Iron will of the blue-eyed boy

Snappy dresser, snappy competitor. And still the backbone of England at the age of 37
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If anything is destined to ruffle Alec Stewart's feathers, which are doubtless as immaculately groomed as the rest of him, it is the subject of behaviour on the field. "Cricket isn't a soft game, it's a hard one for tough minds. In this country we seem to think it's OK for the opposition to play it like that but not for us, as though we've got to toe some different line.

"Well, it's not like that. It's not some 'Roly Roly' affair, turn up on a Sunday afternoon for a few balls, a cup of tea and some cucumber sandwiches. And nor should it be. It never has been at international level, but the difference now is that there are 40 cameras about."

Stewart, it should be said, was not complaining, he was merely telling it like it is, the way he does, clear blue eyes looking straight at you, shoulders unflinching, almost challenging you to retort. It is a look the opposition on several continents and in 220 international matches have come to know well. It is a look that Zimbabwe will see at close quarters at Lord's on Thursday when Stewart resumes his role as middle-order batsman and wicketkeeper for England in the First Test. It personifies his credentials as the archetypal professional cricketer.

He takes pride in playing it hard, in taking the law (probably both its letter and its spirit) to the limit. In the field, when he is keeping wicket, he can be heard talking, constantly cajoling, encouraging, intermittently making asides. Mind games maybe, but with a simple purpose in Stewart's view: "It's all done to try to help the team, to boost our chances of winning." Obviously, he is less verbal as a batsman, but he is forever anxious to let his strokes do the talking, to be dashing, to dominate and then undermine.

"I don't think I've got anything to regret about my conduct on a cricket field," he said. "As I say, the players know they're not there for a picnic. We wouldn't have it any other way." But if he is all for hard competition he is also a fervent believer in meeting the opposition later for a chat and a pint ("of orange juice, of course," he observed, to emphasise his attention to physical fitness).

A year ago he was the England captain, about to lead the side into the World Cup. In his short tenure until then he had led the side to their first victory in a full Test series for 12 years, and on the tour of Australia which followed they had, as usual, lost the Ashes, but had shown more than flashes of combativeness. England failed in the World Cup, going out at the first stage, and as soon as it was over Stewart was sacked.

"It seems to me that I went as Test captain because of failure in a one-day competition," he said, "but I can't say too strongly that I have no probems about it." It seems to others that he might have done himself no favours in the run-up to the tournament, when the players were distracted by pay negotiations.

Stewart did the talking on behalf of the players. If this was because he was their leader then so be it, but there was also the perception that he was their shop steward, a role that did not exactly go hand in hand with the captaincy of England.

"I did what I did because I would never do anything but support my players, but there were probably faults on both sides in the way things were conducted and I hope we have all learned lessons for the future. The players can only benefit by having proper representation."

Perhaps it is this directness of approach, the blunt professionalism, that has prevented Stewart endearing himself fully to the public (well, that and appearing in too many losing England sides). With his wicketkeeping, too often under-rated but well up to international scratch, and his bravura batting, he is unquestionably the best all-rounder to have been produced in England since you know who, though he has kept wicket in only 44 of his 95 Test matches, 92 of the 125 one-dayers.

Somehow his undoubted prowess has brought him neither the adulation nor the affection that it might have done. Yet consider the achievements. He is eighth in the list of England scorers with 6,527 runs, and might go as high as sixth this summer, above Len Hutton and Ken Barrington, who were both icons. He averages more than 40 and in the Nineties he scored more Test runs than any other batsman in the world, his 6,409 beating Steve Waugh's 6,213. He has taken 134 wicketkeeping catches, behind only Alan Knott, Godfrey Evans, Bob Taylor and Jack Russell, darlings all.

"I know what you mean, but I can only be me and be true to myself," he said. "I'm well aware that players like Goughie [it is a trait of Stewie's, of which he is also well aware, that he invariably refers to fellow players by their nicknames] have much more of a reputation for being bubbly and cuddly. But they're not, not always. I just get on with playing the way I know how. But a lot of it comes down to the fact that we haven't won enough."

England have not won enough throughout Stewart's career. It is his contention that they have the players, that the country will always produce cricketers of international standard, but that they have been inconsistent. Why? Well, if he knew that, they would be inconsistent no longer. But he is desperate to improve both practice and match pitches substantially if England are ever to get anywhere, and shares Atherton's severe views on the County Championship. Yes, he has had his disappointments, but he will also mention that England have rarely been at the top of the cricketing heap. Never mind in the Nineties. That is the pro's pro coming out in him again.

His biggest disappointment, and this was good to hear because it demonstrated that he has a sense of history, is never to have appeared on an Ashes winning side. It has happened before to high-achieving English cricketers: neither Barrington nor Ted Dexter knew the figurative feeling of hoisting the little urn above their heads.

At 37, Stewart will not have many more opportunities, but he is not talking of retirement. Quite the reverse - he wishes to resume his one-day international career as a batsman alone if necessary, and it is difficult to imagine any other country building for the future by denuding themselves of one of their most effective weapons.

He is also much the smartest cricketer in England, always spick and span, and when he comes off the field after a day's play he reminds you of those film actors who have apparently been to hell and back and look as if they are about to attend a wedding.

He would relish at least one more crack at the Australians next summer. "Yes, we'll start underdogs but I won't be going on the field thinking we've got anything other than a chance of winning. There'd be no point in playing otherwise."

He is known in cricketing circles as "The Gaffer" a sobriquet which seems to sum up his status as the senior man. He bristled at it.

"That came about because of a lie told by Neil Kendrick, who used to be with us. When I was first appointed as captain of Surrey he asked me what the lads should call me and whether I'd like to be the gaffer, like a soccer boss. I said they could call me what they like. I know it's travelled far and wide and people refer to me like that, but nobody's ever called me gaffer. I don't see myself like that and apart from anything else I'd like to know how it got outside the dressing room."

How private dressing-room matters leak is something that can occasionally exercise Stewart. He mentioned the issue again in relation to a story which went the rounds last summer about a dispute between him and Mark Ramprakash during a Test. They had apparently argued over what was on the dressing-room telly.

"Oh that, look, those sort of things happen in dressing rooms once a week. Ramps is a very good cricketing friend of mine and we wouldn't think anything of it and I don't know where it came from."

The Gaffer, always accessible, tells the press only as much as he thinks they should know. Probably not much. But he still has a penchant for disarming candour. The paperback of his book is just out: Alec Stewart's Diary, the hardback having been A Captain's Diary. It is no more than a chronicle of matches.

"I think it's very average myself." And would there be another in which he would give more of himself? "Oh yes, one day." Should ruffle a few feathers all round.