Cricket: Atherton's leadership brings hope for future: England's comeback against the West Indies goes some way towards helping to find a cure for defeatism. Martin Johnson reports

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The Independent Online
IN the aftermath of 46 all out in Port of Spain, English sport's self- appointed greengrocer, the Sun newspaper, painted its celebrated turnip on to the top of Michael Atherton's head. It is part of the national psyche to make black and white judgements - hero one day, pillock the next - but seldom can an award have been so thoroughly undeserved.

This was a series that could have been won but for a penchant for melting from an iceberg into a barely adequate cube for a gin and tonic, but the major consolation is that England at least have found a long-term leader to steer the ship. If the rudder occasionally drops off, it has more to do with a domestic system that promotes mediocrity rather than excellence. As Atherton's predecessor once memorably put it, you can't fart against thunder.

Atherton's task on this tour was to begin the process of picking up a side infected by defeatism, and to an extent he has succeeded. Having experienced what he described as 'the worst hour of my life' in Trinidad, when Curtly Ambrose reduced England from a commanding position to 40 for 8, coming back to win in Barbados (where no side had won in 59 years) was an occurrence of near biblical proportions. Then, in Antigua, England did not fall apart - as they might have done - in the face of a near-600 total.

Some might say that the West Indies had by then eased themselves into a mental hammock and that, for the most part, England's habit of falling apart whenever they gained the upper hand was the mark of a side ill-equipped to deal with the fierce mental demands of modern-day Test cricket.

This, sadly, is likely to remain the case until the county game places more of a premium on high- pressure cricket and becomes less of a breeding ground for ordinary players bobbing along with no particular goal other than attempting to find ways around the M25 on a Friday night, and hanging on for a benefit.

It is also typical of the Test and County Cricket Board that when it had the chance to inject some fresh blood into selection with the likes of David Graveney and Bob Cottam, it co-opted on to the panel instead Fred Titmus and Brian Bolus. Titmus has spent most of his post-playerhood either being elected or fired, and Bolus is an especially imaginative choice given that he spent most of his career (both as a batsman and captain) putting spectators to sleep.

The Atherton-Keith Fletcher axis is presently committed to identifying the best talent at a reasonably early age and then sticking with it. However, as far as this tour is concerned, only Graham Thorpe of the non-established players has made any significant advance and as far as the bowlers go, the only success has been in identifying the fact that England - Angus Fraser apart - barely possess any truly reliable bowlers to speak of.

In terms of figures, Andrew Caddick has had a decent enough tour and he has spells when he looks the genuine article. On the other hand, he also has spells when he looks more of a useless article, and his deportment has not always been that of a player willing to shed blood for the common cause.

Anyone attempting to locate Caddick on a match day was usually better advised to try the press box rather than the visitors' dressing- room as he seemed to spend most of his spare time making buckshee phone calls, and some of it attempting to flog freebee items of kit to the same individual whose telephone he was seldom off.

There is also the feeling that he is basically a New Zealander whose allegiance is less to a flag of St George as a flag of convenience. It is about time that the TCCB gave serious thought to its qualification regulations, and to do so before the day dawns when Test matches begin with national anthems. If not, by the time England have stopped singing their own half-dozen, it will be time for lunch.

Graham Gooch often expressed his concern in this area, although Atherton does not see it as relevant. While this is a laudable attitude up to a point (and Atherton is no less of a patriot than Gooch) he must surely suspect that the extra bottle many of England's opponents display under situations may not be entirely down to cricketing ability alone. When Michael Slater took off his helmet and kissed the Australian crest after making his maiden century at Lord's last summer, it ran deeper than his own personal satisfaction.

The West Indies, as it happens, come from separate islands, all with their own fiercely independent characters, and it is only cricket that bonds them together. Even so, it is not uncommon for crowds to boo players who have been chosen ahead of their local favourites, nor indeed to boycott entire Test matches, which makes their record down the years all the more remarkable.

However, with a little less fragility at vital moments, England might have interrupted an unbeaten home run stretching back to 1973-74, when the West Indies lost to Ian Chappell's Australians. That they could not do so was down to players evacuating the kitchen whenever the temperature became uncomfortably hot.

Another discovery made by England on this tour, and one they should have made before leaving, is that they still have no all- rounder remotely close to filling Ian Botham's boots. Chris Lewis, in fact, has been such a passenger for the last three months that it ought to require some extraordinary performances for Nottinghamshire to allow him back into the side this summer.

No one has been unable to unravel the mystery as to why Lewis will occasionally let rip with half a dozen high-velocity bullets, then spend the rest of the day running in as though he has a dozen verrucas on both feet. As his batting is not good enough to make up for his bowling, it is time, for the moment at least, to look elsewhere.

Thorpe's qualified success only came once he had been moved down to No 6 and, while Nasser Hussain has not been given much of a chance, Matthew Maynard has not remotely threatened to translate his natural ability into Test class.

Of the senior players, Atherton looks to be following the example of Gooch in the sense of the captaincy turning a fine player into an exceptional one and after averaging eight against the West Indies in the 1991 home series, here he has scored 510 runs at almost 57.

Alec Stewart now has the technique to succeed at Test match level as well as being the best equipped batsman in England to tear an attack apart when the mood is upon him. Whether he has now stepped out of the old man's shadow, though, is open to doubt as just before he received his man- of-the-match award for his two centuries in Barbados, the announcer offered his warm congratulations to Micky Stewart.

Graeme Hick's position is precisely the same as it was before he left Gatwick in mid-January - hyper-talented, but with a large question mark about his ability against fast, short-pitched bowling. Whenever Ambrose and company spotted him emerging from the pavilion, they saw the three lions on Hick's helmet more in terms of three bars and the jackpot on a fruit machine.

There were points on this tour when the best way for England to have made money would have been for sponsors to pay them not to wear their gear, and when their spiritual adviser, the Rev Andrew Wingfield Digby, then arrived in Barbados, we imagined it must be to administer the last rites.

Remarkable though that win was, it would probably not have been possible but for a third consecutive hare-brained decision from the West Indian captain, who got away with the previous two thanks to the herculean efforts of his bowlers. Last winter, Gooch said that Fletcher had always thought he was a 'hopeless tosser'. In this series, Richie Richardson turned out to be a good tosser with the coin, but a hopeless tosser in deciding what to do about it.

The England regime has changed significantly since Gooch, in that Atherton is much more inclined towards the carrot and a few days off. Gooch would as soon order a day off as Dracula would order garlic with his dinner, but the overriding message from this series (delivered from the rapier blade of a single left- handed batsman) is that hard work is no substitute for talent.

Ambrose was again a Titan in a West Indian attack that nowadays ranks as pretty good rather than lethal, but the man of the series was undoubtedly Brian Lara. In terms of sheer strokeplay, Lara's batting in the first two Tests was more exhilarating than in Antigua, but his historic 375 will be remembered long after everything else (bar the 46 all out), even in a compelling series of twists, turns and sub-plots.

Lara's feat has not exactly gone unrecognised in Trinidad and he flew back to a series of official receptions, ticker-tape motorcades and the freedom of Port of Spain. There was also declared, in Lara's honour, an official day of national achievement.

The best thing of all about this series, reflected by the cricket and the attendances, is that Test cricket is still alive and flourishing. The one-day international has its place in the scheme of things, but the game is still more about romance than cash - as Lara ultimately demonstrated.

(Photographs omitted)