Cricket: Atherton leaves troubles behind

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; As England depart today to tour Zimbabwe and New Zealand, the captain tells Derek Pringle that lonely nights and trying tests are the lot of the modern cricketer
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The threat of a full-scale mutiny is every leader's worst nightmare. Which is why it was surprising to find Michael Atherton as uncommonly cheery as he was when we met last week at his girlfriend's flat among the white stucco bohemia of Notting Hill.

Recently returned from England's training camp in the Algarve, as well as a spot of fishing on the Tweed - which is really what he wanted to talk about, having caught five salmon ranging from 6lbs to 18lbs - there was little evidence of any remorse from the man who had just made one of the least popular decisions of recent years, by banning wives and girlfriends from England's winter tour of Zimbabwe and New Zealand. The party leave for their three-month trip today.

Over the years England cricket teams have been uncommonly accurate at shooting themselves in the foot. But by testing the loyalty of his troops before a ball has been bowled, the skipper seems to have surpassed even the most basic howlers committed on the field. At a time when the standing of men's sport is at an all-time low with the female of the species, Atherton's move appears to make even the demands of the heartless Captain Bligh appear as the font of all benevolence.

"It was a management decision, but I'm happy to take the flak if needs be," he counters with a jut of the jaw and a typically robust thrust of bat and pad. "The management expressed its views during our week's training camp in Portugal. We felt that on this occasion, with Christmas coming so soon after the start of the tour, that an organised trip for spouses, families and girlfriends would distract us from what we were trying to build in the first month of the tour.

"Naturally, one or two expressed strong views and one or two were reluctant to agree to it. But when we explained that it was a one-off thing due to the unusual timing of the tour, and that it was a sacrifice we were asking for, it was generally accepted."

The decision, despite once being policy for cricket teams touring abroad, in fact has its roots in the Cape Town Test of last winter. With its striking vistas and beaches, that was where England's touring party of 20 swelled to an unmanageable 60-plus, as families arrived for the festive season.

With the Test series level at 0-0, it also coincided with England going belly up in the crucial last Test. In the eyes of Ray Illingworth, the distracting presence of wives, families and girlfriends came a close second to Devon Malcolm in providing scapegoats for the debacle.

These days, with players being away for home for long periods even during the domestic season, it is a major problem, and one that Atherton feels ought to be addressed more seriously when overseas tours are planned.

"I'm not having a go at the wives, but itineraries don't really cater for visits. In future, I'd like to see tours much better thought out - trips that cater for a player's involvement with his family, while not taking away the focus from the Tests, which are the most important part of any tour. There is no easy solution, although the Aussies have their wives and families flown out by their Board at the end of a tour."

Unpopular though that decision may be, the recent inclusion of Ian Botham as an ad hoc bowling consultant is one that Atherton hopes will inspire his team, as well as improving the wicket-taking capacity of England's pace bowling quintet. "To my generation, Beefy's feats in the early 1980s were legend and people look up to him. I played with him, so he's more human now and not some figure on a pedestal like he is to Corky [Dominic Cork] and Darren Gough.

"Primarily he was a great swing bowler, so if Corky or Goughie want to discuss their bowling with someone, then he's the man. We're looking for whatever he can give back. If anything rubs off it will be a great thing. I just can't see him having a negative impact."

Until now, Botham's presence - pushed for by the coach, David Lloyd, since early summer - had always been vetoed by Illingworth, whose retirement as chairman of selectors last September effectively gave Lloyd the green light for making the informal -and so far unsalaried - appointment.

For all the trumpeting, Illingworth oversaw an era of cluttered thinking that promised continuity, but ended up using at least twice as many players as it ought. The catch-all tactical cry of "horses for courses" - as bowlers and batters were chopped and changed from one pitch to the next - covered for the blatant lack of a cohesive game plan or a vision that extended beyond the game in hand. This is a point Atherton readily concedes.

"Certainly one of the worst aspects of the last two years has been the unsettled nature of the side. It's important to have a vision, and you'd have to go back to the Caribbean side of 1994 to see what I was trying to achieve. Then we had a young side, which I envisaged perhaps going though one or two bad times together, but one which would hopefully have grown consistently stronger. Then Illy came in, things changed and the goalposts moved. Mind you, I sat on selection, so I'll take part blame for it."

Since the next chairman of selectors will not be elected until March, a post for which Graham Gooch appears an early favourite, team selection on tour will be consensus based, with a committee comprising Atherton, his deputy Nasser Hussain, plus the tour manager, John Barclay, as well as the coaches, Lloyd and John Emburey. "I don't think I'll be able to get a word in edgeways," was the England captain's response as the gaggle's verbosity quotients were considered.

He is glad to have Hussain as vice-captain. The two have a shared a cricketing education all the way back to the England Under-15s, when Hussain was the player in charge.

"Nasser's appointment is in no way a snub on Stewie [Alec Stewart, his predecessor]. But with four or so years in the role we felt there was nothing more he could learn from it, and that it was time to give a younger man some experience.

"Nass has got a good tactical brain and I expect a lot of input from him on the field. He's also a straight-talking character, which is what I'm looking for. I need him to be completely honest with me, especially if he feels I'm wrong about something."

Did the prospect of a winter playing two of the weaker sides in world cricket, and the pressure of unfulfilled expectations, fill him with dread (particularly as nearly everybody seems to have written both opponents off as a tasty morsel before next summer's Australian feast)?

"It is important not to underestimate the opposition when you play abroad. New Zealand have never been a push-over at home and Zimbabwe have got two proven match-winning bowlers in Heath Streak and the leg-spinner Paul Strang.

"Mind you, we'd expect to beat both of them comfortably in England. So it's a case of striking the right kind of balance between caution and confidence. One of our stated objectives in Portugal was not only to win but to win well. We don't really want to have to scrape a one-nil win."

Comfortable ride or not, Strang could give England's batsmen a foretaste of what to expect from Shane Warne. Perhaps he will even give them time to work out a game plan based around the three left-handed batsmen, all currently lined up in the middle-order like unsuspecting penguins. If the Ashes are to be won, plans for countering Warne are surely of paramount importance as recent evidence in India illustrates. Without him, the Aussies recently lost a Test and five one-dayers on the reel.

"Warne is a good bowler and you can see by recent results the difference one world-class bowler can make to a side even as confident as Australia. If he bowls, he's going to be successful. However, it's the level you allow him to dominate and control the game which is the key. Our best way to enter the Ashes is with a settled and confident side who will not allow Warne to dictate the game."

Atherton maintains he is not wearying under the demands of captaincy, despite the fact that England seem to be treading water. He has now captained his country for 35 consecutive Tests and is set, should his team winter well, to break Peter May's record at Lord's next June - he is set to break the record of most consecutive appearances as captain in the first Test in Bulawayo.

"The job hasn't really changed or got any easier. Yet it's amazing what a rest can do. They are absolutely vital in my opinion. The job is still fairly all-consuming, though, and keeps me up nights.

"However, both Bumble [David Lloyd] and I feel that there is a good structure in place now, both within the management of new England Cricket Board and around the team. We feel like we'll be backed completely."

It can be a glum job and he is taking Albert Camus' posthumously published book The First Man with him to counter those long cicada-filled nights in Bulawayo. "At least none of the players will want to pinch it," he grinned, as only a newly converted existentialist knows how.