Atherton disappointed but not dejected

England's captain reflects on a tense and tough series lost in one torrid day. Robert Winder reports from Cape Town
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England's helter-skelter defeat in the final Test at Newlands was certainly a blow for the 5,000 or more fans who had flown out from England to watch the climax of the series. Cape Town was to this tour what Barbados was to the last series in the Caribbean - a fanfare to little England in the land of palm-tree sunshine. The Barmy Army yomped to the Cape with their banners, and Newlands was draped with touching tributes to faraway places: Preston, Hornsey, Buxton, Stevenage, Redcar, the Builders' Arms, and, of course, Manchester United. Someone even waved a flag for Cambridge University - perhaps the skipper had friends in town.

After the match, Michael Atherton was disappointed but not dejected. On a hotel sofa the morning after South Africa had, as it were, enforced the rest day, he reflected on the tour with a little more resolve than most of his batsmen had shown in the previous few days. "Well, we came here to win the Test series," he said. "And we've not done that. And in the end we probably didn't deserve to win this series because we never got ourselves into a position to win a match. But I was happy with our general attitude. Even though we didn't play quite at our best, we were competitive."

Competitive might not seem quite the word for a 10-wicket trouncing but the Newlands Test was a bizarre match in a halting series that never - partly because the first two games were washed away by storms - quite got off the ground. Russell's new wicketkeeping record was an unlikely achievement in a series in which two entire innings were lost to rain, and a tribute to the unceasingly sprightly bowling of Dominic Cork. But when it comes to batting slides there are few teams that can hold a candle to England, and even by their standards this one was a beauty. For the second time in succession, they were blown away in only a few blinks of an eye. At one point, after Hick's dismissal, four wickets fell for two runs.

"It'll look as though we weren't in this last match," said Atherton. We lost by 10 wickets, which sounds like a pretty good stuffing. But there were times when I thought we'd win. When we had them 160 something for 9 in the first innings I thought we were favourites, and then again in the final afternoon [when Hick and Thorpe were batting]. I felt that anything over 150 South Africa would be touchy about."

When England lose, the nation always looks for someone to blame but, unlike the end of last winter's tour of Australia when Atherton expressed some dismay about the side selected to play for him, yesterday he had no regrets. "You can always look back," he said, "and say you should have brought him or him. But I still think we brought the best team. What do you do? Say, well, we've lost to South Africa so we have to go and dismantle the side? Where would that get you? We believe we've got the best players here."

Until the final match, Atherton's own performances remained steadier than anyone had a right to expect, but no other batsman was able to follow suit. Hick began with a booming century in Pretoria that was obliterated by the downpour, but no one else made three figures. Atherton, however, refused to attribute any of this to the excellence of the opposition. "They batted better as a unit and got runs down the order," he admitted. "But they haven't really got anyone who takes the game away from you. It's hard getting in, because they do have pace, but after that they don't do a lot with the ball. It's not due to the South Africans that we've not got the runs, it's down to us."

South Africa are, however, a tough side. No one objected when Allan Donald was named man of the series - although Atherton himself might have. In Brian McMillan they have, in Botham's view, the best allrounder in the world "by a country mile". The nearest England can do is Dominic Cork, who had another spectacular series. "He's a top-class bowler, and he had a fantastic tour," Atherton added. "He'd get into any side in the world, but he's not yet a No 6 batsman."

England have also been taught a bitter lesson in the art of introducing gifted youth: Paul Adams is already the poster boy of South African cricket, and Shaun Pollock shot England's tail off in less than an hour at Newlands. Along with Jacques Kallis, it is people barely out of their teens who are putting the spring back into the 'Boks.

But South Africa do not have England's long history of bad results to live with. Atherton was anxious to insist that the ship is indeed coming round, but conceded that it was a slow process. "First we've got to get into the habit of not losing," he said. "Then we've got to get into the habit of winning - but it takes time. At the end of 1993 we'd lost nine out of 10 but the next four series - India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and New Zealand - are all series we ought to win."

England certainly cannot be faltered for thoughtful effort. A bowling attack originally based on the hope that Darren Gough and Devon Malcolm would send the ball flying past South African noses was defeated by the poor form and injuries of both bowlers, and the generally slow pitches. So they switched to an approach based on swing which would have worked if England had posted some runs of their own. But the statistics tell their own story, and England, alas, remain poor tourists. "I don't know why," Atherton said, "but it tends to be harder work to bowl sides out abroad. It's not been a bad tour for injuries, but we have lost Gough, Ilott and Illingworth. So far as Goughie goes, I'd just like to see him have an injury-free summer."

