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England captaincy: The main contenders

By Scyld Berry

29 March 1998

BOOKMAKERS are taking bets on whether Alec Stewart or Nasser Hussain or Mark Ramprakash will be the next England captain. Given some sensible planning, they will all have their turn at the job.

Mike Atherton has spoilt us in two ways. Firstly, he and Peter May are the only two England captains to have served as long as four years. Normally the turnover is rapid, even chaotically hectic: in 52 years since the war England have had 34 captains.

The second way in which Atherton has spoilt us has been his cool diplomacy and non-confrontational style. His successors, whoever they may be, are rather more likely to commit indiscretions which are turned into hanging offences by the intense scrutiny of tabloid or television, thus speeding up the rate of turnover even more.

Twice in the last week Stewart has sailed close to the wind. In the Antigua Test he gestured that a bouncer had brushed his shoulder, omitting to mention his bat; and in Friday's one-day warm-up match he protested when only three fielders were inside the semi-circles and he was bowled without a no-ball being called. Yet he is still the most logical successor.

Only a month ago Stewart's chance seemed to have gone: in a fortnight he will be 35. But the three consecutive blows of ill-luck which did for Atherton have revived his ambition, and he deserves to be the Test captain, provisionally for one year, while Adam Hollioake continues to conduct the World Cup preparations.

Stewart has become Graham Gooch-like in his pursuit of fitness, excellence and career longevity; less fortunate is the similarly conventional style of captaincy. If appointed, Stewart would have to consult with Hussain, the present vice-captain and a more able tactician and a better reader of bowlers' minds, not to mention Atherton.

The first thing Stewart did when he took over the captaincy from Gooch for two Tests in 1992-93 was to give up keeping wicket. Some other wicketkeeper would therefore have to be found to replace Jack Russell, but perhaps one would have to be anyway. The more Stewart succeeds as a Gooch-like specialist opener, the more his distaste grows for the dual role in Test cricket.

It would be a very deep end for Hussain if he were promoted this summer to take on South Africa, a country he has never played against but one which will do all the homework on him and find his pressure-points; then lead the team to Australia, a country he has never toured.

Like Ramprakash moreover, though less so, Hussain is consumed by the intensity of each Test innings, which is as it should be as he has only been a regular for two years. He needs time to achieve the slightly more dispassionate temper that a captain needs.

The ideal moment for Hussain to take over would be after the World Cup in 1999, when England have a four-Test home series against New Zealand. By then Ramprakash should have settled down in the Test side and reached the vice-captaincy stage where Hussain is now.

Hollioake's own aspirations to be a Test player may have to wait until then as well. It is very valuable to England that they should have him concentrating on all the details of preparation for the World Cup.

Today, when the first of the five one-day internationals takes place in Bridgetown, Hollioake will have his hands very full. The first four one-dayers - two here, two in St Vincent - are set to be played on hard batting pitches not at all like Sharjah, where England's medium-pacers were rewarded for their very lack of pace.

Friday's warm-up game, when Desmond Haynes gave his Old Master class, suggested that this will be a very different assignment. For their start, England should open with Atherton to work the new ball around on the ground, and most probably won't. In trying to blast the opening bowlers in the air, all of England's top three offered catches on Friday.

Dougie Brown may not have the pace or accuracy to be a new-ball bowler on these pitches; a second spinner - conceivably to open the bowling against Philo Wallace - will be greatly missed in the absence of Ashley Giles; and Ben Hollioake's bowling will remain wayward as he still does not use his leading left arm to point the way. The West Indians are strutting confidently again and have to be favoured as at least narrow winners.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 29 Mar1998 - 15:42