Cricket: Media pressure puts the squeeze on Atherton: Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent, on the increasing calls in print and on the airwaves for the England captain to resign

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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE in England, a long way from his Didsbury flat, and possibly wearing a false beard and dark glasses, Michael Atherton is contemplating his future as England's cricket captain. Does he soldier on, as his chairman of selectors has invited him to, or does he take the cyanide capsule urged upon him - as is usually the case at times like these - by an increasingly insistent media.

If Atherton was close to a radio set yesterday, he would have discovered that the most trenchant voice urging him to hand in his badge belongs to Jonathan Agnew, the BBC cricket correspondent. Agnew also expressed similar views in a newspaper column, citing television pictures 'clearly showing Atherton rubbing dirt into the ball' (ie, illegal tampering) and describing his position, as a result, as 'untenable'.

Agnew has also prefixed his comments by describing Atherton as a 'personal friend', which may be news to Atherton, and in any event is totally superfluous unless intended to convey to his audience that his comments thus carry more weight and gravitas than would be the case if Atherton thought he was a total plonker.

However, as the England captain has denied cheating, Agnew is basically describing him as a liar and a cheat. If this piece of mud sticks, particularly through the medium of the BBC, it really would make Atherton's position untenable, and unless he replies to it, either personally or through his lawyers, the effect may be as if Agnew has proved the case against him.

Agnew has said that attempting to tamper with the ball and failing is just as bad as succeeding, which it is. However, the point that needs to be made this morning is that the only conviction for an illegal act (as opposed to a stupid one) has been made by the media.

Peter Burge, the International Cricket Council referee, has cleared Atherton of infringing Law 42 (unfair play), so have the two umpires, so has Raymond Illingworth, and so - by declining to get involved - has the South African cricket team.

However, the reason that Atherton will be considering his position at the moment, wherever he might be, is the sheer weight of media pressure. These sort of things are rarely allowed to die, and the inevitable reader phone- ins are now adding to the hype.

Yesterday, the Test and County Cricket Board hierarchy were grouping themselves firmly behind their man. Ossie Wheatley, the chairman of the TCCB's cricket committee, said: 'If someone does something thoughtless it should not destroy a promising career as this seems to be in danger of doing. We have had England captains pushed too far by the media before. I hope that doesn't happen to Michael because he's a fine captain and a fine man.'

Bob Bennett, Atherton's Lancashire chairman, was of a like mind. 'As all parties concerned have accepted that the ball was not damaged, it is unfair that doubt should still be cast upon his integrity.'

Media trials, however, do not work like that. Capital punishment may have been abolished at the Old Bailey, but not in trials by television and newspaper.

Atherton has been silly in the things he has left unsaid, and not just in not coming clean about the dirt earlier than he did. For some reason, he also failed to say at the press conference that he used to carry dirt in his pocket when he bowled leg spin for Lancashire, when a dodgy back made it painful for him to bend over and dry his fingers at the crease in the conventional manner. Had he done so, it would at least have made the unusual act of carrying some around in his pocket seem slightly less odd.

It would indeed be ironic if Atherton is as innocent as he claims, and is to be hung for being scrupulously attentive to detail (making sure one side of the ball remained dry) in his professional life. In his private life, he is anything but.

He is a disarmingly casual bloke, who likes a pint and Manchester United, and is confounded by anything as complex as an alarm clock let alone the more modern gadgetry. A good deal of his time in his bachelor flat is spent searching for a shirt without a crease in it.

Atherton has two choices. He can send for a tin hat and take to the trenches, or he can open the desk drawer and reach for the revolver. If he takes the second option, it will be because - however innocent he might feel himself to be - he knows his image and authority as England captain have been fatally eroded.

He will not, however, be sacked. Alan Smith, the chief executive of the TCCB, revealed that the Board's chairman, Frank Chamberlain, who is the only person apart from Illingworth who could fire Atherton, will not be doing so. 'I have spoken to Frank,' Smith said. 'He believes the matter has been dealt with and will not be using his power of veto.'

If Atherton does go, it will add to a substantial list of recent England captains who have left the job either of their own accord, or to something other than the collective sobs of a grieving nation. No one knows this better than Keith Fletcher, the current team manager, who was generally held to have paid the price, not least by himself, for frustratedly flicking off a bail on a tour of India.

Ian Botham resigned just before Alec Bedser, then chairman of selectors, arrived at the dressing- room clutching blindfold and last cigarette, and David Gower was sacked twice either side of Mike Gatting's term of office.

Latterly, Graham Gooch resigned when he lost both matches and contact with his players. All of them, and Gatting in particular, were dragged down by the glare of the media, and Atherton may yet be added to the list.

Imran Khan, the former Pakistan captain, defended Mike Atherton last night in ITN's News at Ten. Imran, who has admitted using a bottle-top to alter the condition of a ball, said he sympathised with Atherton. 'The main thing is did he tamper with the ball or not? He says he is innocent, Ray Illingworth says he is innocent, and the umpires have never said he tampered with the ball. The ICC needs to define exactly what ball tampering is.'

England captaincy, page 30

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