So, after one day (and several wheels) off, the show goes on. Today England play a hastily arranged day-night filler against Western Province. "Yes, I'll be there," Atherton said with a grin. "Fresh as a daisy and raring to go." Judging from the way wickets fell as the series raced to its abbreviated close, his first task might be to make sure that England stick it out at least until the floodlights light up.

TOUR JUDGEMENTS

England's winners and losers in the Test series against South Africa

Winners

Michael Atherton

Indomitable as a batsman until sheer weariness told in last three innings. When he fails so, almost inevitably, does his team. Growing in invention as a captain. What he really thinks of those around him would make interesting reading.

Dominic Cork

Excellent answer to those who thought he was flattered by his instant success last summer. Head and shoulders England's best bowler. Second only to his skipper in cussed competitiveness.

Jack Russell

At last his wicket-keeping lived up to the extravagant billing it has enjoyed for the last 10 years - simple, classic and brilliant. Annoyed every South African and delighted every Englishman in equal measure with his quirky batting.

Peter Martin

Not a good first-spell bowler (unless your name is Andrew Hudson). Nevertheless, showed resilience, parsimony, swing and wicket-taking ability.

Non-movers

Graeme Hick

Still, and increasingly irritatingly, no closer to winning over the doubters. Proved to be one of many "one innings in the series" players with a brilliant century in first Test - and absolutely nothing of note afterwards.

Robin Smith

Gutsy, strong, determined, technically deficient. Nothing new there. England's most consistent batsman apart from the captain - not that that is saying much.

Mark Ilott

Commendably chirpy, but neither quick enough nor a big enough swinger of the ball to get regular Test wickets without assistance from his victims.

John Crawley

Waited patiently for his chance. Did and said all the right things until his hamstring let him down.

Richard Illingworth

Another whose performances told us nothing that we did not already know. Performed exactly to unremarkable expectations.

Jason Gallian

All you could tell from his one Test was that he moves a lot when he bats.

Losers

Ray Illingworth

"I'm responsible," he said at the start. And so he should be. Questionable selections. Dreadful man management.

Alec Stewart

Senior batsman behind Atherton, played like a novice with his feet tied together. Irrelevant cameos until fortuitous 81 in Port Elizabeth; quite horrible in Cape Town.

Devon Malcolm

Bowled with no confidence in last Test, which given his treatment by manager and bowling coach (Peter Lever), was totally predictable. Call a man an idiot often enough and he will bowl like one.

Graham Thorpe

England's best player last summer, South Africa worked him out and executed their plans perfectly. Never got going at all.

Mark Ramprakash

None of the senior players wanted to bat at No 3, so England threw the young player trying to forge his career in instead, and then threw him out when he failed. Further than ever from fulfilling the obvious talent.

Angus Fraser

Behind Malcolm (but only just) in always being jettisoned by Illingworth, his effort in bowling England back into contention in Cape Town was little short of magnificent, but won't get him picked any more regularly - being sent home before the one-dayers.

Darren Gough

Has still to recover that wonderful, swaggering confidence after his injury, and was just a shadow of himself.

Mike Watkinson

Why was he there?

