Cricket: Testing time for Stewart: Martin Johnson on today's quarter-final ties in the Benson and Hedges Cup

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The Independent Online
THE OVAL has been the setting for one of cricket's less edifying soap operas in recent years - the soap having mostly been used to clean the blood off the dressing-room steps - but a few months after feeling like shoving his head in one of the gasometers, Alec Stewart finds himself leading a harmonious and winning team.

Surrey won their first eight matches before suffering a setback against Northamptonshire yesterday, and are looking to provide further evidence in today's Benson and Hedges Cup quarter-finals that they are now more adept at fighting other people than themselves.

Shortly after the start of England's winter tour to the West Indies, Stewart was thinking about resigning the captaincy in the aftermath of the dismissal of the bowling coach, Geoff Arnold, and his overt discontent was further fuelled by the disbanding of the cricket committee.

However, the new regime - involving the promotion of Grahame Clinton from the 2nd XI to work alongside Graham Dilley - has left Stewart with lipstick rather than logos on his collar in the new kiss- and-make-up atmosphere, although as Surrey's opponents, the revamped Nottinghamshire, are unbeaten, Trent Bridge today represents the most serious test yet for the Surrey bandwagon.

With Stewart having finally got rid of the wicketkeeping gloves for England (although he will be wearing them today), Stephen Rhodes is widely fancied to be strapping them on in the first Test on Thursday week, and he plays in one of three Midlands matches.

Worcestershire do not have to travel very far to Derby, in that they were already there for a Championship game. Derbyshire are the holders, and with the begging bowl permanently out at the County Ground, they could do with winning all four competitions to placate the bank manager.

Essex, in the post-Derek Pringle, Neil Foster era, were widely expected to do not much better than they did last summer, but with Graham Gooch still taking the Cliff Richard tablets, and their Australian fast bowler Michael Kasprowicz proving a useful signing, they have made an impressive start.

They travel to Southampton to face Hampshire, for whom Robin Smith has something to prove after being accused by the England team manager, Keith Fletcher, and the new chairman, Ray Illingworth, of allowing business interests to interfere with his cricket.

Warwickshire, winners of a remarkable NatWest Cup final last summer, take on Kent at Edgbaston. Kent are another well organised one-day side, who are understandably keen to improve on having been runners-up in three different competitions in the past two years.