The Atherton affair lasted all week, and the echoes will reverberate far longer. When the captain of the England cricket team was accused of being a cheat and a liar, and the evidence was available for television replay, suddenly everybody had an opinion. And, for a while, they seemed unanimous.
'Go]' said a Times leader.
'Go]' said the BBC's cricket correspondent, with the authority expected of a former Test player.
'Go]' said an intense young publisher in a fashionable west London restaurant.
'Go]' said an elderly lady in North Yorkshire, to whom cricket was a matter of blood and honour.
'Go]' was what Michael Atherton was told by young and old, black, brown and beige, aficionado and ignoramus alike. In England, hundreds of thousands of words were written and probably millions of conversations were held, fuelled by the national appetite for instant aggro, instant villains - 'Gotcha]' 'Up Yours Delors]' 'Turnip]' 'Pakistani Test Shame]' For Radio 5 Live, it justified the new Babel of sports phone-ins. In the other cricketing corners of the world, notably Pakistan, interest was just as keen - for here, perhaps, was the final humiliation, the payback for generations of colonial arrogance.
And it couldn't have happened to a nicer fellow.
OF COURSE, people said with a nod and a wink, he's no choirboy. But they didn't really mean it.
A year ago this weekend England entered the Atherton era. That was how it seemed when he turned up for his first selection committee meeting, succeeding the defeated and dispirited Graham Gooch. Atherton, then a fresh-faced 25 to Gooch's careworn 40, stood for old values and new thinking. England - who as recently as 1988 had employed four captains in a single calamitous series - gave the impression of having made, for once, an imaginative long-term decision.
And for a year, it worked. The results improved almost immediately. Atherton won a consolation Test match against the Australians at The Oval, and then another, against West Indies at Bridgetown, albeit with the rubber already lost. And he managed to win a series, against New Zealand - not entirely convincingly, perhaps, but the curve was certainly pointing upwards. Morale was higher, to the extent that it could survive incidents like the dismissal of the entire team for a total of 46 runs in Port of Spain. The captain established sound working relationships with his team manager, Keith Fletcher, and his chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth. Together they brought back some old faithfuls for reconsideration, but in general their choices pointed to the future, as Atherton had promised they would. His own batting gained in strength and conviction: now he could also lead by example, never more than when, at Sabina Park, he faced up to a barrage with conspicuous courage.
On tour in the Caribbean, Atherton could be seen at his best. Touring parties inevitably devolve into cliques, and Atherton's skill was to permit this to happen, to allow his men the right to self-
expression, while binding the whole group together by ensuring that no section or individual became marginalised (as he himself had been on Gooch's trip to India the previous winter). He shared himself around, drinking with the roisterers one night and with the quiet bunch the next. A Cambridge graduate with a Lancashire accent, he could mix with the blazers and the lads alike. He knew when to join in, and how to remove himself without seeming aloof. This, at last, was the captain for whom England had been searching.
THEN, last Sunday, he seemed to come undone. In the course of an agonising 23-minute press conference at Lord's, cornered on the subject of whether or not he had tampered with the ball during the afternoon session of the third day's play against South Africa, Atherton - still half-traumatised by the most savage defeat of his career as England captain - veered from openness to evasion, from mild contrition to a barely suppressed petulance, from ill-judged attempts at humour to the occasional attempt to make it appear that nothing unusual was happening.
After seeing the television replays of what Peter Burge, the match referee, indelibly referred to as 'unfamiliar actions', Atherton had realised that he owed the world an explanation. But, somewhere along the way, he lost the courage that had enabled him to confront Benjamin and Walsh. What we heard was a defence that dealt with some questions but left others screaming for answers.
He may have been telling the truth when he claimed not to have been using dirt in his pocket to tamper with the ball, and in that he was certainly supported by the judgement of the referee and the umpires that the ball's condition had not been unduly altered during Saturday's afternoon session. But the first of his damning evasions came in this exchange:
Q: 'Michael, the footage seemed to show that when your hands came out of your pocket, presumably now dry, you then started to work on the ball.'
