Cricket: Interview - Mike Atherton: Proud Atherton summons the steel for one more comeback

He was determined to prove them wrong, whatever the cost
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The Independent Online
ON THE day I went to meet him at his new house in Cheshire, Michael Atherton was not lying in his hammock. After five days of balmy sunshine, the weather had reverted to type and rain, never far away in this Posh and Becks' heartland, had set in. Perhaps it was just as well, for as he later confides, a hammock is not the ideal place for a bad back, particularly one at the centre of a make or break comeback.

Once over the protestations, the "what do you want to interview me for, I'm yesterday's news?" kind of thing, he pulls out a very toothsome Puligny Montrachet and we settle down to discuss his quietly confident plans of a return to full-time cricket since his withdrawal from the Sydney Test in January.

Two days later, the quiet confidence has become a defiant roar as he compiles his highest first-class score, a bat and back-breaking 268, against Glamorgan at Stanley Park in Blackpool. He then proceeds to spend the remainder of the match in the field. Not so much a gentle fitness test for our Athers, but an assault course for masochists. "The back feels fine, but I'm stiff everywhere else," he assures me once the dust has settled. "It's the only part of me that I've worked on. The rest of me has been neglected." It is one in the eye for all those who insist on copious nets and training as a means for success.

After seven months and one false start against Surrey in May, Atherton is convinced the worst is over and the cushy life of the commentary box can be postponed. Apparently something called an "Anderson" lesion was spotted in a verterbral disc a few weeks back and injected with cortisone.

That procedure, along with something called the Pilatis method - a regime of abdominal exercises that helps stabilise the lower back - appears to have done the trick, at least for the moment.

When I ask him if it was, as many have claimed, his finest performance for Lancashire, he plays the innings down. "It was a bit scratchy early on until I got to 40, but that was to be expected. It was pretty fluent after that though." Which is his way of saying that it was probably fairly special.

Most players would have revelled in such an emphatic return, yet according to the posse of photographers on hand to record the milestone, there were no cheesy grins or ecstatic air punching from Atherton to celebrate his career best. Just a quick raise of the bat and a doff of the helmet. It is this reticence to rejoice that alternately perplexes the public and tickles those who know him.

Like most aspects of Atherton's character, emotion is a very private thing. For him to display it publicly, some pretty strong internal walls have to be breached. It has been known, and beating Australia at Edgbaston and The Oval two seasons ago, along with his match-saving 185 in Johannesburg, brought on a veritable epidemic of smiling and joy. It is rare, though, especially in his cricket, and he gets far more animated when he backs a 10-1 winner on the flat.

My own theory, for what it's worth, is that he sets himself high standards and any vulgar displays of achievement are tantamount to admitting the deed was beyond him in the first place. After all, scoring runs is what he is supposed to be good at and getting a big double hundred was merely fulfilling that pact with himself and his team. Mind you, trying to get him to admit that it was a rather sensational and ultimately satisfactory way to return, particularly after six months of churning uncertainty, proves impossible.

He also plays down speculation of a prompt recall to England colours with an equally dead bat. Just before he made his first comeback against Lancashire in early June - his back seized up again soon after - he deliberately sought out David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, just to see where he stood. After all, his Test form in Australia had been poor and not all of it could be heaped on his dicky back.

"I asked him and the other selectors straight up whether they felt my England days were over. Because if they were, there didn't seem much point in playing on. And they said `No. If you prove fitness and form, you've as much chance as anyone else.' I wasn't pushing my corner. I just needed to know, that's all." He and Nasser Hussain go a long way back to England Under-15s, and the present England captain would surely want an on-song Atherton back for South Africa this winter, if not before?

"My short-term ambition is to play the last half of the season with Lancashire and see what becomes of that. Naturally my ultimate aim is to get back in the England team at some stage, but I can't say when and where that might be. I've just got to play as well as I can and see where it goes. Thirty-one is too young to pack up the game if you are still enjoying it."

In his understated way, Atherton admits to some dark moments over the past few months, though nothing to match the drama of your average soap. At its worst, he struggled to put his shoes and socks on, while lying in bed (once a GP's recommended cure for a bad back) and it was sometimes so painful he could not sleep. While that persisted, cricket was obviously not an option.

