Cricket: Back to the front line

Spirit of The Oval must stalk the corridors of Sabina Park or else Michael Atherton's valour will be in vain
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The accepted version of the Mike Atherton captaincy saga which reached surprising and satisfactory conclusion in a crowded press conference late last week goes something like this. On the Friday evening of the Oval Test, with England staring a fourth successive defeat in the face and Atherton already out, driving carewornly at Mike Kasprowicz, his letter of resignation just needed a stamp. Atherton, being a cussed soul, would keep us all waiting the extra day or so, but the decision to stand down had already been taken deep in the recesses of the Lancastrian's obdurate mind. His form was poor, his team was poor and the triumphant fanfares of June had turned to discordant wailings of August. Atherton would go.

Then came the miracle of The Oval, Atherton's impression of Captain Marvel and a victory to rank with the best in Ashes history. By Saturday night, leaving town for a well-earned break in the country, Atherton was feeling better. His team had voiced his cause with a timely eloquence, producing their most competitive cricket since the opening morning at Edgbaston, and the prospect of leading such a bunch to the forbidding shores of the Caribbean did not, after all, seem a task better suited to Captain Pugwash. Atherton, with the informal assurance of David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, that the job was his if he wanted it, disappeared to the golf course to consider his future.

Graveney, in the meantime, travelled to Leicester to speak to Graham Gooch, his fellow selector, and contacted Mike Gatting, with Middlesex in Kidderminster, about contingency plans for the leadership should Atherton stand down. Graveney says he heard not one word from his captain until Thursday and had no idea which way the decision would go. "If Mike says he's going away for a few days, he won't ring," Graveney said.

On Thursday, Atherton emerged from purdah to pronounce himself ready to continue. A hasty series of phone calls later, the offer was officially confirmed and formally accepted by Atherton in a meeting with Graveney in London late that evening. If he was in any doubt about the mood of his side, a phone call from Alec Stewart the same day confirmed that the dressing-room was united behind him.

During all his interviews on the morrow, Atherton never once hinted how close he had come to resigning. He let the journalists conclude that for him. But it is more than possible that far from being on the verge of resignation he was destined to stay in the job all along. Victory at The Oval allowed him precious breathing space, brought him vital support in the country and a stay of execution in the press, but it did not alter his instinct, which was, as he stated over and over again, to see his job of improving the England team through to the bitter - and it might still end up that way - end. Typically of a man who has never wanted for courage, it is the act of a brave man. Resignation, in Atherton's eyes, would have smacked of failure and, worse, of cowardice.

"When I was appointed, the challenge was to try to help - not just me, the players, everyone concerned - make England a more successful team," he said. "That challenge is still there, the job's not finished and it may be that I don't make it as successful as I'd like it to be, but while I've still got the drive and the energy and the chance to do it, I'd like to give myself that chance." Suggestions that standing down would have been easier with the Ashes regained and his name written in lights brought only a dismissive retort: "I'm not in it for the plaudits, I'm in it to do a good job." You had to believe him because nothing in Atherton's nature is etched in neon.

A glance at the Test averages confirmed Atherton's instinct. Mark Waugh and Stewart, class players both, had been fellow sufferers. Only Matthew Elliott and Graham Thorpe had scored more than 500 runs in the series. "It was a difficult summer for batsmen," he said. "There was some good bowling too." It is a tenuous thesis, but one vital to Atherton's thinking over the past week. Standing down would be an admission he was not the player he thought he was.

Atherton now has to piece together his technique and confidence in time for traditionally the most hostile reception in the cricketing calendar. Otherwise, the blip will turn into cardiac arrest. The hesitant footwork, the waft on leg stump, the merciless restrictions imposed by Glenn McGrath, none will have gone unnoticed in the Caribbean where they like to tenderise opposing captains. Ironically, it was Atherton's ability to thrive under the pressure of captaincy which saw his own personal standing rise in inverse proportion to that of his team during the early years of his record- breaking spell in charge. It would help if his fellow batsmen took more of the strain.

