Cricket: Stewart seeks staying power

THE build-up to the first Test of a summer series is always a predictable affair. Long before the Tories coined the slogan "New Labour - New Dangers", successive England captains were trotting out the "new season - new optimism" line that followed the inevitable series defeat abroad.

This time England have a new captain to put spin on the well-worn phrase and yesterday Alec Stewart was fizzing them out like Shane Warne in an attempt to explain why England's fortunes might be different under him.

So far the Stewart script has been unerringly faithful to the original, with soundbites such as: "If we play to our potential" and "As long as we bring more consistency to our game", etc etc. Indeed, you sense that Stewart has been so inundated with tired old cliches throughout his career that he has even begun to believe them.

"I've spoken to all the players, either individually or in pairs," said Stewart, after a rain-interrupted practice at Edgbaston. "I've told them what I expect of them and what England expects of them, which is to express themselves as they would do for their county."

Normally, this would count as good common sense, except that England players have tended to play that way all along, only to be tripped up by their Test opponents because of the weak nature of county cricket. What England need to find is the staying power necessary to compete against focused adversaries over a five-match series.

New captains are always under pressure to assert themselves and Stewart, though neither shy or retiring, is no different. Unsurprisingly, he has already made his mark by insisting that the England lions and coronet, placed for some reason above the heart for the one-day series, were put back in the middle of the sweater where they belong.

Taking on authority so early is a bold start and he will need to continue it on the field if England are to compete this summer. Australia apart, South Africa are cricket's most tenacious competitors, though in some ways their instinct for defence when under pressure mirrors England's.

"I hope it is hard, tough cricket," Stewart said. "It's the way international cricket should be. It's a competitive place. I know people are always worried about players overstepping the mark, but my main concern has always been respect for the game."

On the field, South Africa risk little, relying mainly on incisive spells from Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock to protect totals often cobbled together by their lengthy, but not stellar batting order.

The cricket ought to be intense, particularly during the opening exchanges when both sides will be working to gain that crucial early momentum. Having played here many times as Warwickshire's overseas players, Donald and Pollock will feel at home, although the pitch, according to Dennis Amiss, the Warwickshire secretary, "is not one they will recognise".

Over the past few years, Edgbaston has produced some fickle surfaces for Tests. In 1995, the one used against the West Indies not only left England beaten before lunch on the third day, but several batsmen nursing bruised chests and broken fingers.

"It looks flat, evenly grassed and a touch damp," said Stewart, who admitted he would have probably bowled first had the match started yesterday and not this morning. Mind you, with the entire square spending most of yesterday under five acres of Brumbrella, change will be minimal and Stewart's first toss in England could well be a vital one.

The uncertainty over the pitch's final appearance means that England will delay naming their 11 until this morning. With good weather forecast over the next few days, they dare not drop their only spinner and it will probably be between Dominic Cork and Dean Headley for the last bowling place.

Likewise, South Africa will decide between Lance Klusener and Brian McMillan, with Jonty Rhodes' recent run binge against Gloucestershire making sure of his berth in the middle-order.

It is, with his keeping duties bound to tire him, where Stewart has decided to bat as well, though he will start at four in this Test, with Nasser Hussain filling the troublesome No 3 spot behind the openers, Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher.

Asked whether, by keeping wicket, captaining, and batting in the top four, he was biting off more than he could chew? Stewart replied that he "liked challenges".

Just as well, because his biggest challenge is to get his team to assert themselves as much as their captain clearly intends to do. If he can, the old cliches can be made redundant and that oft-used word "optimism", at least when applied to England's cricketers, will cease to have a hollow ring.

ENGLAND (from): A Stewart (capt & wkt, Surrey), M Atherton (Lancs), M Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), G Thorpe (Surrey), M Ramprakash (Middlesex), D Cork (Derby), M Ealham (Kent), R Croft (Glamorgan), D Gough (Yorks), A Fraser (Middlesex), D Headley (Kent).

SOUTH AFRICA (from): W Cronje (capt), M Boucher (wkt), G Liebenberg, G Kirsten, J Kallis, D Cullinan, J Rhodes,S Pollock, L Klusener, A Donald, P Adams, B McMillan.

Umpires: R Tiffin (Zim) and D Shepherd (Eng).

TV umpire: J Hampshire (Eng).

Match referee: J Burki (Pak).

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