Atherton casts a shadow of reason; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

England's captain has endured a summer of personal and professional challenges. What lies ahead? Derek Pringle asked him
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The Independent Online
When he isn't busy captaining England, batting for county or country, selecting sides or organising next year's coming benefit, Michael Atherton likes to relax by going fly-fishing. Although "time permitting" is in short supply, his is not the clumsy casting of the dilettante. Judging by the number of rods that jostle with batting paraphernalia for position in his car boot, and by the welter of books and videos on the subject that litter his already littered bachelor pad, he has approached this new-found rest-cure in his usual methodical way.

"I used to see Fletch [the former England coach Keith Fletcher] tying his flies on tour, which kind of got me interested. But it was John Barclay, our manager on last winter's tour to South Africa, who first took me fishing. I find it mentally soothing, particularly the dramatic scenery that tends to go with it. I'm no good at catching fish, but I do enjoy the view."

Mind you, it was the South African tour that provided the first part to his and England's winter horribilis, which ended in an early exit from the World Cup. From the more upbeat performances this summer, it is a period England and Atherton have put behind them.

"People say it was a bad winter. It was only bad at the end during the one-dayers, when everyone was completely knackered. The World Cup was a low point and I, for one, did not enjoy playing in a side with so little confidence. We needed a lift and that's where Bumble [David Lloyd, the new England coach] came in. We get on very well. It's far easier to work with people you like and trust, and there is no doubt his enthusiastic character has had a positive influence on the dressing-room."

Influence in the dressing-room may be one thing, but has it translated to improvements on the field as well? Having beaten India by a single Test over three, England now find themselves in the more familiar position of being dormie one against the stronger opponents Pakistan. "I think we've continued the trend of the last couple of years by being competitive at home and generally harder to beat in Test matches. But we're still finding it difficult to string a number of wins together. We beat India in the first Test but struggled to win the next two. It's that winning habit we still find elusive."

What of his personal form, though? And the assertion by those who have watched him over a long period that his batting lacks the fluency and calm of his better innings.

"Although I average over 50 for the summer, I've struggled and haven't played well. I think it's down to a combination of factors, and the constant cricket over the last four years has allowed things to creep into my game. There are technical aspects that are not working as well as they should be. Also, the mind becomes dulled. But while I'm not batting as well as I'd like, I'm battling through."

So far this summer Atherton has battled pretty well, scoring a century against India at Trent Bridge as well as three half-centuries. But as the captain of any ship knows, time spent mulling over one's own problems simply distracts from the overall job in hand. "The batting problems have not affected my captaincy. In fact, my game has flourished under the responsibility of captaincy so I don't feel any pressure at all. It's not as if I've got to prove myself. I think I've captained OK this summer. We haven't bowled sides out all the time, which is frustrating. But I think we are using our resources as best we can."

Had he given any thought to the fact that his epic match-saving 185 at the Wanderers last December was unlikely to be bettered, and that any subsequent achievements would seem like standing in the shadow of an unassailable mountain peak? "Actually, it is something I've thought about a lot. I think when every player looks back on his career he will see one defining moment.

"Johannesburg was my defining moment and I doubt whether I'll play another defensive innings like it. However, you can't say, 'Well, that's it'. There are ways to go about bettering it, and that's to play innings that win games and hopefully contribute to winning series."

In a moment of verbal generosity, Raymond Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, described it as: "The greatest defensive innings ever by an Englishman." Not a bad eulogy from a man rarely portrayed as being in harmony with his young captain during their two years of working together. It is a partnership that ends once this winter's touring sides have been picked; an end that Illingworth claims can't come soon enough. "I know he's recently been saying he can't wait to get shot of it all. But I'd personally find it disappointing if Illy left the game on a sour note. It would be a shame because he's contributed a lot to English cricket over a lengthy period of time.

"Before Illy came along we went through a period of being easy meat. We may still be searching for the world-class all-rounder he craves, but under him we've become a tougher team that has learnt to draw matches and live to fight another day. I, for one, would like to see an appreciation of that and for him to go out on a more positive note." Illingworth has one more home Test to go as chairman which, if England win, will protect an unbeaten home record stretching back three summers. Pakistan, however, are one of the best sides in the world and will not easily relinquish their one Test advantage.

"They are a good side who talk a positive game but who set defensive fields. They don't over-attack with the new ball but sit in the game and wait for the ball to get older, when reverse-swing comes into play. I would say they are a better batting side than the team who came here four years ago, but not as strong a bowling side. They have the same bowlers, but four years older. Time takes its toll."

Had the good nature of the series been a surprise, or had a long association with his opposite number, Wasim Akram, helped quell recent animosity between the two sides? "Actually, it's been played as the majority of recent series have - hard but fair on the field, with good relations off it. I think it has helped that Was [Akram] and I go back a fair way, but I wouldn't overstate the fact." Hard but fair it may be, but England need to win at The Oval. Surely time to pull out everything available. If not, how did England's skipper envisage winning the final Test?

"Ideally, bat first. Bat attractively and rattle up 700. Then bowl them out twice. I was really pleased with the way the top six batted at Headingley. We played positive, confident cricket while scoring at a decent rate. Which is what you need if you are going to give yourselves time to bowl the opposition out twice.

"The Oval has been a good pitch for us over the years. But what I don't want is a flat pitch like last year. I want the ball to do something. I don't mind if we lose as long as it gives us a chance of winning.

"In the end it's bowlers who win you Test matches. Batsmen can only get you in a position to win or save you the match. That is why we need to find a bowling attack that consistently takes wickets and why if we have chopped around with the team, it has been to pick certain bowlers for certain pitches.

"What you need to have within a squad is competition. It can't be cosy. On the other hand, you need to try and foster stability and continuity as well. At times it's a difficult thing to balance. But, providing a player has the right attitude and commitment, you usually stick with them and give them chances through bad runs. That is why it's important to know the minds and temperaments of players.

"Personally, I couldn't care less whether I go into a Test match with 0 or a 150 behind me in a county game. When you walk out to bat in a Test match, its what's up top at that moment that counts."

With all aspects of the Acfield report due to be voted on separately by the counties tomorrow, Atherton is hoping that English cricket shows a bit of nous, too.

"As a broad paper, I thought the report made a lot of sense. However, I don't agree with their recommendations over the length of appointment of the England captain, which they say should be determined by the chairman and two other selectors. Why not simply appoint him until he either resigns or is sacked. That's the way the Aussies do it, and it seems the obvious way to me," he added.

However, Atherton is not, in view of the workload Test players now face, thinking of taking one of the winter tours off. But although he believes certain key bowlers like Dominic Cork ought to be given lighter workloads, Atherton is not in favour of a two-tier County Championship.

"Since four-day cricket has come in, the Championship has improved. Even so, I'd like to see the focus even more firmly on it. I believe we play one limited-over competition too many, and Lancashire this season are a case in point.

"We could end up winning two one-day competitions and still finish in the bottom four of the Championship. Now have we had a successful season or a disastrous one? If the focus is where I think it should be, then we won't have had a good one.

"But although our county standard is pretty good, I believe our cricket lacks variety and tends towards the dull. For one thing, the pitches are too good and there is not enough deterioration to help the spinner. In fact, I think I'd rather like to play on uncovered wickets. That would liven things up."