Cricket / England in Crisis: Atherton's ally is an absence of alternatives: If the captain goes who could replace him? Glenn Moore discovers there are few contenders

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THIS is not quite the way Michael Atherton had hoped to celebrate his anniversary, with his team and reputation on the ropes and his job on the line.

A year ago tomorrow Atherton became captain, after a drawn out succession which included Micky Stewart 'going into bat' for his son - according to Ted Dexter. He was 25, personable, smart and relatively innocent and for the first time in decades Lord's felt confident in painting, not chalking, his name on the captain's office.

Now suddenly the grey heads are having to huddle together again and will be muttering: 'So why didn't we pick him last year?' 'Oh yes, of course he did, I suppose that rules him out this year too.'

This is Lord's main problem and the reason why everyone is so keen to hang on to Atherton, there are no serious candidates who come without character stains. The mud may be metaphorical rather than actual but it sticks just as well.

The obvious successor is Alec Stewart - or it would be if Atherton's 'crime' was something simple, like making a nuisance of himself in the Long Room, putting a couple of grand on South Africa to win or stabbing the umpire with a stump. Instead it is alleged ball-tampering and, since Surrey have twice been charged with the same offence while Stewart was captaining them, appointing him would be something of a diplomatic gaffe.

Of the former captains coming back into the reckoning Graham Gooch resigned last year, exhausted by the strain of leadership and with his work ethic discredited, while Mike Gatting, though ostensibly sacked for his involvement with a barmaid, is equally well known for confronting and swearing at a Test umpire in Pakistan.

No one else within the team stands out, few can even guarantee their place. Of those who can, at least until next month, Angus Fraser is the best candidate. But though intelligent, he has no leadership experience and would be weighed down by the cares of bowling; Darren Gough is far too inexperienced while neither Phillip DeFreitas nor Graeme Hick appear captaincy material.

Who else? Kim Barnett, Dermot Reeve, Mark Nicholas, and Mike Watkinson might all be considered, but the captain must be at least close to justifying his place in the side and only Reeve (three Tests) and Watkinson (none) have even cropped up in selection discussions this season.

Even though England have changed their captains as regularly as a struggling lower divsion football club changes its manager, rarely have there been so few candidates.

Even against the West Indies in 1988 when there were four captains - plus Derek Pringle for a couple of sessions - none were daft appointments. While Chris Cowdrey's looks odd in retropect it was less so at the time, he had Test experience, was not far off Craig White as an all-rounder and, at the time, had taken an ordinary Kent side to the top of the Championship.

Most of the changes have been for the same reason that the likes of Darlington and Hartlepool sack their managers, poor results. There have also been some personality clashes - Dexter initially regarded Gooch as a wet fish - but the rest have been brought down by their own poor conduct, or poor judgement.

In this, Atherton follows a tradition running on from Brian Close time-wasting in a county game, through Keith Fletcher knocking over his stumps and David Gower's 'optional nets' on a losing tour of the Caribbean to Gatting's various misdemeanours.

If Atherton in a year's time is able to send second anniversary flowers to press, public and Lord's with a note saying 'Darling, you've forgotten, many thanks,' it will be as much for the lack of suitable alternative suitors as for his own, now tarnished, charms.

----------------------------------------------------------------- HOW ENGLAND'S CAPTAINS COME AND GO ----------------------------------------------------------------- Captain number and name Period P W L D 52 Brian Close (Yorkshire) 1966-1967 7 6 0 1 53 Tom Graveney (Worcestershire) 1968 1 0 0 1 54 Raymond Illingworth (Yorkshire) 1969-1973 31 12 5 14 55 Tony Lewis (Glamorgan) 1972/73 8 1 2 5 56 Mike Denness (Kent) 1973/74-1975 19 6 5 8 57 John Edrich (Surrey) 1974/75 1 0 1 0 58 Tony Greig (Sussex) 1975-1976/77 14 3 5 6 59 Mike Brearley (Middlesex) 1977-1981 31 18 4 9 60 Geoff Boycott (Yorkshire) 1977/78 4 1 1 2 61 Ian Botham (Somerset) 1980-1981 12 0 4 8 62 Keith Fletcher (Essex) 1981/82 7 1 1 5 63 Bob Willis (Warwickshire) 1982-1983/84 18 7 5 6 64 David Gower (Leicestershire) 1982-1989 32 5 18 9 65 Mike Gatting (Middlesex) 1986-1988 23 2 5 16 66 John Emburey (Middlesex) 1988 2 0 2 0 67 Chris Cowdrey (Kent) 1988 1 0 1 0 68 Graham Gooch (Essex) 1988-1993 34 10 12 12 69 Allan Lamb (Northamptonshire) 1989/90-1990/91 3 0 3 0 70 Alec Stewart (Surrey) 1992/93 2 0 2 0 71 Mike Atherton (Lancashire) 1993 to date 11 3 5 3 No 49 Colin Cowdrey (Kent) was also captain of England 27 times between 1959 and 1968/69, 12 times after Close ended his tenure. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)