A: 'Absolutely not. I did not alter the condition of the ball at all. The dirt was there solely to keep the sweat on my fingers and my hands off the ball.'
Q: 'But your fingers were on the ball. What were you doing?'
A: 'Well, of course they were. That's the whole point of having the dirt on the fingers, so that the sweat doesn't get on the ball.'
Q: 'So what were you doing when you were rubbing the ball?'
A: 'I wasn't rubbing the ball. I polished the shiny side and kept the sweat off the dry side.'
The TV pictures showed him removing his right hand from his pocket, putting his fingertips to the ball, and rubbing one side of it with a purposeful action that seemed to leave no doubt that he had carried something from his pocket to the ball. The fact that he rubbed the ball on its rough side - we knew this because we could see him turning it in his hand before polishing the smooth side on his flannels - was beyond challenge. But he chose to dispute the evidence of our eyes, merely adding to the growing impression that something was not quite straight.
The technical minutiae of ball- tampering preoccupied the sports pages, but the question of the England cricket captain's truthfulness rang a more general alarm. The key moment came when he tetchily deflected questions about his conversation with the referee.
Q: 'Did Mr Burge at any stage ask you if you had anything in your pocket?'
A: 'The conversations between myself and Mr Burge shall remain that way.'
Q: 'It's a pretty straightforward question, though.'
A: 'And I've just given you a pretty straightforward answer.'
Even his admirers found it hard to stomach his transparent attempt to use a quasi-legal formality - the pretence that a conversation between a cricketer and a match official enjoyed some sort of privileged status - to avoid incriminating himself.
The referee's own statement, released on Monday, did nothing to clarify the matter. Pakistanis in particular, still smarting from the various ball-tampering accusations of recent years, were outraged by his refusal to impose a separate punishment. Burge's acceptance of Illingworth's pre-emptive pounds 2,000 fine as sufficient sanction appeared to them an endorsement of one law for the white and another for the brown. Not at all the sort of thing, in fact, that one had expected from the Atherton era.
IT HAD taken him 23 minutes on Sunday to work himself deeper into the hole; five days later it took him exactly twice as long to dig himself most of the way out, when he convened another press conference on his home ground at Old Trafford, hoping to clear the air before the second Test.
Clearly in a more settled frame of mind after a few days on the run with his girlfriend in the Lake District, he began by issuing a new and slightly fuller written statement. Then, as he knew it would, came the real inquisition, and so forensic was the mood that there were times during the 45 minutes when Perry Mason and George Carman QC would have come in useful as Atherton and his chief interrogator, the BBC's Jonathan Agnew, tied themselves in knots over the question of whether dirt had come out of the pocket on to the fingers, whether that dirt had been transferred to the surface of the ball, and what degree of intent had been involved in those actions.
He stumbled a few times, over little things that loomed large.
Q: 'On Sunday you denied rubbing the ball in any way.'
A: 'I didn't deny it.'
Q: 'You did.'
A: 'I didn't'
Q: 'I have a clear recollection that you denied rubbing the ball in any way.'
A: 'The TV evidence clearly shows that my hand came out of my pocket, and my hand was on the rough side of the ball. The TV evidence is clear on that. It's clear that dust falls off the ball. I'm hardly going to deny something that's totally clear . . .'
Q: 'But on Sunday you were specifically asked that question and you denied it.'
A: 'Well, all I can say is that I've not denied it.'
But, as we knew, he had denied it, perhaps in the heat and confusion of the worst moment of his young life. And now, ostensibly calmer but probably still in some kind of deep torment, he was denying the denial.
Yet if this was not to be a entirely satisfactory recantation, then at least one of the big questions was dismissed early on.
Q: 'Why didn't you tell the truth straight away?'
A: 'That's been my biggest regret all week. I should have come clean and told Peter Burge straight away about the dirt in my pocket. I did take my trousers in - they were open to inspection the whole time. He asked me if I had resin in my pocket, and I said no. Then he asked me did I have any other substance in my pocket. I replied no. That's where I made my mistake. I was thinking of other substances, such as Vaseline, Lipsyl, iron filings . . . I confirmed that there was absolutely no artificial substance in there.'
