Cricket: Atherton's England leadership on the line: Test referee Burge issues scathing statement claiming he was 'misled' by 'foolish' captain who failed to be frank over ball-tampering

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The Independent Online
TO THE partial relief of Michael Atherton, the International Cricket Council referee who fingered him for 'unfamiliar action' has remained faithful to the ICC's unwritten code of familiar inaction. Peter Burge decided yesterday not to add to England's own sentence of a pounds 2,000 fine on their captain, and Atherton is free to leave the court without a further stain upon his trousers.

The blemishes adhering to his character, however, are a different matter, and Atherton's job is now in serious danger after remarks made by Burge in his statement which are even more wounding than any additional financial penalty. He describes Atherton as having been 'foolish', of having 'misled' him, and infers that the England captain has 'infringed the spirit of the game'.

Burge's decision not to take further action, though, does appear to exonerate Atherton on the thorny issue of whether he lied to the match referee. If Burge had asked him whether he had any dubious substance in his trouser pocket, and Atherton had indicated that he had not, it is barely conceivable that Burge would have taken the soft option. On the other hand, it was such an obvious question to have asked, that Burge can safely be assumed not to have an ancestral bloodline back to the Spanish Inquisition.

And so the choirboy looks remain, but the halo has gone forever. The question now remains as to whether Atherton's fingers have too much dirt on them to maintain a grip on the captaincy of England.

It is an unarguable fact that almost all the major cricketing controversies (and this is no exception) would be a good deal less major were it not for the curious belief that dirty washing, like dirty fingernails, is best laundered in private.

Lord's must be the most heavily carpeted building in English sport, given the amount of stuff swept underneath it, and no one appears to learn that issues do not disappear merely because the Test and County Cricket Board or the International Cricket Council will it so.

The standard statement, decoded, is: 'Dear press and public. Mr Bloggs has been fined pounds 10 for macheteing the umpire to death during a discussion as to whether Mr Bloggs might have been infringing the front foot no-ball rule. The match referee has accepted his reasons, and his apology, and this matter is now closed. Now kindly go away and leave everything to us.'

In this latest instance, both player and administrator have again failed to observe history. Burge decided that he would accept Atherton's explanation without publishing what that explanation was, and Atherton poured further petrol on what began as a smallish fire by deciding that, while he was not cheating, he had better sit on the relevant information in case people decided he was.

This was a curious error for Atherton to make, as he is both unusually perceptive about the workings of the media (ie, a blatant fob-off merely increases speculation, headlines, and the size of the avalanche when the truth finally tumbles out), plus he is the sort of bloke whose natural inclination is to front up with people.

He has seldom looked more bemused than after being dropped in Australia some years ago, when the team manager, Micky Stewart, told the press that Atherton was not happy with his own form. Atherton had neither been asked for his opinion on his own form, nor would he have answered in that way if he had.

This left an imprint with him, and shortly after his appointment to the captaincy just under a year ago, he said: 'One thing I feel strongly about is communication. You have to be straight and honest with people.' However, by his own admission, these virtues somehow eluded him in the Burge interview- room on Saturday evening.

Burge was right to point out that the embarrassing publicity has been part of the punishment, and while it is unlikely to die away as quickly as either Atherton or England would like, Atherton now finds himself mildly fortunate on a number of counts.

First, Lancashire have no cricket between now and the next Test, and he can lie low. Second, there is also no obvious replacement as captain. Graham Gooch's time has gone, Mike Gatting ended his reign under a cloud of a different sort, and Alec Stewart, the vice-captain, has twice been connected to ball-tampering incidents as Surrey captain. Even by TCCB standards, Stewart's elevation at this moment would be a magnificent PR own goal, and would produce some interesting comment in Pakistani newspapers.

Most importantly of all, though, Atherton is perceived by his bosses, and rightly so, to be a thoroughly decent bloke who has made one bad error of judgement. This was a dim-witted offence, but it is not a hanging one.

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