Cricket: Stewart's epic labour of glove

Derek Pringle studies the double life of England's singular success on tour
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The Independent Online
When things are not going well, teams - even for the best of team men - can be difficult places to retain your sanity as doubt and fear of failure become as contagious as Hong Kong flu, often with the same debilitating results.

However, throughout England's sorry decline since the first Test of last summer, one man has been immune to the shortcomings of those around him, so much so that he ended 1996 as the year's highest run-scorer in Test cricket. This was some achievement, as for the most part he was doubling up as England's wicketkeeper.

Alec Stewart is not everyone's idea of a renaissance man. For one thing the Surrey captain is too orderly and neat, even around the edges of his life, which are as crisp and clear-cut as his immaculately pressed whites. He probably even squeezes his toothpaste from the bottom up. Nevertheless, he is the closest England have ever come to replacing Ian Botham, an all- rounder whose boldness and approach rewrote the rules of on-field engagement.

It is a role Stewart has worked hard to shape up for, taking copious amounts of something called Juice Plus (believed to be both natural and legal) and putting in extra hours with England's trainer, Dean Riddle. The results, for a man just shy of his 34th birthday, have been impressive, enabling him to spend virtually the whole of the first three days of last week's Test on the field of play. It was a remarkable feat of endurance, although ultimately overshadowed by the drama of the final afternoon.

Time alone does not tell the half of it. Add in the concentration, the thousands of hairline judgements and decisions needed in scoring a brilliant six-hour century, and 132 overs of wicketkeeping (four catches, five byes and a dislocated finger) and his effort takes on astounding proportions.

Form, of course, is the key. It is the sportsman's Holy Grail; forever sought but rarely found. Once discovered, though, it is even more difficult to keep a grip on for for long, which makes Stewart's run - stretching back to June - all the more remarkable."I don't know if it's the best form of my career," he said while taking a well-earned rest as his team- mates took on New Zealand A in Wanganui and weighing up the merits of his unforgettable back-to-back hundreds in Barbados in 1994. "But it's certainly gone on longer than the others."

A year ago, during a fallow tour of South Africa, things were rather different. Poor footwork lay at the heart of his problems, but there was a good reason. "In the warm-up games we were playing against weak attacks on flat pitches. In the Tests it was Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock on zippy pitches. I was just late into position all the time and instead of moving my feet from habit, I had to think about it."

Clearly perturbed, he set about putting things right the moment he got back, working hard with his father Mickey and Geoff Arnold, who took turns feeding the bowling machine. "Actually I prefer that to the human option. Machines are so accurate you can groove your shots, which is why Athers has recently been using one to help get his footwork back again."

What is intriguing about Stewart's present run of form is that it flies in the face of all the theories that keeping wicket compromised his batting, and that he wasn't overkeen to be wearing the gloves anyway. The truth is slightly different.

"My problem over keeping for England in the past was based on three things: not knowing if I was doing it, when I was doing it or where I was going to bat. I'm used to batting in the top three so when I went down to five or six I felt a bit out of sorts as I'm better off against the harder ball.

"I enjoy keeping, and now all those things have been cleared up I can prepare accordingly. In fact I feel I've improved over the last year. By doing it more, I've had to work at it more."

Through tragic circumstances, the recent death of Graham Kersey, Surrey's wicketkeeper, will probably mean an increase in Stewart's wicketkeeping workload for his county, which was previously confined largely to one- day matches. Is it an extra burden he wants to take on?

"It's something I will have to look at closely when I get back from tour. Obviously I'll have to do the right amount at Surrey now that I'm in possession of the gloves for England. But doing a whole county season must have something of a question mark against it."

What there is no question mark about is his ongoing fitness and dedication to the role now asked of him. It is an outlook he picked up from Graham Gooch, the player from whom he claims to have learned most. "Obviously I started with Dad's influence, but really his and Goochie's were so similar that Graham's was just a continuation of that. I look up to Graham more than anyone I've ever played with, and I'm a total believer in his philosophy of preparing so you leave nothing to chance. At least that way you can't blame yourself if things go wrong."

As Gooch's vice-captain, Stewart was perhaps closer than most to the great moustachioed one, and he was undoubtedly Gooch's preferred successor when he resigned the captaincy in 1993. Mind you, that closeness probably counted against him eventually and it was Michael Atherton who was asked to make a "fresh start".

At the time and with his Oxbridge connections, Atherton was seen as the establishment's man. Indeed, many billed the contest for the job as being between the Cambridge toff and the London oik. In truth, neither label was accurate. If anything, Stewart is the more establishment figure, though the powers that be misread him.

Before this tour he was relieved of the vice-captaincy he had held since 1993, after the selectors, searching for a younger man, appointed Nasser Hussain. "You're always disappointed when something gets taken away from you," Stewart said. "But it's a title that probably doesn't mean that much. Anyway, I'm still asked for advice, probably even more so now that I'm keeping wicket."

It is from there that he got an excellent view of the last afternoon of the Auckland Test. "We got them nine wickets down so quickly that we expected the No 11 to roll over as well. In hindsight, perhaps we should have tried something off the wall, but at the time we all felt we had to back our front-line bowlers.

"In the end the pitch proved too slow and flat and Danny Morrison managed to stonewall us while Nathan Astle scored the runs. Hopefully we'll be wiser next time around."