Atherton in search of champagne days

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Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent, talks to the England captain in an exclusive interview before this week's second Test against the West Indies at Lord's and discovers a man who is more hurt by defeat than his critics could ever imagine

They were cracking open the beers until 10 o'clock inside the visitors' dressing room, and on the morning after Lancashire's improbable Benson and Hedges semi-final victory over Worcestershire, Michael Atherton was nursing a not inconsiderable hangover.

"When Gary Yates hit the winning runs, we were all dancing up and down like 10-year-olds," he said. "That's the reason I play the game - surrounded by your team-mates, enjoying that winning feeling." He might have added, but did not, that it was just as well, in that case, that he occasionally played cricket for someone other than England.

The beer also provided a temporary anaesthetic for a chronic back condition which may eventually require further attention from a surgeon's knife, and which neither anti-inflammatory tablets nor cortisone injections can prevent from periodically seizing up. There is also, of course, the implication that carrying England's troubles around on your shoulders is enough to leave anyone with the posture of a Notre Dame bell-ringer.

Atherton was confronting another impending England defeat when he was inside the Headingley dressing room watching Rob Andrew's last-minute dropped goal in the rugby World Cup game against Australia, and admitted to a tinge of jealousy. "We were all cheering like mad, of course, but that's the sort of magical moment it would be lovely for our own England team to be associated with more often.

"I can accept being beaten by a better side, just as long as you are doing the right things yourselves, and the spirit is right. But once again we let ourselves down and, quite frankly, our performance at Headingley distressed me.

"Losing so often doesn't get me down to the extent I feel I can't get back up again, but it certainly annoys me. Both Ray Illingworth and myself stressed the importance of making a winning start before the first Test, reminding the players not to think of it as a six-match series, but to approach the next five days as though our lives depended on it.

"We've talked about discipline, aggression, buzzing in the field, positive running between the wickets, bowling the right line to individual batsmen, everything. The Australians got it just right against the West Indies, and I'm a big believer in the way they play. It's simple, basic stuff. There's no secret to it."

So why, yet again, has England's determination to start a series like a finely-tuned greyhound witnessed them springing out of the traps bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pregnant dachshund? "Lord knows," Atherton said. "I thought about it a hell of a lot after Australia, and the only theory I can come up with is that perhaps the players themselves go into these series not absolutely believing they are the better side.

"When we beat the West Indies in Barbados, we had, despite being rolled over for 46 in the previous Test, dominated that game in Trinidad for four days. When we beat South Africa at The Oval, we had just had much the better of a draw at Headingley. And when we won in Adelaide, it followed a game we had mostly been on top of in Sydney. So before each of those victories, we had proved to ourselves that we had it in us to win. It's just a theory, though, and nothing I can put my finger on with any great certainty."

There is, of course, a school of thought that England's problems have not been made any easier by the supposedly dodgy relationship between the captain and manager, although occasional clashes between two stubborn characters actually mask a sound-working relationship, based not least on mutual admiration.

"It might surprise some people to know," Atherton said, "that Raymond has a fine presence in the dressing room, and all the lads enjoy his company and input. As for the public perception of our not seeing eye to eye, then I think we both take the blame for giving the media scope to promote it.

"I told him I thought it was wrong of him to criticise us before the first Test in Brisbane, and I admitted that I was wrong to have a public dig at the selectors in the press. After Australia, we agreed to sort out any future differences in private. Basically, Illy is in charge, although, to be honest, he often takes a back seat in selection rather than try to run the show himself. I'm more than happy with the extent of my input."

Atherton also shrugged off Illingworth's apparently pointed comment about him never having had a "proper job" since leaving university. "I think I've got quite a difficult job, as it happens," he chuckled, "but when there's a clear generation gap you expect this kind of thing, and the "in my day" syndrome is also the source of plenty of good-natured humour.

"There was a classic during the Headingley Test when they were re-running some old footage on TV, and when Illy padded up to Gary Sobers and was lbw playing no stroke right in front of all three stumps, we all fell about laughing. Needless to say, he shot straight back with: 'What you lot might like to know is that I top scored with 97!'

"We were recently talking about Dover for some reason, and Illy just caught a bit of the conversation as he was walking by. 'Ah, Dover,' he said, 'I once got two hundreds and 13 wickets in the match there.' There's plenty of good-natured piss-taking between us. We set him up, and he bounces back."

It has also been suggested that for all Illingworth's reputation for stubbornness, he could still take a lesson or two off Atherton in that area. "Well, in certain areas I suppose I am fairly intractable," Atherton says. "When I make up my mind about something I generally stick to it, although I do think that the 'he knows it all' impression some people have got about me is unfair.

"I've always thought that one of my strengths is in being able to listen to people, as, for example, I did when Geoff Boycott helped me through some fairly major technical adjustments in my technique during the winter. I've never been one to sit back and say: 'This is my level, I'm happy with it'. I'm always receptive to advice, and looking to improve my own game.

"I'm a much better player now than I was four or five years ago, and I like to think that most of my performances come when the team really needs them. What always gives me most pleasure is an innings that helps win the game, which is why my 85 in the first innings in Barbados after losing the first three Tests gave me a lot of pleasure."