Commentating on the World Cup for the BBC and writing regular columns for a Sunday newspaper kept him occupied during a period he claims was more tedious than depressing. Like most things he does, effort and thought went into it and he was damned by faint praise when one of our own columnists, Tim de Lisle, claimed he was at least as good as Dermot Reeve. When I tell him this, he snorts like an indignant warthog and rolls his eyes - a combination that suggests Reeve is not on his Christmas card list.

"The World Cup was a help and I enjoyed doing it. Being at the boundary's edge also helped rekindle my enthusiasm. It was interesting and some things seem much clearer when you are not as close or wrapped up in the game. When you stand back, it's possible to have a far more objective overview. I didn't have any training from the Beeb beforehand, so I just tried to be fair and honest. That way if there were criticisms to be made, I could make them."

During his captaincy, Atherton had a fairly frosty relationship with the media. Some reckon it cooled below freezing immediately after the "dirt in the pocket" incident, but that is probably a simplification. If it has thawed out a bit more of late, it is far more likely to have come about due to a near cessation of press conferences, than from his recent experiences on the other side of the fence.

"From the players' perspective the media side of things should be an irrelevance. I'm not saying the media is irrelevant, because it isn't. But in terms of the players, you just have to go out and play the game. Over time, I've learned that it all comes down to whether you win or lose. It doesn't matter how you play, or if you captained wonderfully, or ran the best trip in the world. It all comes down to the black ball, and whether you pot it or miss it."

His recent advice to Nasser Hussain, in his newspaper column, was to do things his own way. How, I wondered, could a captain achieve that, when he has one vote in four over selection? "I've always believed that the captain and coach should have the overriding say in selection, and that looks to be about to happen. You still need a chairman of selectors to run the show, but his role should be to guide and suggest, which I think David Graveney does anyway. "The captain has to be his own man. That way he'll have no regrets and won't always be thinking what if... and if only so and so had played. The worst thing for a captain is to appear to be running the ship when he is not selecting the crew.

"When I first became England captain in 1993, I virtually had sole say along with Keith Fletcher the coach. That all changed when Illy [Ray Illingworth] came in. After that, I decided to leave my vote over selection unused." He denies that this was a form of protest, but there is still indignation there, if not quite anger, and you sense he does not forgive or forget some things easily.

Yet, wouldn't there be logistical problems with a captain-coach duopoly? Wouldn't some players be left trying to impress in a selector- free vacuum? As a case in point, the last time Atherton played against Glamorgan was in 1995 - which means he would not have seen most of their players for four years.

Hackles up, he counters immediately. "I think people overestimate the number of players that you're selecting from, and a lot of crap is talked about the talent available. At the end of the day, only a limited number of cricketers are good enough to play international cricket. It is up to the people who run the show to identify them. OK, so it's their judgement, but that is what they are being paid to do."

His views on the coach's role are interesting and he differs from David Lloyd's view that it should be an Englishman."I think it's a positive thing that the coach is coming from outside. That means he has no axes to grind and no previous with any of the players.

"A new regime should mean a clean sheet and Duncan Fletcher should come in with more objectivity and a slightly different focus. Mind you, in three to four years the same should apply and it would be good for someone else to come in. It's difficult to captain or coach for much longer than that unless you're winning all the time.

"The crucial element between captain and coach is a sense of trust. Knowing that there will be unconditional support and that they are not going to go behind your back. Once you have that, you can have your disagreements, as Bumble [Lloyd] and I often did, but knowing they will not go any further."

Apart from an unfailing faith in his ability to pick sound horseflesh, one of Atherton's rare concessions to ego is that he doesn't like to appear transparent. With many suggesting his cricketing days were at an end and a career in the media beckoned, he was determined to prove them wrong, whatever the cost.

But what is the true cost? Thirty-one is too young to be giving up the game, but continued cortisone injections are a pact that even Faust might have balked at. For his sake, as much as those who wish to see him back in an England sweater, let us hope they are at an end, too.