Atherton named captain for South Africa tour

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Cricket Correspondent

Raymond Illingworth yesterday made a list of every candidate qualified to captain England abroad this winter, and then, after surveying several yards of blank paper underneath the name of Michael Atherton, duly appointed him.

There was, in a nutshell, no other serious option. Atherton's credentials are such that he has even managed to get away with the occasional observation about his chairman possibly not having a direct bloodline to Solomon, and in purely cricketing terms, he also presented an unanswerable case. Atherton, almost exclusively from personal example, has managed to convey to his team that talent is not much use in the commando unit environment of modern Test cricket if it is coupled with a Boy Scout mentality. And Illingworth, as hard a nose as ever came out of Yorkshire, recognises only too well that behind Atherton's cherubic features lies a warrior's mentality. In fact, the only danger of Atherton not being reappointed lay in the intensity he has given to the job. His county coach, David Lloyd, has suggested that Atherton's internal battery pack would currently struggle to power a pencil torch, although Atherton himself claims: "Mentally and physically, I'm in pretty good nick."

He is probably half-right. Mentally, Atherton is up for the prospect of beating the West Indies, and should be comparatively fresh again by the time England leave for South Africa on 18 October. Physically, however, he is barely up to doing his own ironing back in his bachelor flat in Didsbury.

Four years ago, Atherton underwent surgery for a chronic back condition, and scarcely a day goes by without him reaching (gingerly) for a pain- killer. When those fail to work, cortisone injections are required, and he will probably seek a further operation when England return from the World Cup in an attempt to prolong a career that is already under long- term threat.

A year ago, Atherton's England future was in considerable doubt after the dirt-in-the-pocket affair during the Lord's Test against South Africa, although his subsequent fine for dissent was properly recognised as a case of the International Cricket Council referee, Peter Burge, playing the heavy-handed headmaster for an incident that was something less than piffling.

Illingworth, however miffed at Atherton's public mutterings over team selection during last winter's debacle in Australia, recognised - beneath the insubordination - a like-minded character, who was fed up with opponents wiping their feet on the doormats of international cricket.

"Mike has had a great summer, and is the best man for the job," Illingworth said yesterday. "He is improving all the time as a captain," Illingworth added, before putting the improvement down to Atherton spending more time listening to him. The grin was genuine, although, knowing the chairman, so too was the sentiment.

Atherton has also grown into Illingworth, and was asked how he thought they would get on in each other's company every day this winter. In a jocular double-barrelled reference to Illingworth's complaint at not being contacted enough last winter, and the chairman's reputation for thrift, Atherton said: "It should save on the phone bill. Mine."

As for suggestions that Atherton was exhausted, Illingworth - not unreasonably given his own undiminished stamina - said: "He's a young man. I was still doing the job at 41. As for Mike's back, it is never going to be 100 per cent, but he's got to learn to live with it and take what rest he can."

Whatever compliments he might get from Illingworth, Atherton will grow to be an old man before any sympathy comes his way.