Cricket: Illingworth in pre-emptive strike to save Atherton: Glenn Moore asks if England's captain can wipe his hands clean of controversy

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ATHERTON, the England captain, will find out today whether Ray Illingworth's swiftly executed attempt to pre-empt the ire of the match referee, Peter Burge, at being 'given incomplete information' will save him further punishment.

Burge, the only match referee to date to suspend a player - Pakistan's Aqib Javed for dissent - will issue the fourth statement on the incident this afternoon. Both Illingworth, England's chairman of selectors, and Atherton hope it will be the last and blandest. However, Burge, especially as he is operating in the presence of David Richards, the International Cricket Council chief executive, is unlikely to be feeling particularly forgiving.

Atherton said he had not given Burge the full facts 'for fear that it would be miscontrued.' Atherton would not discuss whether Burge had asked him directly if he had anything in his pocket but said he had offered the trousers as evidence.

Burge first became aware of the affair late on Saturday afternoon when he was informed of BBC television pictures which appeared to show Atherton putting his right hand in his pocket, taking it out and applying a substance to the ball. He then wiped his hand on the back of his whites, held it close to his nose as if sniffing it, and wiped it again on his sleeve.

After play had ended, Burge, the former Australian Test player, watched the incident on video several times then summoned Atherton. It was nearly three hours after the close of play when the media - who had been given wine by MCC while waiting - were informed of Burge's decision, on the evidence he had at the time, to clear Atherton.

Like several statements from match referees it raised as many questions as it solved, making yesterday one of those occasions when the 'Number twos' (the cricket correspondents' leg men) spent more time watching each other than the cricket. It ended with more than a 100 journalists, crowding Atherton and Illingworth in a steaming dining room in the pavilion.

It was the same humidity, said Atherton, that led to his actions on the pitch. England were endeavouring to get the ball to 'reverse swing' which entails giving the ball a bias - like a bowls ball - by making it heavier on one side through applying sweat.

The practice, which is perfectly legal, places great emphasis on handling the other side with dry hands and to do that, said Atherton, he had filled his pocket with dust from the bowlers' footholes to keep it dry.

Before seeing Burge, Atherton had apparently been mystified at the fuss, perhaps because when he bowled leg spin for Lancashire he used to keep dirt in his pocket to keep his hands dry without comment, according to a former Lancashire team-mate, Paul Allott, last night.

But after seeing the pictures Atherton accepted 'they looked suspicious' and added: 'If I had the chance again I'd wipe my hand on the ground.'

Atherton stressed that 'my conscience is clear, the umpires check the ball each over and they had no complaints. I have never used a substance to polish, or deface the surface of the ball.'

Illingworth said although he did not know whether Atherton had broken the laws (which are not entirely clear on such an instance) 'we have to be seen to be whiter than white, things have gone on in Test cricket - not England but other sides - and they have got away with it'.

MIKE ATHERTON'S STATEMENT IN FULL

'HAVING spent some time looking at television footage and discussing with Ray Illingworth, I felt that the sooner I explained the situation the better.

Yesterday evening I was asked to attend a meeting with the match referee, Mr Burge. After that meeting he issued a statement 'that he accepted the explanation I gave and that no action would be taken'. In my explanation, I did not present all the facts.

I am here to explain what I did and to answer any questions you wish to ask. As you are aware we use sweat to get the bruises out of the ball and then rub to maintain the shine.

It was very hot and humid out there yesterday, your hands get wet and this in turn dampens the ball when you handle it. You all saw me reach into my pocket, dry my fingers with some dirt in order not to dampen the ball. Whilst I told Mr Burge that I put my hand into my pocket to dry my fingers, I did not tell him that I used the dirt to dry them; therefore my response to his questioning was incomplete.

I would like to add at no stage during my career have I ever used any substances to alter the condition of the ball.

I would apologise to the match referee Mr Burge and the South African team. I hope everybody will accept my apology.'

RAY ILLINGWORTH'S STATEMENT IN FULL

'IN discussing this incident with Michael Atherton this morning he told me that had dried his fingers with some dirt in order not to dampen the ball. After giving this some consideration I decided that this matter should be resolved and put to rest as quickly as possible.

I took account that the match referee Mr Burge, was unaware of the full facts, that there had been no alteration to the condition of the ball and that no artificial substance had been used. He used dirt to dry his fingers. Taking this into account I have decided to fine Michael on two counts.

Firstly, for using dirt. Secondly, for giving incomplete information to the match referee. He is to be fined pounds 1,000 for each count. pounds 2,000 in total. As far as I am concerned this matter has been dealt with and is now closed.'

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