Cricket: Atherton to fight on as England captain: A vote of confidence from the chairman of selectors decides ball-tampering resignation issue although the dirt promises to stick

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THE drowning man finally resurfaced in Manchester yesterday and announced his intention not only to clamber back on board, but also to return to the bridge as captain of the ship. The fact that England's cricket team currently resemble the final hours of the Titanic has somehow got lost in the wash.

Michael Atherton's second public trial was held on home territory at Old Trafford yesterday lunchtime, and it was a bit like Nixon's televised appearance ('your president is not a crook') on Watergate. In this case, it produced the sort of verdict only to be found in Scotland. Not proven. As Atherton said himself, there are those who are determined to hang him, and those who believe him when he says he is not a cheat.

Atherton reiterated his claim that he used dirt on his fingers during the Lord's Test solely to keep one side of the ball dry and if his palms were sweating in front of the cameras yesterday, he refrained from dipping his hand into his trouser pocket. When the cameras caught him doing this at Lord's, he said: 'It was not with the intention of altering the ball in any way.'

Atherton, flanked by two Lancashire committee members, read from a prepared statement before fielding a battery of questions. The one regret he had, he wrote and said, was in not telling the International Cricket Council match referee, Peter Burge, 'straight away' that he had dirt in his pocket. 'I should have come clean straight away,' Atherton said.

So why didn't he? 'I was concerned, as I said last week, about misrepresention. However, I am totally regretful and I've duly been punished, both by a fine and by the weight of public and media scrutiny. We all make mistakes in life, but I am not dishonest.

'I even took my trousers into the initial meeting with Peter Burge and offered them for inspection. He asked me if I had any resin in my pocket. I said no. He asked me if I had any other substance in my pocket. I said no. This was obviously my mistake. I was thinking of things like Vaseline and lip salve and I confirmed to Mr Burge that there was absolutely no artificial substance of any kind in my pocket.'

Atherton revealed that he had been away for three days in Cheshire and the Lake District - deliberately avoiding newspapers, radio and television - and that his objective had been to clear his head and not come to any hasty decision over whether to resign. Had he seriously thought about resignation during that period? 'Yes,' Atherton replied. However, he decided to carry on firstly after making a telephone call to his chairman of selectors, Raymond Illingworth, who reconfirmed his earlier public support. 'Had he thought otherwise, I would have resigned,' Atherton said.

'The only reasons for going then would have been to bow to the press and media clamour, and if I felt I was unable to do my job properly in the next Test match at Headingley. There are those who believe in me and those who do not, but at the end of the day I know what I did and that's why I don't intend to resign. I will only consider it if we play like we did at Lord's and get hammered 3-0. It is right that the captain stands or falls by results.'

Atherton also confirmed that he does not intend to take any legal action against those, including the BBC correspondent, who have openly accused him of at least attempting to tamper with the ball in an infringement of Law 42 (Unfair Play), if not succeeding.

Clearly, if there is one thing worse than a cheat, it is a failed cheat. 'I don't feel suing anyone does the game any credit,' he said, doubtless reflecting that his own loss of credit in the integrity department may never be fully rescued.

However, Atherton did confirm (as he should have done last weekend) that he used to use dirt in his pocket to dry the ball when he bowled his leg-spinners. 'I never attempted to disguise my actions at Lord's and if you look at other spinners - Ian Salisbury in particular - they are forever rubbing their hands in the dirt to keep them dry and maintain their grip.

'There is nothing in the rules to say I can't carry dirt in my pocket and I was very open about what I was doing at Lord's. However, if it's hot and sticky at Headingley then I'll be rubbing my hands on the ground to keep them dry.'

Atherton will not, he says, be making any further public comments, but the media scrutiny will not go away just yet and it might be as well to have his trouser pockets sewn up for Headingley.

Whether the majority of people believe him or not, one former Test player, and a self-confessed tamperer, said yesterday: 'If he had been intending to cheat, he would have had to have put in a bloody sight more work on that ball than anything we saw on TV.'

However, some of the dirt is bound to stick, as Atherton is well aware. 'Everyone's remembered for something,' he said 'and this will be my epitaph.' It is down to Atherton's strength of character as to how long it is before the words are chiselled on to his tombstone.

(Photograph omitted)

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