Cricket: Atherton under the microscope: England captain must keep his cool in the face of jibes from Australian scribes

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The Independent Online
THE mass of people thronging around the airport terminal waited expectantly for the players to arrive. Suddenly, the automatic doors opened and out they filed, pushing luggage trolleys and looking immaculate in their blazers and slacks. The result was complete indifference. Nobody gave a damn.

The crowd, several hundred of them, were not waiting for the England cricket team at all. The object of their attention and adulation was the Western Australian basketball squad, who had just won the national championship.

That was four years ago, when Graham Gooch and his party landed in Perth, and it provided a revealing insight into Australian sporting psyche.

The Aussies love a winner. Victory is all, defeat is nothing. They would probably turn up at the airport to greet home the tiddlywinks team - as long as they had won.

If England start beating Australia at cricket this winter, interest out here among all but the most dedicated cricket followers will wane. It might not quite plunge to the column inches given to the local One Man And His Dingo contest, but there will be a noticeable decline in media exposure. The focus will switch to games at which Australia are being successful - rugby league, perhaps.

The desire to stop their gloating represents one of Michael Atherton's strongest motives for beating Australia. Atherton, as captain, would have been guaranteed a searching examination from the Australian public anyway.

Now, following the ball-tampering controversy, he could face a very rough ride indeed.

The insults from the macho men in the stands will escalate still further if Atherton's team actually start winning. Previous England captains who have won the Ashes away from home have all experienced abuse. Douglas Jardine was the most hated man in Australia during the Bodyline series of 1932- 33, Raymond Illingworth led his side off the field in 1970-71 when John Snow had bottles thrown at him after he hit Terry Jenner on the head, and the bearded Mike Brearley became known as 'The Ayatollah' in 1978-79.

Atherton knows this. He is prepared for it, and he is promising to keep his cool and grace, no matter how intense the provocation. He came close to breaking that promise immediately, however, when he performed sullenly at the airport press conference. He became agitated when an Australian journalist quoted back at him comments Atherton made 10 months ago about Steve Waugh's sledging and bravery - or lack of it - against fast bowling.

That journalist was Malcolm Conn, cricket writer on The Australian, the country's only nationwide daily. Conn says: 'The interview had always stuck with me and I knew Steve Waugh was upset by Atherton's allegations. I thought they deserved greater explanation.

'The tabloid press and, particularly, commercial TV love the smell of controversy. There will be cameras and eyes watching Atherton for every minute of every match. The visiting England captain will always be the subject of scrutiny but, because of the ball business, Atherton will be under an even more intense microscope.'

To describe Australian sports writers as nothing more than fans with typewriters (or portable computers), as some do, is unfair. Yet there is a suspicion that occasionally their questions are prompted by nationalistic, rather than journalistic, thoughts.

You certainly could not imagine Mark Taylor being castigated as much as Atherton was over 'Pocketgate'. That affair at least showed the even-handedness of the British media because the captain of the England cricket team was pursued with the same vigour as two Pakistan fast bowlers two years previously.

Conn adds: 'We can be critical. After all, the idea is to win. Australia are highly fancied and, if we lose, there will be strong words written and spoken. Bobby Simpson, the coach, has taken his share of flak in the past.

'It will never get personal, though. Maybe from the spectators, but not in the newspapers. You don't have to write abusive words or headlines to get your point across. We will question team tactics, analyse individual performances and say players should be dropped.

'The Australian media has some grudging respect for Atherton. He is a workmanlike captain and batsman who is doing a decent job.

'Some of the journos will be around the England team for the next four months. That helps us build up a feel of the camp and, especially, the captain. I believe we will discover that Atherton is a nice bloke. But being a nice bloke doesn't give you immunity from criticism. If he screws up, he'll cop it.'

(Photograph omitted)