Cricket: Atherton: an Oxbridge over troubled waters?: England's new captain is the brainiest since Brearley. But will it help? Tim de Lisle reports

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The Independent Online
FOR years the one thing that has been widely known about Mike Atherton's relationship with his fellow professionals was that someone at Lancashire once painted 'FEC' on his locker. It stood, of course, for Future England Captain. And on Wednesday it came true. On Thursday, however, it came untrue.

Paul Allott, senior pro when Atherton arrived in the Lancashire dressing-room, was interviewed in the Independent. Yes, said Allott, the letters had been stencilled on the locker. 'But it was only later translated as Future England Captain. In the first translation the middle word was Educated and you can fill in the other two words yourself.'

People talk about English cricket as if it had big class divisions. Once upon a time, it did. But it's 30 years since the Gentlemen faced the Players. Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart weren't even born then. Most cricketers today are either classless (because brought up far away, like Robin Smith or Andy Caddick) or solidly middle-class. If a sociologist were to inspect the backgrounds of the present England team, he would be hard pressed to find different socio-economic groupings for Atherton (son of a headmaster) and Stewart (son of a cricketer turned coach and manager).

What is more likely to divide players is education. It certainly divides Atherton and Stewart. Stewart left school (Tiffin Boys', Kingston-upon-Thames) at 16, with four O levels. Atherton (Manchester Grammar) got 10 O levels, stayed on for A levels and won a place at Cambridge. His college was Downing, traditional refuge of the sportsman; he made sure no one would say he'd only got in on his cricket by securing a 2:1 in History.

Education breeds suspicion in those who don't have it. County dressing-rooms are places where the lowest common denominator flourishes, where conversation is banter, where the Sun is more thumbed than the Guardian, and freedom of thought is not encouraged. That a bright new boy should be described as a F---ing Educated C--- comes as no surprise. What would be more unexpected is if the stencil had been on the other foot - if Stewart, say, had been called a F---ing Uneducated C---. In fact it's unthinkable.

'The university boys have to earn their spurs,' says Paul Parker, the veteran Durham batsman, once of Cambridge, Sussex and England. 'They're seen as having had an easy ride in. There can be an antagonism, a certain undercurrent, especially if places are up for grabs.'

Atherton will be England's 71st captain, and the 34th to have gone to Oxford or Cambridge. The statistic is remarkable, but misleading. The list includes some of the game's most famous names - Warner, Jardine, Allen, May, Cowdrey, Brearley. But it also includes a string of long-forgotten figures who were probably not even famous in their heyday - Sir Charles Aubrey Smith, captain in one Test in 1888-89; Sir Timothy O'Brien, ditto, 1895-96; R T Stanyforth, captain in four Tests, 1927-28; G T S Stevens, captain in the other Test, 1927-28. Their England was an England whose cricket captains had to be amateurs, whose great universities had first-class status, and whose admissions tutors looked kindly on a chap who had been in his public school XI. The surprise is that anyone became captain of England who hadn't been to Oxbridge.

All that changed with the appointment of Len Hutton, the first professional to captain England, in 1952, and the abolition of amateur status 10 years later. Since 1970, only two England captains out of 17 have been former Blues - Brearley and Tony Lewis, whose eight Tests in charge came when Ray Illingworth was unavailable. The only present county captain with an Oxbridge degree is Chris Tavare of Somerset, and he is about to retire. There is a tradition, but it is dying.

Does education help, anyway? If you look at the best England captain of the modern era, Brearley, you'd probably say yes; he had an exceptional brain and it shone out on the field. Look at the next best, Illingworth, and you might say no; he had nous, shrewdness, tactical acumen, what did he need a degree for? The same goes for foreign captains. The best of recent years is Imran Khan, who went to Oxford. The second-best is probably Allan Border, who is noted for many things, but not for academic excellence.

And yet it was possible to turn to the back page of the Telegraph on Wednesday and read the banner headline 'Intelligence is the asset which should swing vote to Atherton'. Did it? Perhaps, though it wasn't one of the things Ted Dexter mentioned at the press conference - the closest he came was 'tactical awareness'. Should it have? Yes and no. 'I don't really think a degree makes much difference,' Paul Parker says. 'You've got to be able to read the game, which is a different thing.'

What Your Country Needs just now is not so much intelligence as intellectual independence: individuality, imagination, pluralism. The Gooch regime favoured regimentation, sameness, sticking to the game plan. It is significant that Gooch's nemesis was India, where England were defeated as much by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings as by the skills of Kumble and Kambli. Gooch's team did conspicuously worse there than Greig's or Gower's - teams led by people who wanted to be there, who relished the culture shock. Atherton lacks their charisma, but shares their broad- mindedness. It's a shame he's not starting on the sub-continent - though Guyana, where England go in March, will pose many of the same questions (especially if it rains for a week, as it did when England were last there).

As education makes life harder for the young cricketer, lining him up for a bit of stick, so it makes things easier later. 'If you come through all that with your individuality intact,' Parker says, 'it can stand you in good stead. The most important thing, as Mike himself said, is to be your own man.'

As well as an education, Cambridge supplied Atherton with most of his first-class captaincy experience. He was captain for two years - a rare honour, and one that means he has had ample practice at one aspect of captaining England: watching the opposition make about a thousand for four, trying to save the follow-on, and then battling pluckily to escape with a draw.

A captain needs to stand a bit aloof from his team. Gooch did so by virtue of his age, integrity and unfading ability to make runs. The first of those will not apply to Atherton; the second should; the third may, but it's asking a lot. The one thing that's certain to single him out is his education. On two England tours, he was the only player I ever saw sitting in a departure lounge with a Penguin Classic. In the Cricketers' Who's Who, he admits to a liking for Joseph Heller, Milan Kundera and Julian Barnes: the bookshelf of a free spirit, a lateral thinker. His preferred newspaper is the Independent. It is; so's he.