Atherton slow to seize the initiative

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The Independent Online
Thanks to the handful of dust, Mike Atherton is as well known as any recent England captain. We know him as a character - "A tough bugger," as Mark Taylor put it the other day. But do we know him as a captain? This is his 15th Test in charge, but can we say whether he is an attacking captain or a defensive one, a thinker like Brearley, a daring-doer like Greig, or a simple game- plan man like Gooch ?

Do we know whether he's any good? He consistently gets the best out of himself, but can he do the same for his team?

Saturday should have provided some clues. Atherton won the toss, and elected to field. Taylor, Mark Waugh said afterwards, would have batted. So the decision made no difference, except psychologically. To put the opposition in, even on a damp pitch, is to attack. To justify it, you have to take wickets. So what does Atherton do? Very little.

He opened not with his two spearheads, Devon Malcolm and Darren Gough, but with Malcolm and Phillip DeFreitas (it was past six o'clock before Malcolm and Gough bowled in tandem). He gave them not six or seven close fielders, but five - three slips, a gully and a bat-pad. For Taylor, Atherton showed some initiative and added a leg gully - at the expense of the third slip. As it happened, Taylor was not tempted in that area.

When he brought Tufnell on, at 49 for two, Atherton posted only one catcher, Hick at slip. Later Tufnell got a silly point, but never a short leg. Michael Bevan was jumpy, but for his first 17 balls there were only two men in for the catch.

Atherton's own body language consists largely of the ruminative scratch of the head, and the odd huddle with the bowler. This seldom leads to any actual changes. No bowler switched ends until the 69th over, when DeFreitas did so. Next ball, Mark Waugh was out.

Atherton's tactics were the same as Gooch's in the West Indies in 1990: put it in the right place and let them get themselves out. That led to a famous victory, and a famous near-miss. But Australians do not usually give their wickets away.

In the end, captains are judged by results. Saturday's result was that England regained their pride. But the suspicion lingered yesterday that Australia had been let off the hook, that 220 for seven should have been 180 all out.