Cricket: Uneasy sits Stewart's crown: England's captain in Sri Lanka cannot be completely his own man. Glenn Moore reports from Colombo

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ALEC STEWART, the new figurehead of English cricket, begins his reign this week knowing that his predecessor, while talking about abdication, is still very much around.

Neither is Stewart sure of an unchallenged accession when Graham Gooch finally steps aside or is executed by the Star Chamber at Lord's. With Mike Gatting heading a number of pretenders to the throne, Stewart may find his stewardship is no more than an interregnum between two gnarled and bearded veterans.

It puts the 29-year-old Surrey captain in a difficult position. Gooch's 'no gain without pain' regime has suffered a heavy blow to its philosophy during the current tour but, despite a moderate record during his charge (England have lost more Tests than they have won since Gooch took over for the second time in 1990), he retains the reputation of the man who revived English cricket.

With Gooch still likely to take back the crown this summer, Stewart can hardly criticise him, yet neither does he want to be too closely associated with an ideology which is being openly questioned.

In fact Stewart has had many years' experience of such situations. From his early days as a Surrey junior through to his rise to vice-captain of England he has met suggestions that his father Micky has had an undue influence on his success.

Yesterday he was saying and doing all the right things. Meeting the press, posing for a sponsors' video shoot for this summer's Ashes, all in pristine whites and blazer with not a wisp of stubble in sight.

After the customary, but genuine platitude, 'I am very pleased and honoured to be captain of my country', Stewart made it clear that anyone expecting the changing of the guard to lead to all- night parties, unscheduled air- flights and optional nets would be mistaken, especially when it came to optional nets.

'I captain in my own way but I agree with the way Graham has set things up in recent years,' he said. 'I think along similar lines. He leads by example, what he does he expects others to do.' Stewart added that he intended to maintain the ground rule of 'work hard, train hard and play hard - if you do things right you have a chance of winning.'

One area where Stewart has attracted criticism is in his tendency to spend too long soaking up the atmosphere of the crease when dismissed, notably where leg-before decisions are concerned. However, he has departed with alacrity in recent games.

'I am aware of what has been said and written,' he said. 'I accept fair and constructive criticism but I think some of the things that have been said have been very unfair. The way I accept decisions appears to have been misread. I accept decisions at all times. There is a difference between disappointment and dissent, and it has been disappointment that I have shown.'

Keith Fletcher, the England coach, whose loss of the captaincy after the corresponding tour 11 years ago had much to do with some impromptu carpentry on the stumps after being dismissed in Bangalore, added in defence: 'I think every batsman shows disappointment in different ways. There would be some funny stories written if he came back smiling.'

Stewart has always been a competitive cricketer, and he has also drawn criticism for the aggression of his appeals - he was fined in Sydney two years ago (by his father) for showing dissent to an umpire. As he has assumed greater responsibility he has reined in that aspect of his game and his main blot as Surrey skipper has been involvement in a match where his team were found guilty of ball-scuffing.

But that competitive streak is one of his strengths. He has been messed about by England, one day opening the innings, another wicketkeeping and batting down the order, sometimes both. While he would prefer simply to open he seems to relish his reputation as uncomplainingly shouldering any burden.

A keen Chelsea fan who answers to the title 'Gaffer' as Surrey captain, Stewart, when covering for a sick Gooch in Madras, led England to defeat, as did Allan Lamb on the three occasions he stepped in for an injured Gooch. The last time England won a Test under someone other than Gooch was in Melbourne in 1986 and the captain then, Gatting, is rapidly becoming his main opposition for the top job.

Stewart said he does 'not feel I'm on trial', but Fletcher hardly gave him a ringing vote of confidence when he said: 'It is going too far to say Alec is being groomed as the successor, he is one of the contenders, there are others in contention such as Mike Gatting and Martyn Moxon.'

Apart from being a huge blow to Mike Atherton, who at this rate will soon be below his county chief, Neil Fairbrother - not to mention Moxon, who is not even on this tour - in the skipper stakes, this represents an impressive rehabilitation for Gatting.

Faisalabad (Shakoor Rana), the Rothley Court Hotel (Ms barmaid) and South Africa all seem forgiven and Gatting was yesterday announced as the man to step in if Stewart meets a dodgy Colombo prawn. 'He is not vice-captain,' Bob Bennett, the tour manager, said, 'but he is senior pro.'

With the Ides of March approaching, Stewart clearly has an inkling of those gathering behind him and he added: 'I want to play as long as I can for England and am happy to play under anyone else if I am not captain.'

Defeat here, which is very possible, and he may have to prepare for a return to the ranks. However, the recent history of English cricket suggests it is a very unlucky captain who does not get a second chance.

ROBIN SMITH expects to be fit to play in this summer's Ashes series against Australia, despite a long-standing shoulder injury. Smith will see a specialist in Nottingham on his return from Sri Lanka in two weeks' time, but even should surgery be recommended, the right-hander does not expect to be out for long.

(Photograph omitted)