Cricket: Stewart's best option is to gamble on attack

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE IS an interesting passage in Alec Stewart's new book A Captain's Diary (yes, really) in which he discusses Shane Warne's captaincy in the recent one-day series in Australia.

Warne, you will remember, stood in for Steve Waugh, and didn't just prove an able deputy - he changed the face of one-day cricket. Whenever Australia were in a corner, Warne counter-attacked, getting out of trouble with the same gambler's instinct that got him into it in the Colombo casino where he met John the bookmaker.

Stewart concedes that Warne's gambles were effective, but quickly adds that maybe it's easier to take risks when you're not the regular captain.

This is the authentic voice of the old English pro. It's an understandable put-down, but not a very convincing one. Most of us are more cautious, not less, when we are only in charge because the boss is off sick.

England ended up a distant second to Australia in that series. Then they went to Sharjah, and came an even more distant third to Pakistan, whose sudden revival is based on Wasim Akram finding another fast bowler to match his own fire and flair - Shoaib Akhtar. Between them, Warne and Wasim, both great Test cricketers, have given one-day cricket a healthy shove in the direction of the five-day game. At last, one-day captains are recognising that attack is the best form of defence.

If matches can be won by aggressive bowling and field placing in Sharjah, where the pitch is baked mud and the temperature nudges 100F, then that will be doubly true on a grey May morning at Derby or Cardiff. If England are to go far in this World Cup, they will need to attack. Stewart has it in him to do this. His make-up is an interesting mixture of defence and attack. As captain of Surrey, he was apt to be too regimented, in the words of his own coach, Dave Gilbert. And he is the last man you would ever run into in a casino, not least because he likes to go bed at 9.30.

But since handing that job over to Adam Hollioake (another gambler), Stewart seems to have come round to the view that he erred on the side of caution. Last summer, his England team immediately showed more of a cutting edge than Mike Atherton's had.

Allan Donald, in his new book, goes so far as to say that Stewart's England are even more aggressive on the field than the Australians. This is either high praise or a terrible calumny, depending on your point of view. That aggression paid off, as England pulled off a memorable, if narrow, Test series victory. But when the Ashes came along, a few months later, Stewart set defensive fields for Steve Waugh and Ian Healy early on at Brisbane. Both made hundreds, and although England escaped with a rain-assisted draw, the tone had been set. Australia won the next two Tests in style.

Again, Stewart seemed to realise his mistake. For the fourth Test at Melbourne, he put his foot down much harder on the gas, and raced to a famous victory. England remained pumped-up in the final Test, and it almost worked. But in the one-day series they gradually went flat.

Stewart the captain seems to be the opposite of Stewart the batsman (it has happened before - think of Ian Botham, Mike Brearley or Mark Taylor). At the crease, Stewart is a cavalier who can be a roundhead when he has to. At the helm, he is a roundhead who has to push himself into doing anything cavalier.

In England's final warm-up on Tuesday, Stewart soon had Hampshire on the ropes. But even at 26 for 4, he gave Mark Ealham only two slips. At the other end Alan Mullally, or Al Mullal as Stewart invariably refers to him, was allowed three slips, but no gully. Warne would have posted three slips and a gully for Ealham, and three slips, a gully and a short leg for Mullally. Sure enough, several edges went through the gap between second or third slip and backward point.

My hope is that Stewart will attack from 10.45am on Friday, and keep on attacking. That is how Sri Lanka won the World Cup in 1996, with the dashing blades of their pinch-hitters. And it is how Pakistan won in 1992, with Inzamam's batting and Wasim's bowling.

England's only realistic hope of going all the way this time is to play to their somewhat limited strengths. They are poor outfielders, but good slip catchers - so let's have plenty of slips. They lack reliable allrounders, but have four good opening bowlers - Gough, Mullally, Ian Austin and Angus Fraser. The assumption is that you can't play all four together, because then you have two No 10 batsmen and two No 11s, but it shouldn't be ruled out. If that lot hit the spot on a soggy morning, they will hardly need to put their pads on later.

England's weakness in one-day games under Stewart has been in the middle of their opponents' innings, when they tend to switch to autopilot and allow the score to tick along at five an over. The best thing Stewart can do for his team - better, even, than finding his batting form - is to make sure that doesn't happen by keeping the pressure on throughout.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly