Cricket: Hands-on Atherton in charge

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So far, this series has not been blessed by a single good pitch. The principal reason has been the weather, which has not allowed groundsmen the time to work on their pitches. Sub-standard they may have been, but they have still produced some fascinating cricket.

No day has been more interesting than this first at Old Trafford which, in between the showers, saw a tussle in the best traditions of Anglo-Australian cricket. A fine innings by Steve Waugh and an excellent start in Test cricket by Dean Headley were the outstanding features.

There were also a number of less weighty but significant contributions especially as far as the long-term is concerned. Mike Atherton's captaincy has been under plenty of criticism in the last year, especially in Zimbabwe in the first half of the winter's tour. Atherton resolutely defended his methods then and clearly had the full support of his players. England then won in New Zealand and Atherton returned home as firmly ensconced in his position as ever and his reappointment for the present series was a mere formality.

The clear message was: carry on as before. Yet, whatever he may say, Atherton has altered his approach to the captaincy. He has become more flexible, more obviously involved and more prepared to try to make things happen rather than simply waiting for something to turn up.

This is most certainly not trying to say that he has turned overnight into a Mike Brearley or a Ray Illingworth. Far from it, but he has changed for the better, whatever the reasons. The main one may be that he now has three selectors, David Graveney, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, two of whom captained England and who are more or less contemporaries of his. He finds it easier to listen to them and to follow their advice than he did with Illingworth.

Perhaps the most noticeable and important aspect of Atherton's metamorphosis is his positive approach to the job. In the past, when Atherton has been in charge a spectator could have been in the ground for half an hour and still have been uncertain who was the captain. Atherton was undemonstrative and unaggressive. At Old Trafford it would have taken the same spectator just three balls to have known that Atherton was the captain. This more demonstrative approach also lets the opponents know who is in charge.