Atherton close to breaking point

Strained faces of a captain in turmoil as England's body language series stumbles on to New Zealand
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Is Michael Atherton close to reaching critical mass? If so, should he resign the England captaincy or soldier on, risking further ridicule in the hope that his cricket team improve enough to make this summer's Australians break sweat on their way to taking the Ashes for the fifth successive occasion?

The man himself, variously dubbed "His Gloominess" and "Captain Glum", is apparently convinced that he should continue in spite of a shambolic tour of Zimbabwe, still the smallest if not after England's performances here the weakest cricket playing nation. Ironically, this was the country where Atherton's Test match potential first took hold during the England A tour in 1990 when Zimbabwe were beaten in both the Test and one-day series.

One of Dostoevsky's characters claimed in The Brothers Karamazov "that one day is enough to know everything". But a one-day match is a different matter, and the intervening six years are bound to have wrought changes upon Atherton, who will be 29 in March.

"I'm probably more cynical than I was back then," he said before boarding the plane to New Zealand where England continue the second leg of their winter tour. "But I'm no less optimistic. To my mind I've achieved a lot, and I hope, and want, to achieve much more. There are two options: either give up or fight on. I don't see any point in giving up. We're half way through the winter and I've been appointed to the end of that winter. We'll see what happens then, but meanwhile we'll be endeavouring to do our best in New Zealand."

This is spirited talk from a man whose spirit, despite the unemotive carapace and close companionship of his coach David Lloyd, must surely be perilously close to collapse. As Atherton's predecessor, Graham Gooch eventually found, every human sponge has its saturation point, and the current England captain is now beginning to leave a trail of unmopped anguish behind him. Mind you, even when playing at the peak of his form, Atherton has been forced to absorb more disappointments than any of his contemporaries, an amercement due mainly to his squad's lack of bowling power.

There are other Gooch traits, too, like leading by example through deed rather than word, a method currently under pressure from Atherton's extended loss of form. In fact neither man's method has inspired in the way Mike Brearley did, via a mixture of mystery and psychology. But then neither man - both far superior batsmen to Brearley - were forced to develop that part of their characters. In any case, Brearley's main asset was to persuade Ian Botham to perform all 12 Herculean labours, and then some, every time he put on an England sweater.

Yet how culpable is a captain who has never had a Botham available to him - at least not in the trenches where it matters? Some will say it is a miracle for him to have even got this close to breaking Peter May's record of 41 Tests in charge (Atherton has four to go), given that he has long been saddled with a workmanlike team, now having more off-days than it can afford. England were rarely outplayed in Zimbabwe - except in the final one-dayer - yet they were constantly outfought by tenacious competitors.

It is notoriously difficult captaining a side without match-turning crackerjacks like Shane Warne, Brian Lara or Wasim Akram in the side. Even Zimbabwe have an enforcer in Paul Strang, an improving leg-spinner whose influence on the cricket played here has been almost as huge as that of the Inter- tropical Convergence Zone, the weather system guilty of providing the spectacular thunderstorms that have disrupted play on an almost daily basis since England's arrival a month ago.

Atherton's captaincy has been on the back foot ever since the soil- in-pocket incident at Lord's in 1994 when his credibility was damaged not by his actions on the field, but by the spur of the moment fib he told to the match referee. It was at that moment and in the immediate media hysteria that followed that he suddenly realised what a lonely job the England captaincy could be, even for a self-sufficient person like him. It is a job that he must surely be thinking about vacating now that even his opponents are beginning to feel sorry for him.

Lacking players of undisputed world class is undoubtedly the fault of the English system, now under fierce if belated review by the England and Wales Cricket Board, under the chairmanship of Lord MacLaurin of Tesco. However, it is an altogether different matter if talented players are not reaching levels of motivation more or less taken for granted when representing your country. If that is the case then the captain and coach must take a large part of the blame and it is surely more than just a passing coincidence that England appear to have more wastrels with talent, like Chris Lewis and Andy Caddick, than any other country.

