The foul smell of success

Opening Up
October 4, 2002

"I learnt from all the captains I played under - what to do, what not to do, what worked and what didn't. I had to marry that to my own natural instincts, which I think were sound, and my own character. As a captain it is impossible to escape your natural character, and it would be foolish to attempt to do so. I was quiet and thoughtful, not table-thumping, but still demanding. I spoke only when necessary so that those words carried weight."

Thus writes Mike Atherton, captain of the England cricket team for a record 52 Test matches (surpassing Peter May), and the only England captain since Michael Brearley to have written his own book.

Atherton was the first pupil to go from Briscoe Lane County Primary School in Lancashire to Manchester Grammar School, where he entered the first XI when he was 12. He also played for the village of Woodhouses in the Lancashire and Cheshire league. His sportsman father came home one evening to congratulate his son, then 14, on being picked for the first team. When he asked his father whom he had replaced, Atherton p re responded that he had been de-selected himself.

In spite of an offer to sign up with Lancashire before he went up to Cambridge, Atherton opted for three years at Downing College, where he achieved a 2:1 in history. His choice of college was lucky, since the master, Lord Butterfield, was a triple Blue and president of the Cambridge University Cricket Club. He therefore permitted Atherton to captain England Young Cricketers in Sri Lanka and Australia in successive years, which meant missing two terms, provided he made up the time in vacations.

Atherton went more or less from the Varsity Match of 1987 to the staff of Lancashire, for whom he had played while an undergraduate. On arrival, the initials F. E. C. were daubed on his locker. The innocent assumed that they stood for Future England Captain, but the cynical have their views confirmed by Atherton in his book. To a group who frowned on further education and named their Oxford graduate colleague Kevin Hayes "Two Heads", F. E. C. meant "Fucking Educated Cunt".

Cambridge was good for Atherton. At one level it improved his sense of humour: "I suppose my third-year paper on the Black Death stood me in good stead for Curtley Ambrose (the toweringly dangerous fast bowler) in Trinidad in 1994." It also brought more lasting benefits: "Before going there, I had, in truth, taken cricket too seriously. As a teenager I was inconsolable every time I got out. Cambridge taught me to relax and gave me a sense of perspective, and that above all is the key to longevity and success in the neurotic world of professional sport."

Selected for England when only 21, he was appointed captain when only 25. His "win ratio" during his tenure was 25 per cent. Ian Botham never won a match as captain, David Gower and Mike Gatting managed only 15 and 8 per cent respectively. Graham Gooch managed 29 per cent and the splendidly astute Brearley won 58 per cent of his matches, although he made few runs. Atherton, on the other hand, made more than 7,000 runs in Test cricket, including 16 centuries. He was not the most beautiful player to watch in our era; that was surely Gower. But he was certainly one of the most obdurate, even rivalling Geoffrey Boycott in that department. His greatest Test innings and his highest score was his 185 not out against South Africa in 1995-96. This was probably the most remarkable feat by any postwar English opening batsman. Atherton faced 492 balls and batted for nearly 11 hours over two days. For the second day, he writes: "Superstition demanded that I wore the same clothes; I must have smelt like a polecat but superstition was stronger than the smell or the discomfort." He turned a certain (and humiliating) defeat into a heroic and triumphant draw and became, briefly, a national hero.

Briefly, because cricket fans and the tabloid newspapers are a fickle lot. After surviving, more or less unscathed, the dust in his pockets and ball tampering episode at Lord's, he held, with the tail-ender Derek Underwood, the England record for most Test ducks, then managed one more and is now undisputed holder of the palm for most scores of nought in English Test cricket.

The most exciting innings I saw him play was his epic duel with the South African fast bowler Allan Donald in the Trent Bridge Test of 1998. It lasted 40 minutes at the end of the fourth day and turned the match in England's favour. One understood how excited the Romans must have felt in the gladiatorial arena. Atherton prints the self-admonishments he silently uttered: "Stay calm now; got to stay composed; there will be plenty of short stuff coming and plenty of abuse too. Don't react. Stay in your own bubble. This is why they call it Test cricket."

The next day Alec Stewart (by then Atherton's successor as captain) smashed 45 off 34 balls, leaving Atherton to score the winning hit, but stranded on 98 not out. This was poetic justice of a sort, since Atherton, as a stern captain in the national interest had, in Australia, declared with Graham Hick desperately in need of a Test hundred, on the same score.

Atherton's book contains some splendid criticisms of the England manager, Raymond Illingworth, and some harsh, but justified, prognostications about the demise of county cricket as a going concern. He is, given his own burgeoning media career, commendably frank about journalists. When he went to announce his resignation of the captaincy: "I composed myself and faced the press, emotionless and inscrutable. I was damned if I was going to let them take a peek at my soul."

Yet throughout this gracefully written book Atherton belies his "Captain Grumpy" nickname and image and emerges as a witty, wise - and completely human - formidable exponent and observer of our national game.

Tom Rosenthal has been a non-playing cricket addict for 60 years and was the publisher of many standard works on cricket.

Opening Up: My Autobiography

Author - Mike Atherton
ISBN - 0 340 82232 5
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £18.99
Pages - 330

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