Cricket: A furore that has muddied reputations: Ball-tampering row: No one emerges with much credit from the sport's latest incident, argues Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S performance off the field yesterday was not conspicuously better than their performance on it. Their captain denied doing anything illegal, his denial was accepted by his chairman of selectors, and the same chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth, then fined him pounds 2,000.

The cynical answer is that Illingworth's fine was meant to achieve two things, both of which are doomed to failure. Firstly, to appease the Pakistanis (who still believe the allegations of ball-tampering made against them in 1992 to be an English imperialist plot) and secondly to appease the press.

'The matter has been dealt with, and is now closed,' Illingworth said. He has been involved in enough political in-fighting at Yorkshire to have known a bit better. In fact, within five minutes, it was announced that Peter Burge, the International Cricket Council match referee, will be issuing his own statement this afternoon.

The oddest part of this whole business is that Atherton had two opportunities to answer perhaps the most relevant question of all. 'Did Burge at any time on Saturday night ask you whether you had anything in your pocket?' Atherton replied, both times: 'That conversation remains a private one between me and Mr Burge.'

If, however, Burge did not ask this question, it hardly places him in the Perry Mason class of cross- examination. If, on the other hand, Burge did ask him, then people are perhaps entitled to construe Atherton's omission to mention the dirt (as opposed to the reply given that he was merely drying his hands inside his pocket) as information he did not wish Burge to be aware of.

Professional cricket is now in an era when Denis Compton wouldn't dare plaster his hair with Brylcreem, and the subject is so sensitive (largely thanks to the ICC's hilariously inept performance over the Pakistani affair) that Atherton is at least guilty of being unwittingly un-intelligent. And Atherton is as intelligent a bloke to have captained England since Mike Brearley.

Atherton says he is not a cheat, and anyone who knows him believes him to be a man of his word. However, it is well known that professional cricketers cheat, and that tampering with the ball is the best known example. In days gone by, there were bowlers around with fingernails that could open a can of baked beans, never mind lift a seam, although umpiring (and television) scrutiny is now such that it is the outfielders, rather than the bowlers, who mostly do the dirty work.

One of the most popular methods, and one which Atherton doubtless felt he was suspected of, is to carry a stick of lip salve inside the trouser pocket for polishing purposes. These come in a variety of flavours, and one former Test bowler said that when a batsman 'sniffed the leather', as West Indian quickies are fond of saying, he was as likely to be overcome by an aroma of peppermint or raspberry as fright.

What Burge will say today is not known, but he has been one of the few ICC referees to take action in the past.

The manner in which Atherton was fingered, so to speak, was further evidence of the influence of television cameras. David Gower was caught giving the Old Trafford crowd a V-sign during the 1989 Ashes debacle, and it was at Lord's that Chris Broad got into hot water when a BBC close-up of him leaving the crease, after an lbw decision he did not much care for, would have stunned any maiden aunts with a diploma in lip reading.

In 1992, Richie Benaud spluttered an incredulous and involuntary 'hey up, steady on' into the microphone when he saw Aqib Javed working on the ball, and it had a direct bearing on Tony Lewis treading carefully when he thought he saw Atherton doing something odd on Saturday. Lewis asked the director to hold the piece of film, and show it again during a break in play. They got the film ready, the camera panned on to Atherton so that Lewis could say something to introduce the canned footage, and there he was doing it again. 'A bit of Aladdin's Lamp treatment,' was Lewis's description.

Atherton was convinced enough of his innocence to offer his trousers to Burge as forensic evidence (deemed to be unnecessary) and he said to a former team-mate on Saturday night: 'If anyone wants to accuse me of cheating, I'll be a rich man.'

Having been cleared by his immediate boss of cheating, he is now pounds 2,000 poorer, but, more importantly, the authority of his captaincy has inevitably been subject to some erosion. He is a strong enough character to get over it, but some of the mud in his pocket will inevitably stick.


'I have investigated, under 4A of ICC procedures, unfamiliar action taken by the England captain when handling the ball during the afternoon session. Consultation with the umpires (Dickie Bird and Steve Randell) and inspection of the ball confirmed that there was nothing untoward. I also confirm that no official reports were lodged by any parties. I have accepted the explanation given and no action will be taken.'

(Photograph omitted)