Cricket: Atherton reluctant to take risks

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The Independent Online
WHILE England's disastrous batting on the first morning may have lost them the fifth Test, the wretched decision to play Phil Tufnell and not the off-spinner Robert Croft had been made the night before. One heard that the captain refused to budge and insisted on the left-arm spinner.

Mike Atherton's instincts have always been defensive and this decision provided a much more valid reason to hasten the search for a successor as captain than his poor form with the bat.

This was a match he had to do all he could to win. There are five left handers in the West Indies side and Croft is a more attacking bowler than Tufnell. He showed, too, in the Barbados game last weekend that this pitch will spin as the game goes on.

Apparently, the fellow selectors, David Lloyd and John Emburey, wanted Croft but Atherton was adamant about Tufnell. His reasons can only have been negative. He wanted Tufnell so that he could bowl over the wicket into the rough outside the left-handers' off-stumps and the right-handers' left stump. He had been an admirable foil in this way to Angus Fraser four years ago.

So Atherton's mind was firmly fixed in the defensive mould from which he has seldom fought to break free. A packed ground - this match is a sell-out - is now doomed to long periods of boredom and stalemate as Tufnell has done nothing in this series than try and frustrate the batsmen into doing something stupid. In reply, the batsmen counter by continually kicking the ball away which hardly makes good watching.

What made Atherton's decision to drop Croft particularly disappointing was that so far he has, with the greatest of reluctance, taken one risk. When he won the toss in Port of Spain in the third Test, he put the West Indies in to bat.

This, it is true, may have been not so much a calculated risk by him as a decision he had forced on to him by a growing groundswell of opinion. England went on to win that Test by three wickets and one hopes his decision would have given Atherton the confidence to take a chance once more when the opportunity arose. Not a bit of it, and this inability to show any flexibility or even imagination must quicken the search for his successor. England are a poor side who need a strong guiding hand from a captain who leads by example from the front.

And would a captain who was hell-bent on levelling this series have played that wet and gormless hook at Courtney Walsh which gave Curtly Ambrose catching practice at fine leg? I did not blame Atherton for his first seven dismissals in this series, but the eighth was the act of a man whose thinking has been muddled almost beyond salvation.