Whether or not this is possible after the unfortunate sequence of events at Lord's last week rests on one principle: that, having already lied once to the match referee in his first statement, we should subsequently believe any counter- statements, irrespective of how much more plausible and heartfelt they may seem.
Atherton is aware of this, and openly admits to being foolish and full of regret, insisting that though his actions looked suspicious, he did not intend to change the condition of the ball - which is illegal - but merely to maintain it. The fact that he intended to maintain it in a condition likely to allow reverse swing - with one side kept dry while the other is kept damp - was enough to convince most onlookers that he was guilty of ball tampering. A crime yet to have found a punishment.
To be found guilty of GBH or any similar crime, intent must first be proven. It is perhaps Atherton's misfortune that in many people's minds trying to achieve reverse swing roughly equates to Pakistani cheats - thanks to a portion of the media with a predilection for some bad old-fashioned jingoism. Ball tampering and reverse swing have become big issues in cricket over the past couple of years.
Although prevented from delivering Pakistan on a silver platter - after a ball was mysteriously changed at Lord's two years ago - by some incompetence typical of the TCCB and ICC, the media immediately suspected a cover-up. Having been denied the kind of kill they have missed since Mike Gatting's liaison with a barmaid, the media were not about to miss out again. With the bit between their teeth after those tell-tale television pictures, the hysteria began. This was further fuelled when an initial statement did not seem to tally with what had been seen on screen. Intent, they shouted. Who needs intent, when it is all there before your very eyes on a television screen?
So can wrongful purpose be proved? Did Atherton intend to alter the condition of the ball or not? And if he did not, then why did he feel it necessary to lie to Peter Burge, the match referee?
As a recent player, and more especially as a bowler, I regard myself as being fairly au fait with ball tampering. Indeed I even confessed to tampering in a piece I wrote last year. It was no big deal. In the span of my career most bowlers did something illegal with the ball, using lipsalve or the like to keep a shine. Naturally, there was always the odd snide remark, but mostly everyone just accepted these misdemeanours and got on with the game.
Reverse swing, though, is a relatively new phenomenon that has evolved from playing on hard, dry surfaces where the condition of the ball rapidly deteriorates. Reverse swing can be and has been achieved without breaking the laws of play. It is a complex business which not many fully understand, including several daily newspapers who last week attempted to explain the practice with diagrams that were completely misleading.
One of the key factors is the creation of opposites on the ball's surface, a kind of Yin and Yang effect, where one side must be smooth and damp, while the other is allowed to roughen but is kept scrupulously dry. It has to be a team effort, for any dampness on the rough side will negate the effect. Judging from the television pictures, Atherton dried his hands as claimed but then lightly rubbed them on the ball just to the side of the seam.
As any ball tamperer worth his salt knows, these are not the actions of somebody who is wilfully trying to alter the condition of the ball; his touch is too light and he would need to use something a good deal more abrasive than loam to achieve that. Imran Khan, remember, used a bottle top: cricket-ball leather is tough stuff.
Much more likely is that he was - as claimed - simply drying his hands with the dirt from used footholes. Drying your hands on dirt is a ritual most spinners go through before bowling, irrespective of the hot and humid conditions that made Lord's seem stickier than a toffee apple last week. Atherton's mistake was - apart from getting caught by the camera - to keep the stuff in his pocket. As nobody else seemed to do this, it took on a sinister dimension that amounted to certain guilt, until someone pointed out that it was Atherton's wont to carry dirt in his pocket when he bowled leg-breaks for Cambridge University and Lancashire.
Both the Essex spinners, Peter Such and John Childs, wipe their hands in the dirt to get the sweat off, and Such claims to have also deliberately rubbed dust over the seam on sweaty days. Childs believes he has probably done so 'without even thinking about it'. Moreover, neither one believes it to be illegal, nor has any umpire ever warned them to the contrary.
John Emburey also wipes his hand on loose dirt but reckons that an encounter with the umpire Alan Whitehead - who made him wipe the dirt off before gripping the ball - leads him to believe that any dirt on the ball must be illegal. Law 42.5 specifies that a ball may be dried, using a towel or sawdust. It also prohibits the use of anything artificial being added to the ball, as well as preventing any action to alter the ball's condition.
Atherton appeared to be in breach of the Laws, but not categorically so. If disingenuousness is discounted, his apparent impropriety probably falls within the ambiguity that litters most laws. Remember that neither umpire nor the match referee found any evidence of deliberate deterioration or ball tampering upon regular inspection of the ball.
Almost anyone that knows Michael Atherton will tell you that he is a good honest lad whose one weakness is, perhaps, that he does not suffer fools gladly. Always comfortable at the right hand of authority, he can be bloody minded to the point of exasperation, for he knows his own mind. Nevertheless, he is bright enough to be swayed by others, providing their sentiments are not based on whim.
It comes as some surprise that he chose to be dishonest when the match referee quizzed him as to the contents of his trouser pocket. In 1985, during a match between Essex and Australia, the umpire and former Yorkshire player John Hampshire decided to change the ball after he found that the quarter seam had been lifted and the ball had suddenly started to swing. At the end of the day's play he summoned Graham Gooch, the acting Essex captain, to explain why he had changed the ball. When Gooch returned to the dressing- room he asked the players if any of them had lifted the quarter seam. There was silence. He repeated the question. More silence.
Now, like Atherton, I pride myself on telling the truth, and had I been given until the next morning to realise that honesty would have been the best policy, I am sure a confession would have been forthcoming. But at the time, having just come off the field, the adrenalin was pulsing and the mind racing. On such occasions, logic, pure and simple, does not exist and all outcomes seem to grow heads.
Unlike Atherton I had clearly broken the Laws, and although ball tampering was not the issue it is today - it was clean forgotten by lunch the next day - my fear of irrational punitive action prevented me from coming clean. At the time I was 26, the same age as Michael Atherton is now.
My point is one that Kant made: that every thesis has an equally valid antithesis. As a former cricketer, I find the media reaction out of all proportion to the crime. Most players share a similar view though one who has recently played for England under Atherton saw the whole thing as a massive cover-up by the Oxbridge hierarchy at Lord's, simply rallying round to protect one of their own.
This was not the general consensus, though, and as John Lever, the ex-Essex and England bowler (himself once accused of cheating during a Test match in Madras), told me last week: 'All of a sudden there is this big word cheating that is being bandied around. It is clear that people just don't understand what really goes on out in the middle. Because they tried to label Pakistan as cheats the media have gone completely overboard.'
Certainly balance did not seem to be a priority with the BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew. It comes as no surprise to find him not particularly well-versed in the art of reverse swing. During Agnew's time at Leicester the pitches were so grassy that the batsmen never survived long enough to see a spinner, let alone a worn ball. Perhaps in the feeding frenzy his other job as a tabloid columnist overtook both his sensibilities and responsibilities.
The witch-hunt may not yet be over, for there remains the odd loose end and there may still be a hanging. Atherton has been a fool and he admits it. By remaining as England captain, we hope that, in the words of William Blake, his folly of the last week will eventually make him wise.
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