Cricket: Strange source of Stewart steel

`I'm assuming I'll be opening, having opened in the last four Tests,' he says bluntly. He is a proud man, our Stewie
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THERE WAS very little to admire about England's performance in the second Test match against New Zealand at Lord's. They warmed up nicely and looked absolutely spiffing in their whites and that was about it. Apart, that is, from Alec Stewart's batting. The former captain rode his luck at times but played some exemplary pull shots through midwicket and generally looked to be back on song, so it was disappointing that he didn't build on his first innings 50 and second innings 35.

The undistinguished hoick that got him out to Daniel Vettori was, he admits, "poorly executed, but the sort of shot that can just as easily go for four or six". Anyway, the important thing is that Stewart kept his place for tomorrow's third Test, although he is one of three openers - the others being Atherton and Butcher - contesting two places. Does he expect to get the nod? "I'm assuming I'll be opening, having opened in the last four Tests," he says, bluntly. He is a proud man, our Stewie.

There is a slight Australian twang in Stewart's New Malden accent, a legacy of eight winters playing club cricket in Perth. Although he joined Surrey when he was 17, it is his experiences in Oz, he says, that have made him the cricketer he is. He is as tough as old boots, an unyielding competitor, and not above the odd bit of gamesmanship. Once, when Courtney Walsh claimed that Stewart had edged a catch behind, he stayed firmly at the crease,looking away from the umpire and rubbing his forearm extravagantly.

Whether or not he thinks he put bat on ball, Stewart is not letting on. "In a perfect world, if you nick it, you walk off," he says. "And if someone takes a catch knowing the batsman hasn't hit it, you don't appeal. But that's in fairyland now. It doesn't happen. I play within the laws of the game but there's nothing wrong with being very competitive. Everyone says how good the Australians are, that we should learn from them. But as soon as we do something like them, we get stick for it. When you're English you have to be seen to be whiter than white."

Stewart has been mightily influenced by his time in Australia. He learnt there that the ball was for hitting, not for leaving. And he admired the way the game is organised, from school level up. "It's called grade cricket and that's what it is. They grade people so that the best players, even at 10 and 11 years old, all play with and against each other. Here, at pretty much every level, there are four or five good players, a few reasonable players and a couple to make up the XI. That's great. It means that everyone gets a game. But if we want to improve our standards, let's get all the good players playing with and against each other, the average players doing the same, and when they improve they go up a level. It's common sense but it's not the English way."

Sound stuff. He might eschew alcohol, he might be suspicious of curries - "me and Jack Russell used to take our own food on tour to India and Pakistan, cup-a-soups, Pot Noodles, whatever. During the 1996 World Cup we were there for 43 days and I had breast of chicken, mashed potato and broccoli 43 days on the trot" - but Stewart is nevertheless every inch the cricketer's cricketer. He loves the game, thinks deeply about it, and has earned the respect of team-mates and opponents alike by playing hard and refusing to be intimidated. "In my second Test match I remember copping an earful from Desmond Haynes," he says. "Telling me I wasn't good enough and stuff like that. So I said a couple of things back to him. And afterwards he said `you stood up for yourself really well out there'."

We are talking in the Battersea boardroom of International Sponsorship Management, who represent Stewart, and afterwards we go to a nearby wine bar for a drink (a bottle of Becks for me, a Coke for him). He is an immensely likeable character, with not an ounce of side, and an unexpectedly merry sense of humour. He was plainly a popular captain, and an able one, too. It is easily forgotten that last summer, under Stewart, England beat mighty South Africa, our first victory in a major Test series for 12 years. Then, however, came a fairly resounding defeat in the Ashes. Does he think he made any mistakes? "Nothing glaring. But I lost every toss and two, at Adelaide and Sydney, were vital."

And so to the World Cup. I hate to mention it Alec, but ... "Yeah, well. We played good cricket in three games. We hammered Sri Lanka, Kenya and Zimbabwe. But we had two heavy defeats. And you talk about mistakes, at The Oval against South Africa we probably should have batted first. All the same, we had one foot in the Super Sixes, and we should have beaten India.

"I can't put into words how I felt. When we lost in the final in 1992 it was the biggest disappointment of my career. Until this. I felt as if we'd let the public down. I have to accept it but I won't ever get over it. Three or four of us knew it would be our last World Cup, I was captain, in my own country ..." He tails off. A mini-gloom descends. Did he watch the rest of the tournament on the telly? "Bits here and there. I was having a barbecue in the garden on the day of the final. Really, when England were out that was the end of it."