If the team being successful is what gives Atherton pleasure, then little wonder that the cherubic smile which was near enough semi-permanent in his pre-captaincy days is nowadays more heavily rationed. Tony Greig, for example, privately complained at Atherton's grumpy demeanour in Australia, but it's not that easy to look cheerful when a bloke in a loud blazer and a silly hat is forever ushering you towards a microphone with a platitudinous: "Bad luck again Mike, here's your loser's cheque.

"You really can't win in those circumstances," Atherton said. "When you lose a Test, it should hurt. It bloody well hurts me. If anyone wants to know what sort of mood I'm in after a defeat, they should ask my girlfriend. If I bounce into an interview full of beans, people say 'he doesn't care'. If I look upset, it's 'what a miserable bastard'. So I figure, why not just be myself. I'll happily discuss the finer points of a game for people who are really interested, but I'll not get involved in platitudes for people who are just looking for an easy story.

"As for personal praise and criticism, it doesn't bother me too much. What gets to you a bit is prolonged, negative criticism, of the sort Boycott has been coming out with for the past month or two. However, certain kinds of criticism - such as getting out to the cut shot at Headingley, or bowling crap with the new ball - are absolutely fair.

"My captaincy gets scrutinised, naturally, and sometimes I get stick fairly, sometimes not. When I got criticised for being too negative in Melbourne, I thought about it afterwards, and agreed that I probably had been. But you soon realise that as a captain you have a honeymoon period when you can't do anything wrong, and then you find you can't do anything right. It's all part of the job."

Atherton's most difficult period, of course, came during the "dirt in the pocket" business last summer, after which he first illustrated the steel in his character by making 99 at Headingley and then the grievances he was nursing by rounding on the "gutter press".

"It was something I regret saying, but I'd been through a fair amount of turmoil, and there was a period of about a fortnight when I was pretty pissed off with the world. Who wouldn't have been?" One thing, though, he remains adamant about. He was not cheating.

"I don't hold myself up to be a knight in shining armour, but I have always tried to play the game the right way. Ultra competitive, but reasonably fair. When the dirt thing first came up, me and Illy had a good laugh and a joke about it, and I only realised I was in serious trouble inside the ICC referee's room."

Atherton truthfully answered "no" when Peter Burge asked him if he had any resin in his pocket, but, probably in a knee-jerk reaction when he realised how unfriendly the atmosphere had become, untruthfully answered "no" when Burge asked if he had "anything" in the pocket.

"I took my trousers into the interview with me," Atherton said, "because all that was in there was a bit of dust from the footholds a couple of pitches away from the Test wicket. Unfortunately, the cameras were not on me when I was putting the dust into my pocket in a perfectly open manner.

"Actually," he grinned, "I've still got the trousers in my locker. Unwashed. Harvey (Neil Fairbrother) wants me to give them to him for one of his benefit auctions". Pause for a chuckle, "but I might decide to save them for one of my own".

However, not all Atherton's trousers have dirty pockets because of their souvenir value. His flat in the South Manchester area of Didsbury is a monument to his bachelor life, and he has only just discovered - after five years - that there is a launderette just down the road that will do his washing for a fiver. "I usually bundle it into the car and take it to my mum," he said, "or dump it on the dressing room attendant at Old Trafford."

He has a tendency to be scruffy ("I'm one of those blokes who would even look awful in a pounds 1,000 suit") and dislikes formal occasions, preferring to unwind in his local pub in Didsbury with a pint of Marston's Pedigree and a ploughman's. Whether or not the TCCB thought they were appointing a studious Oxbridge type when they made him captain, Atherton is actually a rough edged (personably so) Manchester grammar school boy without an air or grace upon his person.

As for how long he will remain captain if results do not pick up, he is no doubt that it will not be indefinitely. "Sometimes a captain has very little control over his own destiny. For instance, when we played New Zealand at Trent Bridge last summer, a blind man could have done the job. When we played Australia at Brisbane, Mike Brearley wouldn't have made an ounce of difference.

"I feel a lot of personal responsibility for results, and if they are not good, well . . . One thing I'm not, though, is the sort of bloke who throws in the towel."

THE THOUGHTS OF ATHERTON

'Raymond has a fine presence in the dressing room, and all the lads enjoy his company and input. As for the public perception of our not seeing eye to eye, then I think we both take the blame for giving the media scope to promote it'

ON RAY ILLINGWORTH

ON HIS OWN DEMEANOUR

'You really can't win in those circumstances. When you lose a Test, it should hurt. It bloody well hurts me. If I bounce into an interview full of beans, people say "he doesn't care." If I look upset, it's "what a miserable bastard." So I figure, why not just be myself?'

ON GEOFFREY BOYCOTT

'As for personal praise and criticism, it doesn't bother me too much. What gets to you a bit is prolonged, negative criticism, of the sort Boycott has been coming out with for the past month or two.'

ON ENGLAND'S LOSING STARTS

'I thought about it a hell of a lot after Australia, and the only theory I can come up with is that perhaps the players themselves go into these series not absolutely believing they are the better side.'

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