In his written statement, he added this significant sentence: 'Thinking back to that meeting, I gave my response without considering the consequences and believing that I had done nothing improper, but not wishing to raise any suspicions about my actions.'
In other words, he crossed his fingers behind his back when he said 'no'. A sort of an off-white lie, now admitted and exposed. And, perhaps, to be forgiven - at least by those who are still capable of taking into account such factors as character, previous behaviour and extenuating circumstances.
A week ago, one reporter suggested to him, he had enjoyed universal support. Did he think he could ever regain that position? 'It's an enviable position to have,' he replied. 'It's not many times that an England captain could say that he had full official and public support, with no threat to his job. That's certainly not the case now, and it's my fault.'
When asked if he thought that the stigma of this affair would last for the rest of his career, his reply was unhesitating. 'I think there are going to be suspicions that linger on,' he said, very quietly. 'People will either believe me or they won't. I'm totally clear as to what my intentions were. Hopefully, if we can put together some good performances, this kind of thing may die down. But everybody's got to be remembered for something, and I suppose this will be my epitaph.'
IT'S CLEAR now, after all this cross-questioning, that he believes himself innocent of any serious wrongdoing, even if in his heart of hearts he may feel that he hasn't been very clever.
Cricket is the hardest of games to legislate, since its meaning, its beauty and its claim to uniqueness are to be found in its infinite variety. Unlike baseball, in which the ball is changed literally dozens of times during the game in order to ensure that each delivery is projected according to the same ballistic parameters, cricket demands from its players an ability to act according to variables: how will this ball deviate in these atmospheric conditions, or on this strip of grass at that time of day? These decisions can take micro-seconds, or days, in conditions that change hour by hour. All this enriches the game by putting a premium on knowledge, experience, nerve and cunning. And it makes cricket a particularly hard game for the legislators, since any two apparently similar actions are seldom truly identical.
No wonder, then, that Law 42.5 is so hard to pin down: '. . . or take any other action to alter the condition of the ball . . .' Now what exactly does 'alter' mean, when you really try to test it? If you were to take action to maintain the condition of the ball in a steady state, would you not in effect be 'altering' the natural course of events, ie the ball's deterioration? And what is an 'artificial substance', anyway? Is dust artificial? If it isn't (as seems likely), and if 42.5 doesn't allow you to rub the ball in the dust on the ground, may you rub it with dust kept in your pocket? Last week, two centuries of custom and practice and law-making in the world's most cerebral outdoor game proved of little help.
My own judgement is that Atherton used the earth from his pocket to dust one side of the ball, drying the sweat marks and maintaining the matt finish rather than abrading the leather (which would have required far more emphatic and persistent rubbing, perhaps with something more like those mysterious 'iron filings' to which he referred). Insofar as that seems to have been the primary function of the dust, at least on the two occasions the camera caught him, I continue to doubt the detail of his explanation. But I also believe - and here is the crux of the trial of Michael Atherton - that the captain of England was not seeking to gain an unfair advantage, and that his offence was a misdemeanour rather than a felony.
Beneath all this lies the true reason why the affair occupied so many thoughts last week. Cricket, wherever it is played, presents a lesson in social behaviour and a constant test of integrity, its imprecise laws demanding honesty and goodwill from its players. Children who learn its codes are the better for their knowledge, even if they never play the actual game again. So when people suggest, as they do, that we should start treating cricketers like tennis-players or footballers, and stop burdening them with unreasonable moral demands, we know that such an apparently logical change would cost us something worth preserving.
Anyone can have moral principles; it is the ability to act according to them that constitutes integrity. When Michael Atherton appeared to run short of that ability last week, he did so under the harshest scrutiny. As a cricketer, that is his burden, and his privilege. Now perhaps those in authority will see a chance to extend cricket's moral range by testing the proposition that one mistake can be the making, rather than the breaking, of a man. That would not close the matter; but perhaps, at least for the time being, it is anyway better left open.
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