Cricket World Cup: The sergeant's major ambition

The Interview: Alec Stewart, captain of England
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The Independent Online
IT HAS BEEN almost a year since Alec Stewart was unveiled before the assembled cameras and scribes as the official England cricket captain. A topsy-turvy year on, you search for a few extra grey hairs or an extra wrinkle of anxiety, any sign at all that captaining a neurotic team has brought him a step closer to the psychiatrist's couch. You search in vain. He is there on the front cover of his Ashes Tour diary, along with a total of 24 England lions, three on a background logo, three on his England blazer and the remainder on his England tie, all crisp and neat and even. Cricket's Head of Sales, as Lord MacLaurin termed him at his auditioning dinner at the House of Lords. And he could be just that; head of sales.

Now the sales pitch must start in earnest, at Lord's on Friday, when Stewart leads his England team out for the opening fixture of the seventh World Cup against Sri Lanka, the defending champions. As if captaining, batting and wicketkeeping was not enough, Stewart has the future of English cricket heaped on to his plate because it is widely presumed that the success of the tournament - and, by implication, the interest of a generation - will be inextricably linked to the fortunes of the home team.

Light the public imagination as England's footballers did in Euro 96 and cricket can legitimately compete for space in newspapers, on the streets and in the pubs with Manchester United's push for the treble; flounder as England did at the last World Cup three years ago and the health of the other national game will be back in the casualty department where it lay for much of last summer.

The strain of dividing the public image from the private man exhausted his predecessor, Mike Atherton. Stewart watched his opening partner from the next peg, watched him wrestle every day with the cricketing equivalent of the Rubik Cube and watched what adversity did to a man of great personal courage and unrelenting commitment. In the end, Atherton was shouldering a whole team's cares. Stewart is not a man of reflection. He has a rock- solid all-purpose philosophy, largely inherited from his father Micky, but streaked with elements of his time in Australia. Today and tomorrow are what matters; yesterday he can take or leave. Sport is to be played hard, rough but fair. You never walk, but if the umpire gives you out, there can be no complaint. Leadership comes from the front without frills or psychobabble.

"Don't forget, I've only done the job for a year, but I'd been playing international cricket for 10 years, so I knew pretty well what I was taking on. Ath did it for four years and 50 Tests and goodness knows how many one-dayers. We've had some success, beating South Africa, which helps. It doesn't wear me down. I do feel more disappointment - there, I'm using that word again - because I feel more responsible for the team, but at the same time I enjoy victory that little bit more for the same reasons.

"What I've tried to do is be honest with people, with the media, with my players. At press conferences, I'll always look after my team and some things I've said in the dressing-room will stay there, no one will know what's been said, but if we've not performed, I'll say so and if I walk in and say I thought we did really well today, I'll mean that too. It's the same with the team, I'll be honest with them and they have to be honest with me. It's the only way."

Only rarely in the 252 pages of his Tour diary does Stewart allow himself the luxury of emotional extreme. The rest is relentlessly upbeat and matter-of-fact, so full of footballing shorthand, of Fizzy (Wayne Morton, the physio) and Nass and Creepy (Crawley) and Goughie, that the glossary contains a full translation of the nicknames (easily the best is "Smoky" for Adam Hollioake). But, in Sydney on 10 February, England's ability to turn certain victory into inevitable defeat shattered even their upright captain's resolution. "I can't recall being quite so upset or angry about losing a game as I was after we went down in this one," he wrote. Needing 36 in 7.5 overs with six wickets in hand to go one up against Australia in the final of the triangular series, England contrived to lose by 10 runs.

Stewart, together with Brian Murgatroyd, the media relations officer of the England and Wales Cricket Board and Stewart's diarist, and Malcolm Ashton, the England scorer, sat in the empty changing-room at the SCG for an hour, contemplating the full extent of England's incompetence. At last a chance to get their own back on the old tormentor; then another blown fuse. After three and a half months of determined chipperness, Stewart's morale finally broke, if only for an hour.

"That's when I get down, disappointed, whatever you like to call it," he says. "You've got to control yourself because there's no point in ranting and raving about it. Everyone was feeling the defeat as badly as I was so anything I said there and then would have fallen on deaf ears. You have to pick your time." There is just a hint of deeper waters, but then he's back in full flow, his speech almost a replica of the shorthand in which he painstakingly wrote his evening diaries. In Sergeant Stewart's brigade, disappointment - one of his favourite words - is dealt with openly and honestly, by what the diplomats call full and frank discussions. "We have some heated arguments, I don't mind that, it's the only way you're going to learn. What I do say is that when you do have discussions you have to make them constructive. The English mentality can be pretty negative, we always try to pick the bad things out. I'll try to pick the good things out, turn the negatives into positives."

