Cricket: Stewart's success based on clarity

Cricket: England's captain is deservedly reaping the rewards of his meticulous approach to leading his country
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The Independent Online
WHEN ALEC Stewart went up to collect the spoils of victory on Wednesday, he was offered the winner's cheque first. Mindful of the jubilant crowd, and the 12-year wait endured by them and cricket supporters everywhere, he asked instead to be handed the trophy, which he brandished with glee. Symbolism is a powerful part of the Stewart make-up.

Much is written about the avarice of the modern sportsman, so a tale to the contrary is always heartening. Not that Stewart likes money any less than the next man, only that during emotive moments as powerful as those on Monday, he has the decorum to get his priorities right.

It would not be churlish to say that Stewart has probably spent a long time dreaming of the moment that eventually fell his way at 11.30 am at Headingley. Losing out to Michael Atherton, in the captaincy contest to replace Graham Gooch in 1993, he had never quite given up hope.

He even managed to overcome his initial envy, going on to become a trusted lieutenant before eventually being replaced by Nasser Hussain, his closest rival when the captaincy was up for grabs at the beginning of the season.

And yet Stewart has clearly always believed that fate would somehow deal him the winning hand. When England teetered on the precipice and followed on at Old Trafford, Stewart, after a moving dressing-room speech, went out and scored 164.

Although made in slightly less demanding circumstances that Atherton's epic in Johannnesburg three years earlier - at Manchester South Africa were missing both Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener - Stewart's knock did more than most to make the game safe. As the post-series analysis has revealed, all subsequent roads lead back to Old Trafford. It is from there that the Stewart destiny began to gather momentum.

Inevitably, comparisons between captains current and past, are sure to be made, with perhaps the more uncharitable claiming that Stewart has more of what it takes than his predecessor. Such claims would be unfair. More accurate might be the assessment that as captain, Stewart simply reaped the benefits England had been promising for some time.

In some ways his captaincy is an extension of what went before. But, as players, there is a whole ethos between Stewart's silky extravagance with the bat and Atherton's dour collecting of runs. Yet if both are revered by team-mates, they are also tough, uncompromising characters, whose self- sufficiency leaves few able to claim an intimate knowledge of them.

Where Stewart does score over Atherton, other than in the grooming stakes, is that he appears happier talking in front of the players. One of David Gower's weaknesses as a captain was that he assumed most players - having become good enough to play for England - knew what was expected of them. As a result communication was minimal.

Stewart, on the other hand, leaves nothing to chance and he has already admitted that he is unafraid to state the "bleedin' obvious" to his charges, and then repeat it. He is more demonstrative too, and his presence on the field even when employing standard field settings, tends to attract more attention. By contrast, Atherton liked to conduct matters with the minimum of fuss.

There are few grey areas when it comes to captaining your country at cricket. Unless a series is drawn, you are either a hero or a villain and it is perhaps worth remembering that at Old Trafford, England were in the words of Angus Fraser: "A ball away from ignominy".

Away from cricket, Stewart has had to cope with serious illness to his wife and his mother, now both happily recovered. When the precariousness of life is pushed under your nose, you tend not to worry about whether keeping wicket, batting and captaining are too demanding.

Like Graham Gooch, he is fit and determined enough to do the job for several more years, and providing England do not capitulate in Australia, the suggestion that his appointment was that of a stop-gap, no longer holds water.

Whatever his motives, and a mixture of overt patriotism and the desire to show off occasionally are among them, Stewart is a populist, and he will be revelling in England's triumph. Rightly so, too, for South Africa are a tough side to beat. After allowing the visitors to take a 1-0 lead, his team can be proud of their comeback.

Credit has to spread and there is a management structure of coaches, psychologists and fitness trainers, as well as the players to be included in the roll of honour.

Nevertheless, while England had already become better able to withstand the pressure encountered at Test level, they at last appear to have proved able to convert it into winning ways.

There can be no doubting that England played potent cricket at Trent Bridge and Headingley, dovetailing their performances as all good teams must if they are to be consistent. It should get better too, provided Graham Thorpe returns soon and England are able to find a top-class spinner.

But before people begin to think that world domination is upon us, remember: a month ago England were as close as you can get to having a fruitless summer. Two Tests later, though, the nation is rejoicing. Perhaps it is successfully crossing such fine lines that is the making of great captains.