Cricket: A triumph for the obstinate

Henry Blofeld says a stubborn streak sets Atherton apart as a captain
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The Independent Online
The fact that Mike Atherton is captaining England for a record 42nd time in a Test match probably says more about him than any other statistic. It argues resilience, toughness, determination, bloody mindedness and, of course, no little ability.

The captain has to be ready to answer questions from a hungry media, never-ending press conferences, his patience has to be in the same class as Job's.

It is important to have a sense of humour, a grounding in diplomacy would be a help and he then has to go and score runs. He is always under close and intense scrutiny and never has the slightest chance of being left alone to get on with the job.

The way the captaincy has changed has meant that it is becoming increasingly difficult to compare the present incumbent with any but his closest predecessors.

The goal posts have constantly changed, not least in the public criticism the captain receives even from those who have been on the selection committee with him and who made him captain in the first place.

Atherton has now passed the record of Peter May, who captained England 41 times, and barring accidents Atherton is likely, in time, to have established quite a target for his successors.

As he overtakes May, it is inevitable that the two should be compared. In terms of batting, there is no comparison. May was probably the finest post-war batsman England has produced and Atherton, although he has a Test average of over 42, is not in the same class.

There are other comparisons, too. May inherited a fine England side from Len Hutton which won almost everything until it came up against an Australian side in 1958/59 which contained bowlers who dragged and chucked. After losing that series 4-0, May found himself under increasing pressure from the media, of whom he was never very fond. Being something of an introvert, he was not a ready communicator and the following year in the West Indies his health gave out and he packed it in at the sadly early age of 32.

Already there is a contrast there. Atherton has had his moments with the press with whom he has not always communicated easily, and he has also come extremely close to being sacked, but somehow he has managed to hold on and after the recent victory at Edgbaston is as secure in the job as he has ever been.

Mentally, he is tough - tougher in some ways than May, who could himself occasionally be something of a martinet on the field, and in Atherton's character there is more than a streak of bloody-minded obstinacy.

Of course, he has nothing like the side to captain that May had. Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Jim Laker and Tony Lock were four of his bowlers and Trevor Bailey the all-rounder - and what would Atherton give for him now - in addition to Colin Cowdrey and May himself as the principal batsmen.

The question this begs is would May have stuck to it for as long as Atherton if he had inherited Atherton's side in the first place. Almost certainly not. May did not have to contend with the one-day international either. Atherton has been in charge for 44 of those, the most draining form of contemporary cricket.

Atherton is a child of his times just as May was of an earlier period. He is not naturally adventurous and is rather too inflexible and he invariably views situations from the defensive angle first. This is partly a legacy of too much defeat and partly because these days defeat brings with it too much attendant baggage.

Few captains have been significantly better than the side under them and there was not much Atherton could do except sit in the dressing-room when England were bowled out yesterday for 77.

He is, though, a thoroughly modern captain and it would be extremely churlish not to give him great credit for helping to keep England's cricket together over the last few difficult years. He and Lord MacLaurin may now form the partnership English cricket has long been looking for.