TEST AND TOUR AVERAGES

England Test batting

M I NO Runs HS 100 50 Av

M A Atherton 5 8 1 390 185* 1 2 55.71

G A Hick 5 8 2 293 141 1 1 48.83

R A Smith 5 7 0 254 66 0 2 36.28

A J Stewart 5 8 0 235 81 0 1 29.37

R C Russell 5 7 2 140 50* 0 1 28.00

G P Thorpe 5 8 1 184 59 0 1 26.28

J E R Gallian 1 2 0 42 28 0 0 21.00

R K Illingworth 3 2 0 28 28 0 0 14.00

D G Cork 5 6 1 69 23* 0 0 13.80

M Watkinson 1 2 0 11 11 0 0 5.50

A R C Fraser 3 4 2 10 5* 0 0 5.00

M R Ramprakash 2 3 0 13 9 0 0 4.33

P J Martin 3 3 0 13 9 0 0 4.33

D E Malcolm 2 3 2 1 1 0 0 1.00

D Gough 2 2 0 2 2 0 0 1.00

J P Crawley 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00

M C Ilott 2 1 1 0 0* 0 0 0.00

* denotes not out

England Test bowling

Overs M Runs Wkts Av 5W 10W BB

P J Martin 105.0 37 218 11 19.81 0 0 4-60

R K Illingworth 90.5 27 187 9 20.77 0 0 3-37

D G Cork 189.2 48 485 19 25.52 1 0 5-84

M Watkinson 19.0 3 59 2 29.50 0 0 2-35

M C Ilott 44.4 10 130 4 32.50 0 0 3-48

D E Malcolm 57.0 13 195 6 32.50 0 0 4-62

A R C Fraser 66.0 21 187 4 46.75 0 0 3-84

G A Hick 45.4 5 117 1 117.00 0 0 1-38

J E R Gallian 2.0 0 6 0 - 0 0 -

D Gough 27.0 4 112 0 - 0 0 -

M R Ramprakash 4.0 0 19 0 - 0 0 -

South Africa Test batting

M I NO Runs HS 100 50 Av

D J Cullinan 5 6 0 307 91 0 4 51.16

G Kirsten 5 7 1 303 110 1 2 50.50

B M McMillan 5 6 1 224 100* 1 0 44.80

D J Richardson 5 6 1 168 84 0 2 33.60

J N Rhodes 5 6 0 165 57 0 1 27.50

S M Pollock 5 6 1 133 36* 0 0 26.60

A A Donald 5 6 3 68 32 0 0 22.66

A C Hudson 5 7 1 124 45 0 0 20.66

W J Cronje 5 6 0 113 48 0 0 18.83

P R Adams 2 3 1 29 29 0 0 14.50

M W Pringle 1 2 1 12 10* 0 0 12.00

C E Eksteen 1 2 0 15 13 0 0 7.50

C R Matthews 3 3 0 20 15 0 0 6.66

J H Kallis 2 2 0 8 7 0 0 4.00

B N Schultz 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00

* denotes not out

South Africa Test bowling

Overs M Runs Wkts Av 5W 10W BB

S M Pollock 149.5 44 377 16 23.56 1 0 5-32

A A Donald 173.5 45 497 19 26.15 1 0 5-46

P R Adams 107.1 37 231 8 28.87 0 0 3-75

C E Eksteen 63.0 25 88 3 29.33 0 0 3-12

B M McMillan 111.3 30 247 8 30.87 0 0 3-50

C R Matthews 81.0 35 165 4 41.25 0 0 3-31

B N Schultz 16.0 5 47 1 47.00 0 0 1-47

M W Pringle 40.0 9 98 2 49.00 0 0 1-46

W J Cronje 16.0 11 16 0 - 0 0 0-0

J H Kallis 4.0 2 2 0 - 0 0 0-0

G Kirsten 6.0 4 2 0 - 0 0 0-0

England tour batting

M I NO Runs HS 100 50 Av

J P Crawley 5 7 2 336 108 1 2 67.20

R C Russell 10 13 4 520 129* 1 3 57.77

A J Stewart 11 16 2 769 110 2 4 54.92

M A Atherton 9 15 2 587 185* 1 5 45.15

G P Thorpe 9 14 4 415 131* 1 2 41.50

G A Hick 10 14 2 456 141 1 2 38.00

D E Malcolm 5 6 4 62 48* 0 0 31.00

D G Cork 7 8 2 179 67* 0 1 29.83

R K Illingworth 8 6 2 112 57* 0 1 28.00

R A Smith 11 16 0 401 66 0 2 25.06

M R Ramprakash 5 8 0 183 70 0 1 22.87

J E R Gallian 2 3 0 45 28 0 0 15.00

M Watkinson 5 7 0 65 26 0 0 9.28

M C Ilott 7 5 3 15 8 0 0 7.50

A R C Fraser 5 7 2 36 15 0 0 7.20

D Gough 5 6 0 42 26 0 0 7.00

P J Martin 7 6 1 34 13* 0 0 6.80

* denotes not out

England tour bowling

Overs M Runs Wkts Av 5W 10W BB

M C Ilott 149.3 41 427 22 19.40 2 0 6-89

D G Cork 237.5 54 627 29 21.62 2 0 5-48

R K Illingworth 239.0 71 524 21 24.95 1 0 6-76

P J Martin 167.2 55 407 16 25.43 0 0 4-76

D Gough 88.4 18 283 9 31.44 0 0 3-30

M Watkinson 143.0 38 406 11 36.90 0 0 3-38

A R C Fraser 117.0 32 328 8 41.00 0 0 3-49

M R Ramprakash 16.0 3 44 1 44.00 0 0 1-7

D E Malcolm 129.0 24 451 9 50.11 0 0 4-62

G A Hick 65.4 8 165 3 55.00 0 0 2-34

J E R Gallian 7.0 0 25 0 - 0 0 -

G P Thorpe 4.0 1 15 0 - 0 0 -

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