Cricket: Ashes Verdict: Atherton sweeping away the cobwebs: English captain's pluck and touch of luck help revive fortunes as his men prepare for the tough trip to the West Indies. Martin Johnson looks back over a summer that ended positively

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SO THE new broom, sporting tufts of what looks suspiciously like designer bristle, has already succeeded in sweeping away a few of the cobwebs. English cricket had been making such remorseless progress towards the knackers' yard that a single Test match has almost elevated Michael Atherton to the ranks of the Australian-slaying giants, alongside the Jardines and the Brearleys.

Even at this early stage, and despite the fact that his increased marketing potential could yet include (once he has a shave) advertising talcum powder in baby commercials, it is obvious enough that Atherton is officer material. He has not quite ridden into town and cleaned up Dodge City single handed, but he exudes the sort of presence that at least makes the piano stop playing when he walks through the swing doors of the saloon.

He even appears to have that highly underrated captain's attribute of luck, in that Devon Malcolm's radar was in perfect working order on a pitch that might have been made for him, and an injury to Martin Bicknell handed him Angus Fraser on the eve of the match. On top of which Australia played as though the pitch was Bondi beach, and they had hung a hammock between the stumps, not to mention the fact that the more dubious umpiring decisions went England's way for the first time in the series.

Six months ago in India, Atherton's boyish smile had an altogether wryer tilt to it. Unconsidered as a one-day player, expendable as a batsman in a team who had about as much order and cohesion as Calcutta High Street, and having discovered that his place in the leadership pecking order was somewhere below Graham Gooch, Alec Stewart, Neil Fairbrother, Mike Gatting and John Emburey, Atherton cut a solitary and even lonely figure.

However, this, while he might not have appreciated it at the time, was another indication of being under a lucky star sign. Of all the times not to be too closely associated with the officers' mess, it is when the team are a total mess. When the fertiliser finally hit the fan, Atherton was the only one smelling of roses, and Ted Dexter at least got that one right before clearing his desk.

So what now? A new cottage industry in 'Ted Must Stay' T-shirts? Scrap the investigation into English cricket? Hardly. Comforting though it is to see a tourniquet applied to the wound, England can scarcely be said to have finally emerged from a period in which they did not so much represent the taking of a scalp, as an exercise in knocking off old ladies' wigs.

Dexter, to his credit, has not spent all his time ensuring that the next edition of the Wisden Book of Cricketing Quotations will be five times fatter than Wisden itself, but the grass-root problems that he has been addressing will not vanish on the strength of one victory. His successor's task remains the same. Attempting to channel as much TCCB energy into cricket than is currently expended on finding people to pay to have their name daubed over hats, stumps, outfields, sightscreens, and before we know it, balls.

Far and away the most gratifying aspect of the summer, but which will only remain so as long as England are competitive, has been the sold-out notices on the gates of the Test match grounds. One-sided it might have been, but virtually every day of the series has contained passages of compelling theatre, and in England at least - if nowhere else - the real thing is not yet in danger of being buried under the one-day avalanche.

Limited-overs cricket has its moments (although it is generally sound advice to fill in the moments before those moments by bringing along a good book, a knitting pattern, and an alarm clock) but Test cricket played as it was this summer offers so much more variety. Shane Warne's bowling, in particular, was something to marvel at, and his first delivery in Ashes cricket will be as treasured a piece of archive film as anything involving Bodyline or Bradman. How anyone can spin a ball twice the width of a Gatting boggles the mind.

England's batsmen were also mesmerised, not surprisingly perhaps, by the sight of a pair of matchstick legs mincing in at them, supporting what appeared to be several five-course lunches underneath the shirt, topped off by a blob of cream and a moustache that infringed Law 42 in its delivery of fast, short-pitched syllables. Mervyn Hughes is a character, and un- appealing though aspects of it are, cricket's appeal would swiftly disappear with the advent of anonymous conformity.

On the subject of appealing, the two people on the field who ought to be relatively anonymous are the umpires, but this was yet another series which took us further away from the days when they were required to do little more than take out six marbles for counting purposes, and closer to the day when they lose their marbles, and are attended to by a different type of men in white coats.

It is generally perceived that the standard of umpiring in England has gone downhill in recent years, but in point of fact it is no better or worse than it has ever been. What makes it seem worse is that players now appeal for everything, and register total horror (often in TV close-up) when decisions go against them. If everything appealed for was given out, Test matches would be five innings per side played over two days.

There have been some ropy decisions in this series, and who knows what shape the final day might have taken had Michael Slater not been given out caught off his arm guard. However, the sight of players - England's mostly - handing out hugs and exchanging high fives in advance of any umpiring adjudication is disrespectful at best, and cheating at worst. The TCCB might care to address this subject at its next meeting, assuming it is not too busy organising lunchtime parachute displays. Who is it, by the way, who assumes Test crowds want to see people in funny costumes falling out of the sky every time they take the lid off the sandwich tin?