It was the end, too, of Stewart's captaincy. At Edinburgh Airport, as Surrey were heading home after playing Scotland in the NatWest, his mobile phone trilled. It was the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, with the news that he was being removed as captain in favour of Nasser Hussain. By then, Stewart had prepared himself for the bullet. And, characteristically, promptly phoned Hussain to offer his best wishes.

It was a blow, though, for he had long coveted the England captaincy and was a contender when Graham Gooch stepped down in 1993. "But I wasn't disappointed then. I probably wouldn't have been ready and if Athers were being honest he would maybe say the same. But he turned into a very good captain. And when he stood down after the Antigua Test, I knew I was in with a big shout." Sure enough, he got the job, in a restaurant at the Palace of Westminster of all venerable places, where he was being lunched by Graveney and Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the English Cricket Board.

In sport, those who give over lunch, taketh away over the phone. But at least the decision relieved Stewart of what many considered to be the overly onerous responsibility of captaining, batting up the order and keeping wicket. "From a selfish point of view I could have refused the wicketkeeping job," he says. "By choice I would rather play just as a batsman. But it suited the balance of the team and in any case, I've always really enjoyed keeping wicket."

Surprisingly, Stewart did not pull on a pair of wicketkeeping gloves until he was 16. Until he was 15, indeed, he favoured football over cricket. His sporting hero was his beloved Chelsea's John Hollins. To whom he now adds Alan Knott ("I must have got his autograph 100 times"), Gordon Greenidge ("very special"), Graham Gooch ("for what he achieved after the age of 35") and Pete Sampras ("in my view, the sportsman of the 1990s").

Not forgetting his father Mickey, of course, who had played cricket for Surrey and England, but also football for Charlton Athletic. Young Alec, a chip off the old block, played footie for Corinthian Casuals. But gradually it became clear that he would stand a better chance as a professional cricketer. His dad, the Surrey manager, offered him a contract. "He paid me next to nothing and stopped my pocket money at the same time," Stewart recalls, with a chuckle. He remains extremely close to the old man, his greatest fan but still his fiercest critic.

In 1981 Stewart faced his first ball in county cricket from none other than David Graveney - "he got me out in both innings and still won't let me forget it". His first ball in Test cricket, in 1989, was delivered by Patrick Patterson, and he smacked it for four. Who, I wonder, are the best bowlers he has faced?

"Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were brilliant together. They could bowl reverse swing at good pace and I've seen Waqar bowl balls that you just can't play. Curtly Ambrose you can't score off. Allan Donald is the quickest for maintaining his pace over seven or eight overs. But you have to back your ability against theirs. You want them to think `oh, no, it's Alec Stewart coming out'. If I had to name one bowler, it would be Shane Warne.

I followed Gatt when Warne bowled him with that ball in 1993. A great ball. He bowled a similar one to Herschelle Gibbs in the World Cup. I just about survived the rest of the over. We knew the wicket was turning, but ...."

Stewart shakes his head in awe. Of the best bowlers he has kept wicket to, he praises Steve Watkin and Alan Mullally for their ability to make the ball duck and dive, even after it has passed the bat, and Darren Gough and Angus Fraser for general excellence. "In my opinion, if Fraser hadn't had that hip injury, he would have ended up as England's leading wicket- taker," he says.

As for his Surrey team-mate Alex Tudor, Stewart declares himself a big fan. "I've known him since he was 15. He's got pace and height and now he needs consistency. As for his batting, he's only ever played as well in his back garden as he did at Edgbaston. Realistically, he's a Test No 8. He might just end up as a No 7. But people are giving it `the new Botham' and all that, and it's unfair to Tewds. There'll never be another Botham."

Stewart is well placed to make such judgments. He is 36 now, yet a formidably fit 36, who hopes to go on playing for England perhaps until he has acquired 100 Test caps. He already has 89, and at Lord's moved into the select band of England batsmen with 6,000 runs or more. More than 250 of those were scored in a single Test, against the West Indies in Barbados in 1994, when he made centuries in both innings. In the previous Test, England had been bowled out for 46. So let us not despair. The good times are clearly just around the corner.