Cricket: Atherton has fresh appetite for Ashes

England's former captain has found a new mental attitude as he prepares to face Australia
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The Independent Online
WHAT DO you do after being consumed by something that occupies most of your waking thoughts as well those during sleep? For Michael Atherton, the mental slack that followed when he resigned as England captain last April spelt challenge not dotage. So what did he do? He raised his game, and took up surfing and cooking.

By far the most important from English cricket's point of view was the rekindling of his form, as demonstrated against South Africa, and on that evidence remains crucial to England's Ashes prospects this winter. The cooking, via the Delia Smith canon, has come about with some gentle cajoling from his girlfriend, while the surfing takes place on the telephone, as he keystrokes his way around the Internet on his laptop.

As an opening batsman, Atherton's form has been closely linked to the prospects of the team. When he has failed, England have tended to follow suit with alarming regularity. So, when the two conspired in the West Indies 10 months ago the pressure on his captaincy became acute. A thrashing in the last Test in Antigua finally brought about the severance that had loomed since the soil in the pocket incident at Lord's in 1995.

Without conspicuous success, five years in one of the toughest jobs in sport can bring even the toughest mind to a mental standstill. When that happens, walking away can be as difficult as staying. In truth, Atherton had wanted to step down after the Ashes defeat in 1997 but was talked round, first by the chairman of the England Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, and then by the England coach, David Lloyd, and the chairman of selectors, David Graveney.

If he half-admits that carrying on in the West Indies was a mistake, he is over it now. The famed Atherton reticence gives little away and those who do not know him would sense little difference between the man of now and then. Power did not corrupt, instead it preoccupied.

Little clues pointing to a change keep popping up, though, and whereas the old captain Atherton would have barely had the perspicacity to boil an egg, on the day we met he had knocked up a shoulder of lamb, stuffed with rice and kidneys, and accompanied by potato dauphinois. Should Channel 4 struggle for ideas on how to fill the rainy days next summer, then a cookery show hosted by Athers in the dressing-room might just be the ticket.

Meanwhile, Australia beckons for England's opener, a place of vast spaces and mealy-mouthed fast bowlers. This is his third tour there and the first since India 1992/93 where he travels simply as a footsoldier.

"I'm looking forward to it," he says with candour. "Captaincy on tour is a tough thing. There are lots of people to look after. It's easy to lose sight of yourself."

Although today's tours are shorter than their predecessors of even a decade ago, the cricket is far more intensive. Yet if it is a change Atherton regrets, he still believes tours offer more in the way of personal satisfaction: "I've always enjoyed being away and have never understood people who don't enjoy touring. As a team it's much harder to generate the kind of spirit you'd want at home, as players go back to their counties [after each Test]. If you have success on tour it feels more rewarding somehow."

Success abroad, particularly against Australia, has been elusive though and England have not held the Ashes since Mike Gatting's side retained them there 12 years ago. Did this hiatus create something of an unhealthy obsession?

"No, not at all. I think it is good to have something to aim at and with the Ashes, no motivation is needed. It's a huge thing. The Aussies are the best team in the world and this is a great opportunity for us."

Atherton's own Ashes epiphany came as a 13-year-old in 1981. At Headingley, the ancient feud was brought sharply into focus by the heroics of Ian Botham and Bob Willis. It was a one-off that clearly fired Atherton's as well as the country's imagination.

Much is talked about the effect of inspiration from one generation to another, a point illustrated if not proven when Atherton came within a game last summer of equalling Botham's 63-match record of consecutive Tests. Such longevity, he feels, is not something that will be widespread now that the ECB have increased the amount of international cricket to be played in a domestic summer.

"Seven Tests is too many for a summer. In my opinion 10 or 11 are as many as you can play in a year. The increase is obviously a money thing, though players' careers will be getting much shorter."

Ironically, it is an injury from overuse, the one to Shane Warne's right shoulder, that is dominating the build-up to the series this time. A good player of spin, Atherton, like his captain, Alec Stewart, wants the leg- spinner to be fit: "Without the best spinner in the world playing there is little doubt that the series will have less cachet. If he does play, we mustn't just sit in and let him bowl at us, and we must at least have some aggressive intent."

Some might reason that Atherton is getting ahead of himself here. After all, when Australia toured last year it was Glenn McGrath who had his number, dismissing him seven times in 12 innings, mainly with well-directed bouncers.

"I've never had a problem with the short ball. The problem against McGrath was the positions I was getting into, which were bad ones. I was getting too far across rather than being beside the ball. Working with Goochie [Graham Gooch] has helped and I'm playing much better now than then. Anyway, I'd like to think that anyone who can average 50-odd against Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock can play a bit.

"Mind you, the Aussie attack of Jason Gillespie, Paul Reiffel, Warne and McGrath were, with regards to consistency and accuracy, as good as I've faced. Scoring runs against them, particularly on our green pitches, was hard work."

As expected, Australia brings its own nuances to bear, and last time Atherton made a heartfelt plea to the selectors of future tours to invest in youth: "If there was a lesson to be learnt from last time, it was that you can't take people that struggle in the field. Australia has hotter weather and bigger grounds than England and you need players who are fit and able to cope."

But can England win more than an isolated Test against an Aussie side that looks to possess even more batting depth than normal?

"On paper I'd have to say they start as favourites. But the gap between us is much less now than when I first started playing."

By Christmas, we shall know if he is right.

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