However, depressing summer though it has largely been, victory in the final Test has produced a new wave of optimism - a kind of dreamy lie back and think of England contentment, rather than think of England and find a darkened room for a long lie-down. There is no harm in dreaming, but at times like this, it is always worth taking a barometer reading from those incurable romantics, and starry- eyed philanthropists, the bookmakers. Ah yes, here it is, West Indies to win the series, 3-1. On.

A panel of independent umpires - willing to take charge of Tests around the world - could be in place by October. Leading umpires from the nine-Test playing nations have already agreed. The idea is for one overseas umpire to stand with a home-based official. 'I'm hoping the panel can be in place by October or November,' the International Cricket Council's chief executive, David Richards, said.

AUSTRALIA

BATTING

M I NO R HS 100 50 Ca St Ave S R Waugh 6 9 4 416 *157 1 2 5 - 83.20 D C Boon 6 10 2 555 *164 3 1 5 - 69.37 M E Waugh 6 10 1 550 137 1 5 9 - 61.11 I A Healy 6 7 2 296 *102 1 2 21 5 59.20 A R Border 6 9 1 433 *200 1 1 8 - 54.12 M A Taylor 6 10 0 428 124 2 1 11 - 42.80 M J Slater 6 10 0 416 152 1 2 2 - 41.60 S K Warne 6 5 2 113 37 - - 4 - 37.66 B P Julian 2 3 1 61 *56 - 1 2 - 30.50 P R Reiffel 3 3 0 62 42 - - 1 - 20.66 M G Hughes 6 5 0 76 38 - - - - 15.20 T B A May 5 4 2 23 15 - - 2 - 11.50 C J McDermott 2 1 0 8 8 - - - - 8.00

BOWLING

O M R W 5w 10w BB Ave P R Reiffel 140.4 31 396 19 2 - 6-71 20.84 S K Warne 439.5 178 877 34 1 - 5-82 25.79 M G Hughes 296.2 78 845 31 1 - 5-92 27.25 T B A May 278 90 592 21 1 - 5-89 28.19 A R Border 27 11 35 1 - - 1-16 35.00 S R Waugh 32 9 82 2 - - 2-45 41.00 B P Julian 82 16 291 5 - - 2-30 58.20 M E Waugh 56 17 161 1 - - 1-43 161.00 C J McDermott 48 11 126 0 - - - -

ENGLAND

BATTING

M I NO R HS 100 50 Ca St Ave J E Emburey 1 2 1 92 *55 - 1 - - 92.00 G A Gooch 6 12 0 673 133 2 4 2 - 56.08 M A Atherton 6 12 0 553 99 - 6 1 - 46.08 G P Thorpe 3 6 1 230 *114 1 1 5 - 46.00 G A Hick 3 6 0 256 80 - 2 - - 42.66 M R Ramprakash 1 2 0 70 64 - 1 2 - 35.00 A J Stewart 6 12 0 378 78 - 3 14 2 31.50 N Hussain 4 8 2 184 71 - 1 2 - 30.66 R A Smith 5 10 0 283 86 - 2 2 - 28.30 M W Gatting 2 4 0 91 59 - 1 2 - 22.75 A R C Fraser 1 2 0 41 28 - - 1 - 20.50 M N Lathwell 2 4 0 78 33 - - - - 19.50 N A Foster 1 2 0 36 20 - - - - 18.00 A R Caddick 4 8 1 101 25 - - 2 - 14.42 C C Lewis 2 4 0 52 43 - - 1 - 13.00 M P Maynard 2 4 0 39 20 - - 2 - 9.75 P M Such 5 9 3 56 *14 - - 2 - 9.33 S L Watkin 1 2 0 17 13 - - 1 - 8.50 M C Ilott 3 5 1 28 15 - - - - 7.00 M J McCague 2 3 0 20 11 - - 1 - 6.66 M P Bicknell 2 4 0 26 14 - - - - 6.50 P A J DeFreitas 1 2 0 12 7 - - 1 - 6.00 P C R Tufnell 2 4 2 3 *2 - - 1 - 1.50 D E Malcolm 1 2 2 0 *0 - - - - -

BOWLING

O M R W 5w 10w BB Ave A R C Fraser 45.5 9 131 8 1 - 5-87 16.37 S L Watkin 53 13 152 6 - - 4-65 25.33 D E Malcolm 46 8 170 6 - - 3-84 28.33 P M Such 239.5 64 541 16 1 - 6-67 33.81 J E Emburey 57 13 150 3 - - 2-119 50.00 M C Ilott 129 28 412 8 - - 3-108 51.50 P A J DeFreitas 47 9 126 2 - - 1-46 63.00 P C R Tufnell 104 12 319 5 - - 2-78 63.80 M P Bicknell 87 17 263 4 - - 3-99 65.75 M J McCague 79.3 13 294 4 - - 4-121 73.50 A R Caddick 153 28 488 5 - - 3-32 97.60 C C Lewis 58 7 238 2 - - 2-151 119.00 G P Thorpe 6 1 14 0 - - - - G A Hick 25 7 52 0 - - - - G A Gooch 25 6 66 0 - - - - N A Foster 30 4 94 0 - - - -

TCCB Official Cricket Statistics* denotes not out

(Photograph omitted)

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