The world waits for Stewart

England's World Cup campaign begins on Wednesday. Ian Stafford meets the vice-captain with a point to prove THE MONDAY INTERVIEW
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It may be only three weeks since the England cricket squad limped forlornly home from South Africa, but it may as well have been three years as far as most of the England players are concerned.

A few priceless days with their families at home, away from their sport, meant that when the team left for Pakistan and the Cricket World Cup their tails were up and the miseries of the final part of the first half of their winter travels had been consigned to history. Geographically, and mentally, it seems, South Africa and the subcontinent are worlds apart.

The eyes of the cricketing world will be focused on the World Cup over the next few weeks and as England prepare for the opening match, against New Zealand in Ahmedabad on Wednesday, one player in particular - a losing finalist in 1991 - has a point to prove. Despite his dogged rearguard action in the fourth Test in Port Elizabeth, the South Africa tour was one that Alec Stewart will want to forget.

If you believe the cricket media commentators (and as many, these days, tend to be former Test players, they must have a point). Alec Stewart is a player in the midst of a crisis. In recent years concerns have been raised about whether his technique could cope with top-class fast bowling, whether he should open or play in the middle order as a batsman-wicketkeeper, or whether he should inherit the captaincy. But during the South African tour, these questions were replaced with whether he should be selected at all.

Like a fast Allan Donald delivery, Stewart takes it full on. "I'm not going to say it doesn't bother me, or that I don't read the newspapers, and it can hurt when people keep dropping you from England, but I've always backed myself to come through my problems and, over the years, I've grown used to battling against a stack of them."

I lob in the first, and most obvious problem to Alec, son of Micky Stewart. "I always knew that I was picked on merit, whether for Surrey or England, but it seemed an easy line for the public and the media. You know, if things were going well then it's how it should be, but if I recorded a few failures then I was only playing, because of my Dad.

"I've had to grow up with this throughout my career. Even at school I faced this problem. No matter whatever I've done, or will do, I'll always be the son of Micky Stewart. But I'll tell you what. The way I see it, Micky is the father of Alec Stewart."

Well, that little bouncer was safely dispatched to the boundary. Let's try a cleverly disguised inswinger. Two years ago Stewart was knocking up two successive centuries against the mighty West Indies on their patch. Where has that player been in the past 18 months?

"It's been a stop-go situation ever since, mainly due to injury and a lack of consistency in terms of how and where I've been used in the England team," Stewart replies. "I returned from that West Indies tour and averaged 50 against New Zealand. Then Graham Gooch came back, and I was dropped down to six in the order.

"I then bust my finger on my second day into the Australian tour, and played very little from then on. I came back against the West Indies last year, but was asked to keep wicket as well as open. That was the chairman's prerogative, I suppose, and that's what he chose to do. I failed, and then refractured the bone in my finger."

Stewart pauses for breath, before linking his evidence to the verdict. "The point is that I hadn't played much Test cricket over the past year preceding South Africa, which is why I didn't play as well as I would have liked to have done. I ended up averaging under 30 which, for me, is at least 10 less than I was aiming for, and therefore unacceptable."

Observers watching Stewart struggle and flap wildly against Donald at his most fiery came to the conclusion that the 32-year-old Surrey captain actually developed a psychological block in his batting. Stewart does not go along with this view, but does accept he came out second best.

"Mike Atherton will confirm that, at times, Donald bowled faster than anybody else either of us have faced," he argued. "But I was made to look bad, not just because of Donald's superb bowling, but mainly because I was so out of touch.

"My feet were not right at all, and I was not playing with any confidence. Even though I scored freely in the provincial games, I knew I was not back to my best form in the Test matches. I couldn't put my finger on it, except to say that I just didn't find the rhythm and, subsequently, ended up all askew."

When in a crisis, many people turn to home. This, as it turns out, was exactly what Stewart Jnr did. Clearly not satisfied with the advice emanating from the England camp, although far too diplomatic to put it quite like that, Stewart sought the solace and knowledge from his father, and the recently ousted England bowling coach, Geoff Arnold.