Atherton has also renegotiated the terms of his office. He will not go to Sharjah nor, quite possibly, captain England in the five one-day internationals tagged on to the end of the five Tests in the Caribbean, which would mark a further delineation of the two international sides in time for the World Cup in 1999 as well as providing a potential successor with a valuable apprenticeship. Australia are already thinking along the same lines. With South Africa touring next summer, followed by a winter to Australia and the World Cup, England have an arduous programme over the next two years and, after four years and 46 Tests in the job, Atherton can afford to step into civvies for the pyjama parties. If he has his way, he will never captain a one-day international side again, which will reduce his load. It has never really been his game anyway.

Deciding the destiny of the captaincy is the easy bit, of course. Rather harder to pin down and put right is the inconsistency which has blighted England's cricket this summer. "Not a pretty sight," as Atherton described England at their worst. Gooch gave up trying to instil some sense of collective responsibility into his side; Atherton, at times against Australia, must have been reduced to almost equal despair. The fault is not of the captain's making, yet he must take the blame. The spirit of The Oval must stalk the daunting corridors of Sabina Park and Kensington Oval or else Atherton's valour will be in vain. England will return from the West Indies beaten and leaderless. In hard times ahead, the England captain can take solace from the cry of another Test captain, one who succumbed to the "all-consuming" (Atherton's word) nature of the job.

"Cricket's a tough life. I'm not complaining: nobody makes me play the game, but it can be terrible tough. Physically, if you work hard enough, you can last a long time. But, mentally, it's a different story. Thinking, thinking all the time. Worrying about everybody, everything. Your mind gets tired, you know. And travelling, always travelling. Sometimes I wake up and I look at the ceiling and say: 'What hotel am I in? What town? What country?' Very strange questions, I know, but lately I have been asking them more and more."

And so has Atherton. It will not ease his mind that the speaker was Richie Richardson, his opposite number on the last tour of the West Indies. Richardson, a brilliant cricketer and decent man, has fallen by the wayside. Atherton has opted to renew his lease on trouble for the foreseeable future. With luck, his bat will once again prove as broad as his back.

In charge in Sharjah? Leading contenders for the grooming

Age: 25 (26 on 5 Sept). Captaincy experience: Surrey 1997. England A: Tour to Australia 1996-97.

CALLS for the elder of the golden brothers to be elevated to the captaincy in mid-Ashes were absurdly premature, as Shane Warne proved quite graphically in the first innings at The Oval. Has to prove himself an international cricketer first. But there is no doubting the captaincy credentials of this tough, dynamic, Australian-born cricketer, who has already picked up a trophy in his first season as Surrey captain. Numbers chess and "mind games" among his hobbies, and showed his command of the latter in leading the A team on a cheerful, successful yomp across his native lands. FEC (Future England Captain) for sure. Sharjah would be the ideal first stop.

Age: 29. Captaincy experience: England: One-day Internationals 1. England A: Tour to Pakistan 1995-96.

THE heir apparent after being nominated vice-captain for last winter's tour of Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Only five days younger than Atherton, but has matured markedly in recent years and has established himself as a Test-class batsman in this Ashes series, for all the agonies of The Oval. Strong-willed, determined and blessed with an astute cricketing brain, he led England A with vigour and imagination, belying his reputation as an introvert and a hothead. Temperament might still count against him in the eyes of the selectors and the top brass, but with the right guidance he could make an inspiring captain of either the one-day or, later, the Test side.

Age: 27 (28 on 5 Sept). Captaincy experience: Middlesex 1997.

GAINED the endorsement of Mike Gatting as county captain halfway through the season and has already started to grow into the job after an early county career marred by clashes of character. Forced his way into the Test team for The Oval by weight of runs and in difficult circumstances began to repay the selectors' faith. Opinions are divided about his Test future, and taking on the captaincy would be a big step at this stage, but he might just be the type to thrive on the responsibility as he has at county level. Probably too much of a quantum leap for the selectors to consider, even for a week, but he has one of the most agile cricketing minds in the land and may yet surprise a few.