Atherton 'buffoon' gaffe makes bad day worse

England's captain suffered off the pitch as well as on. Robert Winder reports

Just when Michael Atherton thought it could not get any worse...

The England captain continued his wretched run of form against South Africa yesterday, only to find that it was his mistimed verbal shot that may come back to haunt him from this match.

Towards the end of the post-match conference, during which Atherton had answered the usual questions with considerable patience, a Pakistani journalist asked a question, and England's skipper did not catch it.

"Er, I think I already answered that," he said. The questioner repeated himself. "I'm lost," said Atherton, looking around for help. The questioner had a third try, but Atherton could not make head nor tail of it (neither could anyone else). "We're playing Pakistan next week in Karachi," he said firmly - and then, turning aside: "Will someone get rid of this buffoon?"

It was an attempt at a laddish gag, but it was a terrible shot. He tried to tickle it off his ribs, but anyone could see that he should have just left it alone. Anyway, it froze the room. In a blink, you could see headlines forming in London, Karachi and Lahore: Ath Off! Gafferton! Remove that Buffoon! In a week when Imran Khan's out-of-court payment to Mike Gatting (for underestimating the breadth of Gatting's cultural horizons) was widely reported in the newspapers here, it was not a smart thing to say. It might even land him in some pretty hot diplomatic water.

Already the secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, Nasir Malick, has called it "unbecoming". "The remark is highly deplorable and he should apologise," he said.

The dismal finale, on and off the field, was all the more unwelcome after what had been a reasonably encouraging start by England. A resolute performance in the field appeared to have given them a reasonable shout in the match, and there was a moment, late in South Africa's innings, when Graham Thorpe clung on to a superb diving catch at mid-on to dismiss Pat Symcox, and England suddenly looked pleased with themselves - clapping each other on the back and slapping their hands. They looked almost like a team. But as soon as England put their pads on, the feeling passed.

They batted like, well, like only they can. The conditions at the start were English - grey skies and drizzle - and so, in the end, was the performance.

Pollock, McMillan and Matthews bowled tightly, and England batted loosely. Some of it was thoughtless - Neil Smith did not seem to realise that with two quick wickets gone he was no longer a pinch hitter, and took a wild hoick at De Villiers.

And Stewart committed the worst faux pas possible: he hit the ball straight to a South African fielder and was run out (of course) by a direct hit. Don't these chaps ever learn? Late in the day, England tried it again: Cork took on Rhodes, and got away with it. The throw flashed past the stumps without wrecking them.

Now there's a story: South Africa In Missed Stumps Shocker! Atherton's remark, alas, might mean that this does not make the papers.

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