Cricket: Atherton stumped by a new puritanism: Derek Pringle believes the punishment of the England captain did not fit the crime

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IT SEEMS that somebody somewhere is intent upon removing Michael Atherton from the England captaincy. He rode the storm in a pocket at Lord's, but the pressure on his tenure has intensified. By looking at his bat (indicating that he felt he had hit the ball), after the umpire Ken Palmer had given him out lbw to the first ball he received, and then briefly shaking his head as he walked back to the pavilion, Atherton was found guilty of dissent and fined pounds 1,250, or 50 per cent of his match fee.

The man who imposed this, the second hefty fine Atherton has incurred in a month, was Peter Burge, the ICC match referee. It was not the maximum allowed (75 per cent of match fee) but it was way out of proportion to the crime committed. Go to any game of cricket, at any level and you will see something similar - and often a lot worse - without anybody taking the slightest offence. If, say, Angus Fraser was fined every time he put his hands on his hips after an umpire turned down an lbw appeal, he would be bankrupt.

And so it was at The Oval, where Atherton's gestures - which mixed the ambiguous head-shaking of personal disappointment with the typical county pro's feelings of being hard done by - seemed to offend nobody except Burge. Certainly neither umpire reported the incident and it would not surprise me if the umpire Ken Palmer had seen it a hundred times before in his capacity as both player and official.

But if the umpires, who are meant to be the arbiters of the game, had no complaint, why did Burge take it upon himself to take the steps he did? Perhaps he was still smarting after Atherton's fibs had made his initial statement at Lord's appear hasty and far too lenient. As that decision (Atherton was fined by Illingworth and not Burge) had come on the back of a wave of recent criticism in England over the perceived leniency towards the fines recently dished out to various members of the Australian team, Burge was not going to leave himself open so soon again. In light of all this, the ICC referees have become a touchy bunch.

More likely, though, is that Atherton, stubborn cove that he is, has not shown enough remorse for his foolishness at Lord's. Instead of shambling around wearing sackcloth and maintaining a respectful silence as expected, his references towards the 'gutter press' at Headingley, were not becoming of an England captain, and would not have gone unnoticed by either the cricket hierarchy or Burge.

Atherton is thought to have the support of the Oxbridge fraternity that run the game, but the very fact that the men in grey suits have scuppered an England captain before - when Ossie Wheatley vetoed Mike Gatting's appointment in 1989, a year after his resignation following a liaison with a barmaid - means that the conspiracy theory cannot be fully discounted. Even more ironic is that Gatting, whose gritty style of captaincy is known to find favour with the chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth, now waits in the wings.

However, where the system of employing a match referee is open to question is that there is no right of appeal. If, as in this case, the judgement is solely a subjective one, then inconsistencies are bound to exist from referee to referee, and every subsequent fine will be open to criticism.

It is for much the same reason that the present directive on what constitutes a pitch unfit for cricket, and the subsequent deduction of 25 points, falls down. Different umpires have different interpretations on the directive and although the inspector of pitches passes the final judgement, he is only brought in at the umpires' behest in the first place.

More worrying is that we are seeing a new puritanism sweeping cricket. Directives in cricket and football may be seen as attempts to rid sport of a long-ingrained cynicism, but the outcome may be more antiseptic contests. If this is the case, then cricket will have no place for feisty competitors like Michael Atherton. In the same way England need Graham Gooch's expertise in Australia this winter, they also need Atherton at his obstinate best to captain them. That ought to be plain for all to see.