Atherton relaxed in reflection; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

Yet another England Test series abroad has ended in disappointment - the fourth in succession. But this time, after taking a long look at the tour as a whole, the England captain has found a number of reasons to avoid total despair. He told Robert Winder why'I think if someone of Adams' ability came along he would find himself in the England side very quickly'
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AS the floodlights lit up Newlands on Saturday night, and Western Province began the run chase that would eventually bring them victory, Michael Atherton made a couple of impressive plunging stops, diving to his right to pick up fierce slashes to gully. There was no way of knowing that earlier in the day he had been wincing dramatically as he lowered his fragile back into a hotel chair. An aching spine is, so far as anyone can tell, about the only thing that might stop Atherton becoming one of England's longest serving captains. This is one England skipper who dare not pound the pavements with lung-bursting runs back to the hotel. He walks across the lobby with the exaggerated caution of a snail.

Once again, an overseas Test series had ended in disappointment. But Atherton was far from gloomy: "It's been one of the more enjoyable tours in recent years," he said, "in that obviously the Test match series was there to be won until the end, so that kept everybody going. And the party was generally united, we were a pretty happy bunch. And then South Africa was a first- time tour for all of us, so it had novelty value as well. It's been good."

Not that it is hard to enjoy Cape Town. Newlands is spectacular, sheltered at the foot of Table Mountain and surrounded by big sprays of almond, hibiscus, lilies and orchids. Besides, the trip round South Africa had confronted the players with historic echoes and ironies. Many of the spectators and players in the series will have grown up thinking of Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. Now they were all waving the rainbow flag. "Yes," said Atherton. "That first game in Soweto was very nice. The highlight of the trip. Nelson Mandela turned up, it was the first first-class game to be played in a township, and 90 per cent of the faces in the crowd were black. It was good. And we played a couple of other games in townships. But to be honest once the Test matches got under way that side of things went away."

The final Test in Cape Town was weird - it was over in a trice and wound up looking one-sided, yet most of the time it felt close. Two days later, Atherton was still chafing at the cartoonish episode in which Richardson and Adams snicked and slashed their way to a partnership of 70. "Obviously this last Test match was the low point of the tour," he said. "There was everything to play for and basically we folded on the third day. I think the whole game hinged on that last-wicket partnership in the first innings. I think if we'd have got them out with a lead of 20 we'd have won the match. It felt that way at the time. I mean, at 160 for 9 I was 99 per cent sure we were going to win the match. Absolutely. You never know what's going to happen in a game, but you always have a gut feeling about whether you're going to win or lose. And I was convinced we were going to win, really certain of it. That partnership - or the way we bowled at that partnership - changed the game really."

It is typical of Atherton to attribute reversals to his own side's failings, not to any resourcefulness on the opposition's part. To spectators the last-wicket heroics looked freakish, a sudden intrusion of village cricket into a serious match. But Atherton's verdict was crisp: "We bowled poorly," he said. "We did bowl poorly. And it was frustrating, because we had bowled our bollocks off in the afternoon. We had bowled brilliantly, really. I mean, to get a side who's playing seven batsmen - and that's fairly negative - to get them 160 for 9 was a great performance, I thought. But then ..."

Quite a few of Atherton's sentences tail off into dots like this. It is a kind of conversational shrug - the sign of a man obliged to repeat himself a lot. Atherton performs his media duties with the air of someone whose just lost his car keys - it never looks as if he is having fun. Nor does he care much what the papers say. "I haven't seen any papers since the start of the tour, English papers that is. But normally, well ... (shrug). I don't go out of my way to read them, but I don't go out of my way to avoid them. I mean, I'll probably pick up a paper and if there are others lying around I'll flip through 'em. But to be honest I've got to the stage now where criticisms just wash over me. I've had too many, and to worry about new ones ... (shrug)."

It is one thing not to read the papers. What Atherton cannot avoid is that he has to help write them. "I don't mind sitting down the next day," he said. "Where it's the end of the game, the thing's all over, and you can sit back and be a bit more analytical about it. The things I find difficult are at the end of the game, immediately afterwards. You're still so emotionally involved that to start answering sometimes fairly inane questions - it's hard work. I mean, probably after the game at Port Elizabeth, perhaps the press would have thought I was a bit curt, maybe. But these guys just don't realise you've been maybe striding round - well, first of all you're batting for two hours trying to save the game, and then you're striding round the dressing room for four hours wondering if you're going to save the game, and that's a very tense day. And then to start waffling on ... (shrug). It's much easier the next day, when it's all over and you can sit down. When it's still fresh ... (shrug). To be honest, you don't spend a lot of time when you're batting rehearsing what you're going to say afterwards."

That last-wicket stand between Richardson and Adams provoked some chattering scrutiny of Atherton's captaincy. But looking back, there was not much he regretted. "Every day of every game as captain," he said, "there's probably a hundred odd decisions you've got to make. You're not going to get every one of them right. And some are more important than others. On the field tends to be the easier part of it, you tend to go with your gut-feeling, and so long as you're decisive and back your judgement

As for the Adams-Richardson partnership, Atherton had a well-organised memory of the decision-making process. "Well, when the new ball came due we decided to keep the old one for Pollock, because he prefers a bit of pace in it, and that worked. Watkinson got him out. So then we took the new ball and Cork got Donald out. There was a total rabbit coming in, so ... (shrug)."

Not many South Africans will enjoy hearing their new hero, Adams, referred to as a rabbit. The amazing rise of an 18-year-old after six first- class matches - it seems exactly the sort of thing that could never happen in England. Atherton was not so sure. "I don't know about that," he said. "I think if someone of his ability came along he'd find himself in the side very quickly. Not so long ago Ian Salisbury was picked after just one first-class season and there's been plenty of players who made their debut in their early twenties. Adams is only 18, that's a bit exceptional, but still ..."

It might help England, when it comes to the World Cup, that they will be the only side to have faced Adams. But Atherton's thoughts have not stretched so far ahead as next month.

"To be honest I've not really looked at the itinerary. First we've got the one-day series against South Africa [it begins in Cape Town tomorrow]. But the World Cup ... India's the one place where you can still see kids playing in parks and sidestreets and that kind of thing. They're mad keen enthusiastic. And the crowds will be immense, massive. So it will be hugely enjoyable."

Not that Atherton will be content merely to enjoy looking at the scenery. "We've got good prospects, and our record's good. Three out of five finals I think we've been in. But you never know. Lottery may be too strong a word. But in one-day cricket anyone can beat anyone. So we'll see."