Atherton comes clean on a pocket full of dirt

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ATHERTON, the England cricket captain, kept his job but lost a Test match and pounds 2,000 yesterday after experiencing a bad day at the office. Having led England to their worst defeat - by 356 runs - against South Africa in 106 years of Tests between the countries, he was fined by his boss Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, for two instances of improper conduct.

Atherton was summoned before the match referee, the former Australian Test player Peter Burge, on Saturday night after television pictures appeared to show him putting his hand in his pocket then applying an illegal substance to the cricket ball. Atherton denied doing so, suggesting he was merely drying his hands on a hot and humid day, and was cleared of impropriety. But yesterday he admitted he had failed to inform Burge that he had dried his hands on dirt which he was carrying in his pocket.

While it is acceptable for a player to dry his hands on dirt on the ground, filling a pocket with it, though not necessarily illegal, is certainly ill-advised. He was fined pounds 1,000 - the maximum penalty available to Illingworth - for 'using dirt' and another pounds 1,000 for 'giving incomplete information to the match referee'. Illingworth added that as far as he was concerned it was the end of the matter.

However Burge, who was not informed of Atherton's 'economy with the truth' until late last night, will be issuing a statement today advising of any further action he may wish to take. He could fine or even suspend Atherton; since the system of match referees was introduced three years ago to combat rising disciplinary offences Burge is the only such official to use the latter, ultimate sanction.

The incident follows two years of controversy regarding tampering with the ball, a practice indulged in by fielding sides to assist in dismissing batsmen by making the ball deviate unexpectedly, either in the air or after bouncing when bowled.

The fines followed a grim day for England, who lost the first Test match against South Africa since 1965 with a day to spare. Set a largely theoretical 456 to win England were dismissed for 99, their lowest score at Lord's for more than a century.