickers and this current dip in form has not suddenly sent him into a darkened room with the team's psychologist, Stephen Bull. "I'm not waking up in the middle of the night hanging myself, if that's what you mean," he says with a chuckle.

Even so, he has about five net sessions and two friendlies against Kent and Essex during England's 10-day training camp at Canterbury to right the wrongs. Even by cricket's normally languid standards, time is short.

"My job is to score runs and when you're not doing that it is only right to be concerned. Hopefully the fine tuning will be complete before we meet Sri Lanka at Lord's on the 14th."

He is, despite the laddish self-portrait painted by his recent book, A Captain's Diary, not really one of the boys either - at least not in the carousing, footballing sense of the word - and never really has been. A fiercely private man, he infuses the glorious futility of his sport with a termite work ethic that would leave most of his team-mates drained of enthusiasm. Discerning what motivates people like Stewart to be captain, wicketkeeper as well as opening bat, is not for those who live for late nights and lazy Sundays. Indeed, when I inquire whether three roles had perhaps become a chore too many, even for a workaholic of his capacity, he is quick to rebuff me.

"The one thing I will never do is neglect the batting or keeping side of things. Any shortcomings that may appear will never be down to not doing the work."

When I labour the point that mental space once dedicated solely to batting is surely being shared with other concerns like captaincy, he gives me a one of those "come off it, aren't we just complicating things" looks that players seem to reserve exclusively for pedants everywhere.

Unlike his batting, especially when it is on song, his captaincy lacks flair though few can deny the energy he assigns to the role. Instead he likes to lead by example and from the front, a trait that caused some confusion when England became embroiled in a tawdry squabble with their employers over contracts for the World Cup. Stewart, a natural for the role of shop steward, initially fronted the negotiations before handing over the horse trading to others. Not unnaturally, some in the squad felt the establishment had nobbled him though he claims the squad have been united throughout over their disaffection with the England and Wales Cricket Board.

"There is no doubt we could have done without the contract discussions and they have been an unnecessary distraction at this late stage. It was not so much about what we were getting paid, just that we should be better rewarded if we happened to win the trophy.

"The contract has been altered. I'm not saying its brilliant and I'm not saying its crap. In fact, it's not changed all that much from the original, which I'm thinking of having framed."

Give or take, the episode has been very poorly handled by the ECB, and by Simon Pack, the international teams director and a former Major-General in the Royal Marines, in particular. In keeping with their predecessors, the Test and County Cricket Board, there are still those at the ECB who appear intent on treating cricketers with the same patronising disdain usually reserved for irksome schoolboys. It was the ECB's "do as you are told" attitude in negotiations that provoked the players into wanting to release a public statement of dissatisfaction with the Board.

"I don't know if it will go ahead. It will certainly be discussed. We just want everyone to know that although we've all now signed our contracts it's been a cock-up and a complete pain in the neck. It should never have got to players having to negotiate terms with the Board two weeks before they had to be signed.

"We're not professional negotiators and that may mean getting in agents or a team rep to sort out any future contracts. As players, we certainly don't want to be in a position this winter of saying that the terms are no good. We know we are not going to be on a footballer's scale of pay. We simply want our just rewards for any success we might have."

As pointed out during Sharjah, success, and therefore bargaining power, have not been regularly supplied by this England side. One of the reasons for this is that they are notoriously slow starters, usually saving their best when it is too late. Even the win against South Africa last season, the first major Test series success for 11 years, came within a wicket of being irredeemable. The draw at Old Trafford turned England's fortunes and a potentially gloomy summer around. But if saved Tests sometimes allow you to regroup this World Cup, with its point system (two for a win, one for a tie or a no-result) and Super Six stage, demands consistency and winning ways from the outset.

"As I see it it's more of a World Cup league, right up until the semi- final. In the past, the World Cup has had a knock-out feel but with teams taking the points scored against the other sides going through to the Super Sixes with them every game is important.

"Our record at home is good but even so, the opening game against Sri Lanka at Lords is a huge one. Mind you, I'll be saying that about all of them and at the end of the day two good sides are not going to qualify. To make sure that we are not one of them we are just going to have to win every game."

In contrast to football no host nation has ever won the cricket World Cup. Mind you England, finalists on three occasions (though two of those were abroad), have had more chances than most at bucking the trend, and this will be the fourth occasion the contest has been held here. Was then the expectation of the British public, no doubt revved up by a eager media, likely to act as a burden or an inspiration?

"It's simple really. To win the World Cup we have to play consistent cricket over a seven-week period. If we don't someone else will win it, but that applies to every team. Although the weather will be an important factor, having a home crowd will be a great advantage for us."

If this is the rational side of things explained by one of the most rational and patriotic minds in cricket, how does a man who has lost 14 of his last 20 tosses, fancy his chances of winning it in the final on 20 June?

As the stat sinks in, the furrowed brow breaks to allow an impish grin and the England captain reveals his master plan for world domination.

"Well over here, I'll be flicking the coin, not doing the calling," he says with something verging on genuine relief. Indeed, if the sun does not shine and firm up the pitches his luck with the coin may be even more vital than a return to form with the bat.

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