Cricket: One heroic blast does not a hero make

Click to follow
ONE OF the unexpected pleasures of this cricket season - and there have been many - has been the transformation of Mike Atherton. Of course it's a shame that his back has been giving him so much trouble. But the silver lining has been the way he has taken to life as a pundit.

As a member of our editorial board at Wisden Cricket Monthly, he has always put pen to paper - literally: until very recently, he was the last contributor still delivering his copy in longhand. But his style was cramped by being England captain for so long. Free from that constraint, and aware that his second career might be starting sooner than planned, he threw himself into commentating on the World Cup. This was for BBC, whose cricket operation was just going up in smoke. But Atherton has had a bit of practice at standing on a burning deck. Crisp, dry, consistently illuminating and occasionally hard-hitting, he was one of the top four or five commentators in the World Cup, on a par with Dermot Reeve or - more to Atherton's taste, I suspect - Ian Chappell.

Now that the BBC is history, Atherton is a commentator without a microphone, but he has a newspaper column, and he said something in it on Sunday which confirmed that he has made the psychological leap from dressing-room to media centre. The cricket-loving public, he said, have "a winning team and a new hero to proclaim".

Nothing so remarkable in that. Alex Tudor had already been given this status by Martin Crowe, who gave him the man of the match award at Edgbaston with the words: "English cricket has a new hero," and also by Mark Nicholas on Channel 4, who referred to Tudor and Nasser Hussain, as they sat beside him on Saturday's highlights programme, as "our heroes".

But it is one thing to hear it from Crowe and Nicholas and another to hear it from Atherton. Two and a half years ago, I wrote a cover story for WCM entitled "Wanted: heroes," making the obvious point that English cricket was suffering from a superstar shortage, and listing 11 players who might fill the gap. (They included Darren Gough, Hussain, Mark Ramprakash, Dean Headley and both Hollioakes, but not Tudor.)

Atherton was irritated by this, saying that what England needed was not heroes, but "heroic cricket". It seemed, for a plain-speaking Northerner, a subtle distinction.

A few months later came the most euphoric moment, perhaps the only euphoric moment, of Atherton's captaincy. England beat Australia 3-0 in the Texaco Trophy one-day series, with Adam Hollioake hitting the winning runs in all three, and Ben Hollioake, aged 19, pasting Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath all round Lord's. Then England won the first Test, thanks to a partnership of 288 on a tricky Edgbaston pitch by Hussain and Graham Thorpe.

I put a picture of those two on the cover, with one of Adam Hollioake in the corner, and a cover line that read simply: "Heroes!" Atherton chuckled and said, "You're obsessed with bloody heroes." I pointed out that I was not the only one. The tapes which David Lloyd used to play in the dressing- room to gee the boys up included a song by M People, entitled "Search For The Hero Inside Yourself."

However, when England came back from the dead to beat South Africa last summer, WCM refrained from making any reference to heroes. And next month? Well, we're thinking about it. But just as Atherton seems to be coming round to my position on this, so I find myself coming round to his.

Tudor was certainly a hero at Edgbaston. He played a fabulous innings - although it has been swiftly forgotten that among the Caribbean drives and the authentic on-drives were plenty of air shots and a few leading edges. Bright, breezy, totally unexpected and above all match-winning, it was just the sort of performance that could inspire a young viewer to take up the game (as long as his parents have Sky).

Tudor is also an impressive person - polite, modest, forthcoming and keen to learn. Modest enough to acknowledge that his bowling at Edgbaston was indifferent, he was also polite enough not to point out that his figures would have looked a lot better if Alec Stewart had not done an impression of a matador when Adam Parore offered an early slip catch.

If we have to proclaim heroes on the strength of one performance, let them be like Tudor. But we don't have to. One blast of heroics doesn't make a hero. Just ask Ben Hollioake.

Warne is a hero, and Steve Waugh, and Lance Klusener, and Brian Lara, on the days when he is not a villain. Tudor may become one. Let's fervently hope he does. But he is not there yet. He is not the black Botham, as Michael Holding called him, on Sky, in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to get a rise out of the man sitting next to him - Ian Botham. Now he was a hero.