And there have been a few of both in a patchy year: victory over South Africa, the first by England in a full Test series for 11 years, and the spirited fightback in Australia once the Ashes had gone. The one-day form was initially promising, if latterly chaotic, and Stewart's own form throughout much of the Ashes series and into the last one-day tournament in Sharjah has been a cause for concern, prompting comparisons with Atherton's struggle for runs through the last two years of his tenure and renewing old questions about the value of Stewart's role as Superman. Stewart laughs at that, says he is playing more like Lois Lane at the moment. No one- day fifties in 18 innings and a miserly six runs in his first innings of the season at Worcester.

Stewart's well-rehearsed riposte is that he has worked his way out of slumps before, though other than making an instinctive beeline for the nets under the scrutiny of his father he cannot tell you how. "Couldn't really say. All of a sudden something just clicks. People say I'm not moving my feet, but that's the way I play. I've always had limited foot movement. My strength is timing a cricket ball. I'm one of the better timers of the ball in world cricket. I hit a high proportion of fours, not through big shots, but through timing the ball and that's not happening at the moment. How I'm moving and when I'm moving, that's slightly out."

Too much of a perfectionist perhaps? "If that's what you call someone who tries to execute everything they do correctly, then yes, I'm a perfectionist. I haven't got a classical textbook technique, I've got a fair technique, but if I look to hit the ball through the covers and it goes down to long leg off the inside edge, then I'm someone who thinks, 'Why, why didn't I do that right', and I try to correct it in my mind. Everyone should try to do that to improve."

The click needs to happen sooner rather than later. A good start is vital on Friday so that some of the pressure is taken off the middle order when the Sri Lankan spinners begin to weave. In Stewart, Nick Knight, Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe, England have as destructive a quartet of batsmen as any one-day side in the world. But the balance of the rest does not smack of Stewart's hand.

You would expect a side moulded in his image to be thrusting, athletic and slick, but the England selectors have plumped for some of the sedater movers on the county circuit in the interests of local knowledge: Ian Austin, Mark Ealham and Angus Fraser, canny pros all, but hardly models of the modern one-day player. Stewart's watchword is flexibility, with bat, ball and brain.

"The 15 players I've got I'm very happy with," he says defiantly. "Our goal when we set out two and a half years ago was to win the World Cup. We've tried a few things on the way, some have worked and some not. But one game you might be playing against a magnificent bowling attack and you have to think, 'Right, this is our best batting line-up for this'; against a side with a weaker attack, we might have to adapt. Those types of things come under flexibility.

"I can't say whether Nick Knight will open every game, I can't say whether Graeme Hick will go three every game or Goughie open the bowling. I couldn't tell you anyone's solid position. The mentality will be flexible too. We'll have game plans but within them we'll always have room for manoeuvre.

"To an extent we've sacrificed the fielding for that, we're certainly not a side full of Jonty Rhodeses, but we've got some very good fielders in the side. All we can ask is for everyone to put in the work and if we can improve three, four, five per cent, we'll be doing well."

Allan Donald recently accused England of being the most aggressive side in international cricket, under Stewart's vociferous influence. The stump mikes in Australia, the cause of a brief disagreement with his old adversary Arjuna Ranatunga at the captain's meeting last week, tended to prove the point. For all Stewart's notion of bygones, feeling between the two captains still runs perilously high. Ranatunga was not amused by Stewart's trenchant criticism of his behaviour in that ill- tempered match in Adelaide when Muttiah Muralitharan was called for throwing and Ranatunga marched his side off the field, delaying the game for 15 minutes.

"I've put my thoughts in there, so let's get on with the cricket," Stewart says, tapping his book. "No hard feelings." Come to think of it, that would be a fine motto for our England captain.

Captain's Diary - Alec Stewart with Brian Murgatroyd. Collins Willow, pounds 16.99.

THE TEAM: THE IMPORTS XI

Roger Twose (New Zealand) Born in England

Graeme Hick (England) Born in Zimbabwe

Nasser Hussain (England) Born in India

Andy Flower (Zimbabwe) Born in South Africa

Adam Hollioake (England) Born in Australia

Dale Benkenstein (South Africa) Born in Zimbabwe

Robin Singh (India) Born in Trinidad

Brendon Julian (Australia) Born in New Zealand

Steve Elworthy (South Africa) Born in Zimbabwe

Henry Olonga (Zimbabwe) Born in Zambia

Asim Butt (Scotland) Born in Pakistan

WELL I DECLARE

JAVED Miandad is the only man to have played in all six previous World Cups and his 33 matches are also comfortably a record. He would have extended his unique sequence had he not resigned as Pakistan's coach three weeks before the tournament. At 17 years, 364 days, Javed is the third youngest player to have appeared in a World Cup match and his 1,083 runs (43.42) make him the leading scorer.

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