One of the challenges of captaincy must be to tame and harness such mavericks and it should be remembered that Botham, Geoff Boycott and John Snow were hardly obliging patsies. Atherton's major fault is perhaps that he expects unconditional support, rather than a battle of wits with his players. It is a preference that tends to promote sheep rather than wolves, even if they are dressed in Versace.

His other shortcoming, both as batsman and captain, is that he is far better at inhibiting an opponent's progress than initiating their downfall, a throwback to his university days captaining Cambridge, where the loftiest ambition was not to lose. Whatever he might say to the contrary, his heroic defiance to save the Johannesburg Test last winter turned him on more than any win could, though no doubt an Ashes victory with him at the helm might knock it from top spot.

In an age of personality cults, particularly in sport, he has remained low key, preferring to keep the counsel of a few trusted friends rather than behave out of character in order to seduce a wider public. Opponents, though, have never let him hide, and he has been targeted remorselessly since assuming the captaincy in 1993.

Zimbabwe have deliberately probed the chinks in his technique, by keeping the ball full and denying him the back-foot shots he has favoured since his back operation five years ago. The ploy has paid dividends, with Atherton scoring just 34 runs in four Test innings, his poorest series since 1991.

Such targeting of England's most consistent batsman since GooACOaaaaaceeeeiiinoouuupounds Oo...--""`'ch can break the most inflexible will and the fearsome working over he received three years ago from Courtney Walsh in Jamaica, where he was battered by a maelstrom of throat balls, probably came as close as any. Like many that day, he eventually succumbed but only after the admiration of all present had been secured. Admiration is proving an elusive quality at the moment.

England's Test series record under Michael Atherton

Australia, 1993

Result: Australia win six-match series 4-1 (1-1 after Atherton assumed captaincy for final two Tests). Captain's table: 553 runs in series at 46.08 (as captain 192 at 48). Verdict: A bright new dawn with victory in sixth Test. As Atherton wrote later: "Maybe the Australians were tired, maybe Venus was in the right juxtaposition and maybe we got the rub of the green but when it came it was an emotive moment."

West Indies, 1993-94

Result: West Indies win five-match series 3-1. Captain's table: 510 runs with two centuries at 56.66. Verdict: Resilient England, down 3-0, come back in Barbados. Captain's authority secure, seen as determined visionary.

New Zealand, 1994

Result: England win three-match series 1-0. Captain's table: 273 runs with two centuries at 68.25. Verdict: Captain's assured form enhances team's progress.

South Africa, 1994

Result: 1-1 in three-match series. Captain's table: 207 runs at 34.50. Verdict: Series and captaincy undermined by dirt-in-pocket saga. Side comes back, leadership again unquestioned.

Australia, 1994-95

Result: Australia win five-match series 3-1. Captain's table: 407 runs at 40.70. Verdict: Leads grittily from front. Credentials remain impressive despite team looking undisciplined and tired.

West Indies, 1995

Result: 2-2 in six-match series. Captain's table: 488 runs with one century at 40.66. Verdict: Finest hour so far. England, under assertive captain obviously commanding respect, twice come from behind.

South Africa, 1995-96

Result: South Africa win five-match series 1-0. Captain's table: 390 runs with one century at 55.71. Verdict: Defiant 185 in Second Test is truly epic. Team hanging on throughout and lose plot on last day. No progress.

India, 1996

Result: England win three-match series 1-0. Captain's table: 263 runs with one hundred at 65.75. Verdict: For first time a suspicion of poor personal form despite determined Trent Bridge century. Renewed optimism.

Pakistan, 1996

Result: Pakistan win 2-0 in three match series. Captain's table: 162 runs at 32.5. Verdict: No disgrace to lose to talented side but significant that Atherton's form loss means team slump.

Zimbabwe, 1996-97

Result: 0-0 in two-match series Captain's table: 34 runs at 8.5. Verdict: England should and could have won but against opposition perceived to be poor, Atherton is utterly out of touch and suddenly his position is being questioned.

Compiled by Stephen Brenkley