Cricket: Stewart steers England to safety

The Ashes Series: Weakened Victoria attack is put resolutely in its place by resurgent captain's century
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The Independent Online
ALEC STEWART shrugged off his indifferent Ashes form to compile a well-timed century and lift England's morale against an under-strength Victoria side at the MCG yesterday.

Entering the match having reached double figures just twice in eight first-class innings, Stewart was badly in need of a significant score ahead of this week's Third Test in Adelaide as England attempt to recover from their seven-wicket mauling by Australia in Perth.

After enlisting the help of his father Micky, in Australia leading a supporters' tour, Stewart struck 126, which helped England out of trouble and steered them to a commanding 308 for 5 by the close.

Arriving at the crease with England struggling on 33 for 2 despite facing a Victoria line-up missing seven regular players, Stewart dominated the day's play and hammered 14 boundaries in four hours at the crease before running himself out.

"I've not had long enough at the crease on this tour to say whether I was in nick or not," Stewart admitted. "To spend time out in the middle was the most important thing for me and to get a century was a bonus.

"When you get out for single-figure scores and the occasional nought, it becomes a problem with your rhythm at the crease because you are not spending enough time there.

"On tour, it becomes especially difficult because you can have another week before you get another chance to have an innings. You can have as many nets as you like, but it's not the same as actually spending time out in the middle."

It was only Stewart's second first-class century this year and followed his second-innings 164 which contributed greatly to England's success in saving the Third Test against South Africa at Old Trafford in July.

His performance offset the disappointing early dismissals of John Crawley and Nasser Hussain against Victoria's second-string attack after they both fell victim to the lively early wicket at the MCG to leave England in trouble.

Crawley, promoted to the top of the order alongside Michael Atherton as a replacement for the rested Mark Butcher, was hoping to establish himself ahead of Graeme Hick in the England pecking order before Adelaide, when the tourists will debate whether to continue with their seven-batsman policy.

However, he lasted half an hour before edging Brad Williams behind to Peter Roach for eight after being surprised by extra bounce and late outswing. Hussain was also dismissed by unexpected bounce to become the 6ft 7in fast bowler Ashley Gilbert's maiden first-class wicket after fending a full-length delivery in the air and enabling Jason Arnberger the opportunity to take an adroit diving catch at short leg.

It brought Atherton and Stewart together at the crease, with both players in desperate need of runs after disappointing starts to the series, with neither of England's most experienced batsmen scoring a half-century in the opening two Tests.

Atherton went some way to restoring his confidence with a solid 46 before driving at a wide delivery from the swing bowler Matthew Innes which was brilliantly caught by Shawn Craig in the gully, having added 62 in 23 overs with his successor as England captain.

His departure was followed by the fall of Graham Thorpe, playing his first innings since pulling out of the Second Test with back trouble, for 19 when he edged behind, attempting to drive a turning delivery from the off-spinner John Davison.

Stewart and Mark Ramprakash, however, quickly dispelled Victoria's hopes of restricting England to a modest total with a 112-run partnership in 115 minutes off just 202 deliveries. Stewart's four-hour innings was ended when he attempted a risky two after pushing Davison down to fine leg and was defeated by Arnberger's accurate throw to the wicketkeeper Roach.

Ramprakash, dropped on 20 by Brad Hodge at slip off Jason Bakker, finished unbeaten on 61 having batted for over three hours while Hick improved his chances of selection in Adelaide by progressing to an unbeaten 37 off 60 deliveries.

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