Cricket: Atherton's smile stays inscrutable

Stephen Brenkley watches the victorious captain duck the post- match bouncers
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The Independent Online
He Was inscrutable. A smile flashed across his blue, tired eyes every few seconds, but he was giving nothing away. Michael Atherton, the captain of England, had just left the field at The Oval after the most pulsating of victories against the oldest enemy and what everybody wanted to know was: Did he want to stay in the job?

His defence to a variety of ingenious ways in which the question was put proved impregnable. He had led the side for the series as he was selected to do and now he was going away for a few days, he said. He had a lot to think about. So, with the glories of a 19-run triumph on a gloriously hot afternoon still at the forefront of everybody's mind, it went on.

Finally, it was put to Atherton that if in his estimation England have improved, then would he not want to be part of that and indeed lead them into the future? Surely, you thought, that would ensnare him. "I'll let you know," he said, inscrutably.

It has been a rum four years since Atherton assumed the stewardship of England and yesterday's utterly compelling play somehow reflected them. Every time it looked as though he and England were done for something happened, or maybe he made something happen to defy the odds. "Australia have a history of twitchiness in run chases. That was all that was on my mind," he said, and not even giving much of an insight into what he had told his troops before the fourth innings began.

It was to the side's immense credit that they kept going. Sure, Australia had won the series and the Ashes and were maybe thinking of home, but for England to sustain the challenge from such a thoroughly unpromising position suggested they might be getting somewhere. But then we have been that way before, too. For the crowd at least it was as though it was early in the summer again and we were in dreamland once more. They stood in front of The Oval pavilion, scene of so many wonderful days in English cricket, and cheered and cheered, though Rule Britannia was a bit much.

It was Atherton's 46th match in charge and his 12th victory. The 18 draws that go with it put him well down the list of England captains in percentage terms on the basis of awarding two points for a win and one for a draw. He is behind the accepted greats like Len Hutton and Mike Brearley but ahead of more modern leaders such as David Gower and Ian Botham.

Given his admirable, teasing refusal to give an unequivocal statement about his position the debate will no doubt intensify in the next fortnight. If a captain is as good as his last result then there is every reason to believe that he will take England to the Caribbean in January. But if you were to examine the series against Australia as a whole and make the leader culpable for the opportunities missed at Old Trafford and Headingley then an alternative should probably be found. Atherton himself, though with that smile flitting across his features again introduced another note into the equation. Maybe, he suggested, his form did not warrant his inclusion in the side as a player.

With others that may be so but Atherton still possesses enough self- belief, stamina and class to deserve his place. He made a plea for continuity, adding the names of John Crawley and, pertinently, Steve James to the seven batsmen at The Oval. The public who gave a standing ovation to Atherton's counterpart Mark Taylor were not as directly effusive to their own man but rather to the team as a collective. There was just one telling placard at the front of the baying crowd. "Stay captain, Athers," it said and maybe the selectors will concur.