Cricket: Captain Atherton goes back to school

It is not every day that a one-to-one coaching session in an indoor net features 191 Test caps. But then it is not every day that Michael Atherton, troubled by minor defects in his game, consults his illustrious predecessor for a series of "tutorials" before he departs to do battle in the West Indies. Yesterday Derek Pringle was at Chelmsford to watch.

"Keep looking towards me," shouts Graham Gooch, as he sends another bouncer down at the England captain from 18 yards. "It will help you avoid the odd blow," he adds with a malicious, knowing chuckle, the kind that implies the forthcoming tour of the Caribbean will be about as comforting as going five rounds with Mike Tyson with his gumshield removed.

"Don't get too low. When you do, your head pops outside the line of off- stump," comes the shout a few balls later, as another bumper causes the back netting to bulge inches behind where Atherton's head had been just before.

For those accustomed to having their cricket nets in April, these may be unlikely sounds to be hearing on a brassy November afternoon. These days, however, the quest for improvement knows no seasons, and Atherton has been afforded a rare opportunity to work on his game. More importantly, it is a chance to work with someone he trusts and who knows him and his game well.

"The nets with Goochie aren't specifically to do with the West Indies tour coming up," the England captain points out, scotching the theory that he is preparing himself for the working over the West Indies' fast bowlers normally reserve for visiting captains. "It's just that over time, things creep into your game, and the Windies tour is the only one which gives you the time to tinker about with your technique and put it in good order.

"If you are going to make adjustments, though, I think it is important to do it with someone who is not coming from a vastly different standpoint. Graham and I opened the innings together for England about 40 times, so he knows what to look for."

As tutors go, Gooch is undoubtedly a Regius Professor of fast bowling. While all around were getting blown away by the West Indian pace batteries that terrorised batsmen and dominated the world stage for over 15 years, Gooch remained steadfast and unflinching, a granite island in a sea of shattered stumps and bones.

Fortunately, things are not nearly so extreme now. The West Indies have since been toppled from their perch by a resurgent Australia and a limit on the number of bouncers they can bowl in an over. It is these two factors, along with an ageing new ball attack, that England will be hoping to take advantage of when they tour the Caribbean early in the new year.

However, first they must put runs on the board, and Atherton becomes cagey when I suggest that the importance of seeing off the new ball is paramount to England's chances of winning the Tests series. In any case, whatever it is that he and Gooch have been tinkering with is not readily divulged, although by the way the area behind the popping crease is covered with powdered chalk, one suspects it is to do with the movement of his feet.

This is more or less confirmed after the 40-minute net - which includes the Essex bowler Danny Law and a youngster called Damien Brandy - when master and pupil repair to a cubbyhole to analyse the video.

"Your feet were moving superbly," Gooch says. "You didn't get squared up at all today."

"Not bad," counters Atherton nodding, the understatement as blunt and ever present as that famous forward defensive.

For those with a fair smattering of strokes, batting is all about balance and confidence. Yet, as far as Atherton is concerned, both these aspects suffered last summer, as Glenn McGrath - largely on bowler-friendly surfaces - dismissed him time and again, mainly with awkward bouncers between chest and throat high. Trying to evade such deliveries when you have a chronic back problem is easier said than done, and Atherton struggled, mainly because he was losing his balance and toppling over outside the line of the ball.

Achieving balance the Gooch way, though, is all about co-ordinating your foot and head movement so that you are in a consistent yet relaxed position to play whatever ball is sent down.

"If you're meeting the ball off both back and front foot with your body weight forward and with the full face of the bat, everything else will follow," Gooch says, "and surprise bouncers won't catch you out of position, like they occasionally did with Athers last summer.

"Mike has as good a technique as anyone, probably since Geoff Boycott. But that doesn't mean it's OK to stand still. You've got to keep pressing for improvements. Bowlers do and I can see the likes of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh perhaps targeting Mike with short balls to the ribcage."

It was the first time the tutor had stated the obvious, but as he and many batsmen will know from facing fast bowling, expecting it and playing are two quite different matters.