Stewart fears for youth

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The Independent Online

Alec Stewart yesterday called for a quality-control system on overseas players joining county cricket, even though this summer the English game will be graced by world stars such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Shoaib Akhtar.

"I would always make sure the overseas players who come here are of the right quality," said Stewart, whose Surrey's side boast the Pakistan off-spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq. "I think it is wrong when a side signs an overseas player just for the sake of having one. I think they could bring a rule in that the player must have appeared in a certain amount of international cricket.

"How you would get that rule through I don't know, but the player who comes over should not only perform well for his county but bring on younger players.

"Saqlain, for example, has been outstanding, not only a brilliant talent, but he's helped just by talking and passing the knowledge he has picked up by playing for Pakistan.

"He has helped me, our captain Adam Hollioake, everyone, which is good. In the past, you may have got a raw talent who was basically using us to learn to improve his own game."

Stewart has emerged as the only Surrey player to be awarded one of the 12 England contracts - still to be signed - but does not expect to miss too many extra games of the champions' campaign. Despite training camps and more preparation days before Tests, Stewart anticipates being available for "95 per cent" of the time he would normally have played in non-contract days.

After a largely disappointing tour of South Africa, the left-handed opening batsman, Mark Butcher, failed to be granted a contract, but remains hopeful of a recall if he hits the right form. "The door is not closed by any means," said Butcher.

"But there is not much time before the first Test against Zimbabwe in May for the people on the outside to force their way in. The players in the contract squad will have first crack at the start and it is up to the others to make such a claim. There is no way, what with injuries and losses of form, that you can use only 12 guys for the seven Tests England have this summer."

Stewart believes the West Indies will provide stiff opposition this summer for England, despite their recent dip in form.

After the visit of Zimbabwe for two Tests, the West Indies arrive in England for a five-match series, and Stewart said: "We would expect to beat Zimbabwe, and West Indies are a very good side.

"They've had their ups and downs over the last two or three years, but they always performed when they have come to England. I've played five series against them and only drawn one. But I'll be disappointed if we don't win this series."