Stewart builds country club

Andrew Baker discovers The Oval is now a breeding ground of excellence
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Alec Stewart has been enjoying that rarest of occurrences in the life of the contemporary England cricketer, a whole week off. It was a chance to relax, read his good friend Jack Russell's new book, take in some rays, and - being Alec Stewart - play some cricket. On the drive down to a benefit match for Martin Bicknell in Ockley, Stewart had time to reflect on recent events, and particularly on the Surrey squad-within- a-squad who can take much of the credit for England's fine form in the Texaco Trophy.

"It's been an excellent time for Surrey on the England side of things," Stewart agreed. "Graham Thorpe and me have been around for a while now, but it's great that the others are coming through - Chris Lewis and Adam Hollioake last year, now Ben Hollioake as well, and Mark Butcher deserves a chance this summer. So we could be in a situation where there are four five or even six Surrey men in the England side."

Which does wonders for pride down at The Oval, but does not, one would have thought, strengthen Surrey's hand in the County Championship. "That's just what I was saying last year when I was captain. But there is great strength in the squad with people like Jason Ratcliffe, Nadim Shahid and James Knott, who could be first-choice picks at other counties, ready to come in and take over. It means we're in the healthy position of having problems picking our best side, rather than the side picking itself."

No sooner, it seems, have some of the county's best talents broken into the Surrey First XI, than they are knocking on the door of the England squad - the younger Hollioake being a case in point. Stewart hugely enjoyed watching the 19-year-old's England debut from the other end of the crease at Lord's. "It was a bit of a first for me, playing the anchor role," he said. "Usually I'm the one smashing it around while Athers keeps the other end going. I think it helped Ben a little that we had fielded first, so he had time to get used to the atmosphere - and incidentally I was very impressed with his fielding, and I thought he bowled well.

"Coming in at three he had a little bit of licence to play his shots, and he'd been told to play his natural game. I was just hitting the singles and letting Ben get on with it. But every now and then I'd go up to him and have a word, just to say, 'Right, you've got 10 runs off this over, don't take liberties.' Temperament is so important. Ben - like Adam - has aggression and attitude, but it is all controlled. I know their father, John, well, and I think he must take a lot of credit for the way they have turned out."

Stewart is excited, too, by the progress of James (son of Alan) Knott, his wicketkeeping understudy at Surrey. "He has a lot of ability, and - let's face it - in his father he's been working with the best wicketkeeping coach in the world. But what has really impressed me is the way that he has moved up a level to first-team cricket and taken it in his stride. Some players freeze initially when they make that transition, but James has really looked the part. What is more, he really is an all-rounder: as well as keeping wicket, he bats well, and the other day in the nets he whipped off his pads and sent down some decent leg-spin."

Knott the elder has also helped Stewart on his own keeping skills, as has Jack Russell, who the Surrey man has supplanted in the England team. "I'm Jack's biggest fan," Stewart said, "and I'm as close to him as I am to anyone in cricket. I just think it's a real shame that one of us has to be left out."

Stewart it is who has the gloves for the summer, and the Ashes. While he was quite sensibly not making predictions about the Test series, Stewart could not conceal his relish for the Texaco Trophy victory. "Everywhere you read that we were the underdogs, that there was going to be a whitewash," he said. "But we turned it on and really surprised the Aussies. Even Geoff Marsh came up to me and told me he couldn't believe how well we were fielding. We'll have to wait and see how the rest of the summer turns out, but we can beat them - even though we still have the utmost respect for them."

Stewart is sure to make an important contribution, not just with bat and gloves, but in the constant cajoling of his colleagues that has become as much of a personal trademark as the late white helmet. "I think I'm regarded as a senior player in the England side now, and if I feel I have a contribution to make then I do - and Athers has always been very receptive to advice."

With luck and fitness, the words of wisdom should be available for some time to come, as Stewart, who is 34, intends to prolong his time at the top. "Put it this way, Graham Gooch is a man I look up to more than any other player. So if I can keep fit, and display a similar attitude, then I hope I can go on playing the game for just as long as him.

"For me, playing for England is the be-all and end-all, my way of showing people that I'm trying to be the best." Stewart's patriotism extends to accepting the new dress code for England players. "It's important to look the part," he said. "Otherwise you just cop flak. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that I miss my white helmet."