Atherton leads with cavalier touch

Derek Pringle believes England's captain is providing a stirring example
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The Independent Online
WHENEVER England play the West Indies at cricket, the contest is invariably characterised as organised professionalism doing battle with tropical flair and aggression. Suddenly, after just two Texaco one- day internationals last week, there has been a change of identity. At Trent Bridge, England were done for by a side opting for common sense over calypso; at The Oval, the West Indies were outplayed by a team brimming with audacity and confidence. Today's decider at Lord's should see whose new face fits best.

It is curious that England now seem to prefer playing on the pacy, bouncy tracks found at The Oval and its sister pitch in Bridgetown, Barbados. Their type was always considered alien, particularly to batsmen favouring the front foot and bowlers relying on thrift and seam to compete, both common English traits ever since county pitches were covered in the Seventies. At Trent Bridge, where the slow surface demanded accuracy over effort, a rational approach saw the West Indies cut their usual charitable donation of wides and no-balls to a mere six.

That performance bore the fingerprints of their sage coach, Andy Roberts. It was a disciplined tactic that runs contrary to the natural inclinations of the West Indies, whose profligacy is legendary and who rarely invest one-day games with importance. It also allowed a rehabilitated Ian Bishop to play without straining, a move Michael Holding didn't think the West Indies would risk so early in the tour. Bishop swung the ball, which is bad news for England.

With at least a 30-below-par total of 199, England's bowlers were caught in two minds. Should they stick to bowling tight and wait for wickets to come from the pressure, or should they go on attack? In the event, they dithered, causing Raymond Illingworth to remark that they should learn that there are six balls in an over and not five, inferring that the bowlers delivered at least one bad ball an over that invariably went for four.

But England lacked lustre and spark, too, qualities many thought Michael Atherton should have demanded. He failed to do so, at least in an animated way discernible from the edges, and failed to read the riot act afterwards (he said there had been an "informal chat" in the dressing-room); some sections of the media thus began the customary demands for his head, though these had probably more to do with the delay to the post-match press conference while the England captain showered and changed after having earlier spoken to Sky TV.

Atherton has had his collar felt before for speaking his mind, but this time he waited for a day before delivering the perfect retort at The Oval in a statement brimming with controlled power and panache, a combination sometimes lacking in his his verbal assaults. His 92 was a delight, pouring further scorn on the long-held theory he was a one-pace blocker, unable to up the tempo in one-day games.

As a captain's knock, it set the tone perfectly. Like Graham Gooch before him, Atherton's batting has blossomed at the helm. But unlike the former England captain, who relied on force feeding, Atherton hopes the message will be absorbed by team-mates through osmosis. This is naive, as most cricketers are impervious to subtlety. At present, Atherton feels he is in rare touch, and it will be a shame if he cannot persuade the rest of his team to share the benefits of his vision.

The same cannot be said of his opposite number, Richie Richardson, who finds himself frozen with self-doubt and quite unable to find the middle of his bat. At Trent Bridge, he spooned a half-volley to cover, an aberration he repeated at The Oval, when he chipped a catch to the bowler.

After the careful cricket in Nottingham, the West Indies reverted to the sloppiness that has always been at the root of their fallibility in this form of cricket. Having inserted England, they combined wayward bowling and poor fielding in a shoddy performance interspersed with moments of athletic genius, as first Carl Hooper and then Brian Lara hit single stumps to effect run-outs from 20 and 70 yards respectively.

England's 306 was always too many and the reply was all bluff and bravado, a hit-and-hope plan, primitive in comparison with the deliberations of Trent Bridge. Only a gem of an innings by Junior Murray allowed the West Indies to get as close as they did, after the debutant Peter Martin made the inroads.

Martin's inclusion at the expense of Angus Fraser was a bold selection that reinforced the theory that West Indians are fallible to the swinging ball. Martin swung the ball away from the right-hander, but it was the movement into the left-handers that delivered the telling blows. Lara was bowled by a beauty and Adams, as at Trent Bridge, was lbw, having moved right across his stumps. It is only a pity that a thigh strain has made Martin doubtful for today's decider.

Apart from Lara, most of the West Indies batsmen like to take the ball early, which makes them susceptible to balls that change direction. In the recent Test series against Australia, 26 of the 64 West Indian dismissals were caught behind the wicket in an arc from gully to wicketkeeper. It is a statistic that highlights their twin weaknesses: impetuousness and a technical deficiency to balls that swing.

The game at The Oval was the 1,000th one-day international. The first, played between England and Australia in Melbourne on 5 January 1971, was a makeshift affair; a rusty old banger in comparison to today's well-oiled moneyspinners. Geoffrey Boycott, who played in the match, recalls the occasion. "It was only organised after the Melbourne Test had been washed out, in order to try and recoup some of the lost revenue. At the time, we just treated it as a practice match. There was never any thought that it might grow in popularity to become the game you see today," he said, waving his hand in the direction of the teeming Oval stands.

In fact, it has been so successful that, in most parts of the world bar England, it has long since usurped Test matches in popularity, seducing even those firmly steeped in the "proper" cricket of earlier generations. Predictably, the powers that be at Lord's have been cautious of this new Midas touch in case it should turn out to be fool's gold, and England rarely host more than two or three one-day internationals in the summer, though five were played in 1992 and six are planned for next year when both India and Pakistan tour.

If England continue their winning trend in this form of cricket, then support for the big five's proposal for more home one-day internationals may prove unstoppable. The only flaw is that it will encourage the kind of bits-and-pieces cricketer their protracted proposals for excellence are meant to eliminate. Today's full house at Lord's will no doubt be oblivious to this paradox.