FOR the second time in a fortnight, Michael Atherton's 11- month career as England's cricket captain is under threat. Atherton was yesterday fined and severely reprimanded for allegedly disputing an umpiring decision (he was given out leg-before first ball) and, scheduled for a convivial evening's dining at a Pall Mall restaurant, cancelled his reservation and went to ground.
Atherton had largely put behind him the 'dirt in the pocket' business during the first Test match against South Africa at Lord's last month, but this latest incident - comparatively trivial though it is - will put a further strain on his capacity to continue in the job.
England's team manager Keith Fletcher was clearly unhappy at the decision of ICC match referee Peter Burge to fine him half his match fee (around pounds 1,250) and to 'severely reprimand' him for 'showing dissent.' The umpire, Ken Palmer, did not report Atherton, and Burge is thought to have made his decision purely on television evidence.
It was the BBC cameras which led to the ball-tampering allegations at Lord's, and when Palmer gave Atherton out leg before to Fanie De Villiers yesterday, Atherton shook his head and looked hard at the edge of his bat. It is a common enough practice, and this was a mild form of the genre, suggesting that Burge had not forgiven Atherton for not intially informing him of the dirt in his pocket in the Lord's Test. Inside the England dressing room, there is also the not unreasonable feeling that on this occasion Burge has behaved vindictively.
Michael Atherton has already donated pounds 4,000 to the ICC coffers this summer, on other trouser- pocket related business. There is not much doubt that the ball which dismissed Atherton would have hit the stumps had its journey not been broken by his pads, but the captain's deportment as he departed left no one in much doubt that it had also made thin contact with his bat.
Atherton has not, it is probably fair to say, hugely enjoyed this summer. His dudgeon with his fast bowlers on Thursday prompted him to leave the field without the usual courtesy of allowing the opposition batsmen off first, and after the dirt in the pocket and yesterday's blob, the greying hairs normally associated with the captaincy of England may not be too far away.
Not for the first time in recent memory, England's performance yesterday had more in keeping with a national emblem of one pig's ear until the combined efforts of Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart kept alive their prospects of squaring this series.
Thorpe, who made his third consecutive Test score in the 70s, was the bloke Keith Fletcher stuck by through thin and thinner on last winter's West Indies tour, until, to the team manager's credit, the Surrey left-hander finally repaid him with some high-class performances. However, the selectors then appeared to look at Thorpe's Test record from back to front, and promptly dropped him.
Stewart, who had filled in as wicketkeeping all-rounder until finally establishing himself as a specialist opener, then found himself shunted down to No 5, and despite letting it be known that his feelings on this subject stopped a touch short of undying gratitude, he has responded with innings of 89, 36 not out, and now 62.
However, thanks to the failure of the rest of the top order, England had still lurched to 222 for 7 in reply to South Africa's 332 when Darren Gough and Phillip DeFreitas launched into the tourists' attack, and Allan Donald in particular, with hitting that would have been spectacular in the final overs of a Sunday League game never mind the second evening of a Test. They have so far thrashed 59 off 50 balls together, and England might yet sneak a lead.
Whether or not England deserve to level this series, South Africa's strategy of attempting to prevent them yesterday was at best negative, and at worst cynical. Despite making up the first hour lost to rain, the regulations state that play cannot go on beyond 7pm, and so sloth-like was South Africa's over-rate, that the crowd had been deprived of no less than 14 of their 90-over entitlement when the players finally walked off.
Whatever the current fining system, it is clearly inadequate. By far the best way would be to issue the players with their match fee in cash, make it compulsory for them to put it (Law 42 allowing) inside their trouser pockets, and then take it off them, Dick Turpin-style if necessary, before they are allowed to leave the field.
Graham Gooch also failed again, and his record of 119 runs in his last eight Test innings is producing the inevitable speculation as to whether the old boy is up to this winter's tour to Australia. Eyesight gone, reflexes shot, that sort of thing. However, when it comes to attempting to regain the Ashes, England want nothing less than their best team, and to leave the runway without him in October would be almost as crass as the decision to omit Thorpe at the start of the summer.
Thorpe's flawed technique in the West Indies largely involved the off-stump lying horizontal while his bat was pointing in the rough direction of midwicket. But now he has sorted that out, his only rival as England's most thrilling strokeplayer is Stewart.
Scoreboard, page 18
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