"I worked really hard to try and rediscover my best form, but it was the first time I'd toured without either Geoff Arnold or my Dad," he said. "They know my game better than anyone. I didn't really feel that I had a set of eyes in South Africa which could sort me out, and I didn't have Geoff or Dad to turn to, which I found hard to handle.

"John Edrich was out there with the team but, although he tried to be helpful, he hadn't seen me play much and didn't know my game too well. That caused a few problems. I felt I was just beginning to get into a groove towards the end of the tour following the 81 in Port Elizabeth, and then a string of useful knocks in the one-day internationals. But I knew it still wasn't right when I got off the plane back in England."

With under a fortnight to go before the England team were off again to India and Pakistan for the World Cup, Stewart went to work.

"I spent quite a bit of time with Dad and Geoff Arnold down at the Surrey indoor cricket school at East Molesley," Stewart admitted. "They both had a close look at me batting in South Africa on video, and then against a bowling machine and, as a result, now feel that I'm much closer to being able to play like I know I can. My feet are moving well again, and I'm hitting the ball cleanly. Of course, it was only a bowling machine in a net, and I'm not saying I'm going to score millions, but I'm feeling good."

Jack Russell bounds past as Stewart finishes his sentence. Is he, I ask, attempting a little daisy-cutter, another reason why Stewart appears so positive?

"Well, Jack showed what he can do against the West Indies and South Africa and, as far as I'm concerned, he's the No 1 keeper in the world. It's good to see him as a permanent fixture in the England team, and it's where he deserves to be."

Which suggests that Stewart is not exactly upset to discover that his services behind the stumps, at least for the time being, are not required. "Again, I can't put my finger on it, and I don't consciously feel disadvantaged as a batsman when I also keep wicket, but the statistics don't lie, and they prove that my record as an opener is much better when I'm not also the wicketkeeper.

"I think it boils down to the inconsistency I've had to put put with in recent years. I've played almost everywhere, from opener to number five and six. In a way I take it as a compliment that I'm seen capable to do these jobs but, in my opinion, it all gets back to the void left by Ian Botham.

"We still haven't found an all-rounder good enough to be in the top six batting line-up, and the front three or four bowling attack. Dominic Cork and Darren Gough are working on it, but neither are there, while Jack Russell is a definite Test match number seven. The chairman (he means the much-maligned Ray Illingworth, of course) wants six batsmen and five bowlers, and right now he hasn't got it."

The other accusation levelled at Stewart - apart from the fact that he supports Chelsea - is that his form has suffered since he was pipped for the England captaincy by his opening partner, Mike Atherton, who has meanwhile grown from strength to strength.

This time Stewart is ready for this long hop. "I was disappointed not to be made the captain, but although many people may think I've suffered, you'll find that my Test average has gone up since Mike was appointed." Oh all right, then, one bounce and into the crowd.

Let's move on to the World Cup. On the face of it, a side who have just been smashed 6-1 by South Africa in a one-day series does not seem to be the hottest bet to become world champions. So can we seriously pull off what appears to be a most unlikely triumph?

"I've never won anything in cricket, either for Surrey or England. Until I do, I won't regard my long career as a success," answered the England vice-captain. "I'm intending to return home with that cup, and I'm backing us all the way."

Stirring, almost Churchillian stuff there, Alec, but they'll be laughing at that statement down in South Africa. "Look, with the UAE and Holland in our group, we really ought to qualify for the quarter-finals. Then, it's a case of winning three successive matches. If we do that, we've won the World Cup. We know that on our day, we can beat anyone in the world, and the other teams know this as well. It was only last summer that we beat the West Indies in the one-day series.

"Unlike South Africa, where the chairman experimented, we'll be picking our strongest side throughout. Any of five teams can win it, and we're one of them."

It's the last ball of the over. The plane is leaving shortly, and there are still a few bats for Stewart to autograph. What does a man who still needs to silence some of the doubters see as his goals this year, then?

"I've got three of them," he replies instantly. "To win the World Cup, to go on and lift a trophy with Surrey, and to see Ruud Gullitt and Chelsea win the FA Cup." I think that one's worth an appeal there, umpire!