Cricket: Stewart's future in the balance

Second Test: Former England captain needs to impress or appearance on favourite ground may be his last international
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The Independent Online
IF LORD'S has proved something of a graveyard for England players in the past decade, one man in the current side has largely been immune.

Alec Stewart scored his first century on this ground and in 11 appearances has scored 1,031 runs at an average of well over 50. It is a fine record, bettered by only a handful of England players, and Stewart will be hoping that the special symbiosis is sustained over the next few days. If not, a fine career could be in danger of ending in ignominy, a fate this proud and patriotic man does not deserve.

Stewart has been through slumps before, but at 36, failure would almost certainly render any future recovery surplus to requirements. Despite an impeccable pedigree (he is currently the ninth-highest run- scorer for England with 5,969 Test runs), the one thing you learn as you get older is that the last chance saloon still kicks you out at closing time - whether you are a regular or not.

An eye player, rather than a solid technician, many feel Stewart will struggle. In recent years, several fine players, Richie Richardson being a prime example, found it hard to rekindle form once confidence - the key for players who rely on eye - had flown the roost.

If his captain and the selectors were playing down the severity of the situation with some well chosen words, the reality over the next few days will be pressure with knobs on. According to Graham Gooch, who found himself in a similar situation in 1989 when Terry Alderman wreaked havoc, the key is to stay as relaxed as possible - easier said than done when vultures and doom- mongers begin circling.

"Alec has the full support of everyone in the squad as well as the selectors," said Gooch yesterday. "We all want him to do well and dominate for England. But I've been through bad trots before and it is easy to try too hard, especially in your preparation.

"You have to think back to the things that stood you in good stead when you did well," reckoned Gooch, who also pointed out that Stewart was one of only two England players (the other being Mark Butcher) to have scored Test centuries in the past year.

"It is easy when things aren't going for you and confidence is low for your mindset to go into survival mode," said Gooch. "To me that would be a mistake because you tend to miss out on bad balls. Alec has to hit the ball and play freely, which is his natural way. That doesn't mean slogging, just positive rather than hopeful."

Hussain, who made his Test debut in the same match as Stewart, was equally behind his man. "Alec's fine and I wouldn't be surprised if you boys are writing about another Alec Stewart hundred," said Hussain after practice. The endorsement was not quite all-encompassing and Hussain did reveal that he would probably be taking Stewart's position in the slips.

"When you look at the boards in our dressing-room [they depict England centurions and takers of five wickets in an innings] Alec's name is up there. Several times, as it happens," revealed Hussain. "He knows there is no better stage than Lord's - a sell-out for the first three days - to prove all the doubters wrong."

He could do it, too, which would please all right-minded people. He may need a break or two and news that Simon Doull, the kind of nagging medium- pacer that tends to trouble Stewart, is unfit, may just be one of them. Mind you at Edgbaston, he did not survive long enough to see much of Doull, succumbing twice to Geoff Allott for 1 and 0.

Apart from his senior batsman, Hussain also knows that England need to prove one or two things themselves - consistency being the most important. "We are one up, and although Edgbaston was a good win, this is the important game and not just because it is at Lord's. England have always been capable of turning out good performances, it is putting together two or three in a row that has been a problem. In any case it's the match that's important not the venue."

At least this contest promises to last longer than the one at Edgbaston - where England extended their unbeaten run against New Zealand to 17 Tests - and the pitch has been described variously as "brown" and a "belter". Although overhead conditions can sway things - cloud nearly always helps the ball swing here - it looks like being a "proper" Test match, decided by what Hussain calls "proper Test match cricket". That means the bowlers on both sides should have to do more than turn up, while the batsmen can hope to build innings without the constant fear of each ball having their name on it.

With the recurrence of Darren Gough's calf injury making an appearance in this series unlikely, the opportunity for Alex Tudor to install himself is there for the taking. His fine innings at Edgbaston will have fuelled his confidence, and now he can release the handbrake and floor the accelerator, without having to watch for Gough in his rear-view mirror.

He will need to be aggressive as New Zealand's response to defeat is to replace a bowler, Doull, with an opening batsmen, Matthew Bell. It means they now bat down to nine and may take some shifting.

Test wickets on the ground where Tudor made his first-class debut as a gangly 17-year-old would surely do for his bowling what Edgbaston did for is batting. If it does, England will get the win their captain craves. A victory that will be made even sweeter should Stewart contribute as well.

ENGLAND (from): M A Butcher (Surrey), A J Stewart (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex, capt), G P Thorpe (Surrey), M A Ramprakash (Middlesex), A Habib (Leicestershire), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), A J Tudor (Surrey), A R Caddick (Somerset), A D Mullally (Leicestershire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex), D W Headley (Kent).

NEW ZEALAND (from): R G Twose, M J Horne, S P Fleming (capt), N J Astle, C D McMillan, C L Cairns, A C Parore (wkt), D J Nash, D L Vettori, G I Allott, M D Bell, C Z Harris.

Umpires: R Koertzen (RSA) and M Kitchen (Eng).

3rd Umpire: K Palmer (Eng).

Match referee: P Van der Merwe (SA).