Atherton's exit line well timed

Stephen Fay feels retirement is certain but life afterwards much less so for long-serving opener
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Michael Atherton thought he might be dropped for the Oval Test. "I would totally understand it. Someone has to go," he said before the game. After all, he had scored only 120 runs in the series in seven innings: "There's no doubt in this series, the best place to bat has been in the middle order."

Michael Atherton thought he might be dropped for the Oval Test. "I would totally understand it. Someone has to go," he said before the game. After all, he had scored only 120 runs in the series in seven innings: "There's no doubt in this series, the best place to bat has been in the middle order."

Atherton doesn't think selectors are really necessary, but they did the right thing for the Fifth Test, and he rewarded them by scoring 83 and partnering Marcus Trescothick to a record. True, this was only the highest opening partnership at The Oval against West Indies, but it bettered a mark set by the legendary Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe in 1928.

Those runs came on the same day as Atherton announced that he intends to retire at the end of next summer. ("Whether it be for Lancashire or England, the next year would be the maximum period.") His announcement, which came in an interview I had done with him that appeared in the New Statesman, inspired mixed emotions. After another middle-order collapse, England were reminded how much they can need him. There was some incredulity that a professional cricketer would end his career when only 33. Add to this affection for a man who has led England into countless crises and out of some of them.

The consensus was that, if Athers has a good summer in 2001, he will stay on. I am sure the consensus is wrong. During the interview he said his biggest single mistake was not to end his England captaincy soon enough: "I did one tour too many. I knew instinctively that I should have packed it in when we beat Australia at The Oval in 1997. People say never take a rash decision. That's bollocks. The more you think about it the more you get talked round to a thing you don't want to do." Having made up his mind, he will be inclined to stick to it.

There was no evidence of failing enthusiasm at The Oval yesterday. Atherton was one of three England players to run from slip towards square leg to back up a throw from the covers. He was at first slip, hatless, in a short-sleeved shirt. He stood a couple of yards behind Alec Stewart, spat into his fingers, and put his hands on his knees, before cupping them and leaning forward in a crouch. Between balls he chatted to Stewart, who may be four years older but will prove more reluctant to leave the scene than Atherton.

We had talked over dinner at Leicester where Lancashire were playing a county game. The old Captain Grumpy image that accompanied his England captaincy had been made redundant. Away from the Tests, Atherton shaves at close of play, and, although he cannot be bothered with a tie, he looks neat enough to deflect any criticism about his demeanour from Lord MacLaurin. Throughout his career as captain, his relations with newspapermen were confined to one-line replies to questions. At Leicester he was relaxed, and remarkably frank about himself and about the game.

He is aware of ageing. "You don't have quite that same anticipation at the start of a series, but before you go out to bat you still get as nervous, and expectations make it harder." He looks for the "right stuff" - temperament, and enjoyment in playing is first and foremost: "Myself, Stewie, Gus [Fraser] have got it."

He thinks Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick look as though they have got it too, even though it does generally take England players longer to get accustomed to the ways of international cricket. The reason? "Because it is so different from county cricket."

Like almost everyone who comments on English cricket, Atherton says English cricketers play too much. If he were dictator he would halve the number of Championship games [from the present 16 to eight]. He would play a couple of Championship games before the Test series, one between each Test and a couple at the end.

"That's all you need, because there's not a great deal of people watching it. With 10 one-dayers and seven Tests, domestic cricket's pushed to the side, and does not justify the amount of Championship cricket we play now."

The problem, however, spreads - to the pitches, which are no longer made of English soils, and do not encourage traditional English strengths, like medium pace and spin bowling. Atherton believes coaching is too conservative. For all his cautious stubbornness at the crease, Atherton believes that most English coaches concentrate too much on technique and defence. Cricketers Atherton admires - Ian Chappell and Viv Richards - both emphasise the importance of teaching children to attack bowling by coming down the wicket to the spinners, if they can find any spinners to come down the wicket to.

Strong opinions about county cricket have already got Atherton into trouble with the England and Wales Cricket Board. The powers that be think Atherton is bringing the game into disrepute. Atherton himself thinks he is stating an opinion and that he is entitled to do so.

He is not being stubborn; he was that already. But I did detect a growing impatience with the authority of the ECB. In the old days, England players used to sign contracts without reading them carefully. Now, Atherton reports, they refer them to their London solicitors, Harbottle and Lewis.

As an example of player power, this is modest, but the worm is turning, and central contracts will eventually make players more conscious of their rights. But Atherton will have gone by then. His colleagues in the dressing-room and the press assume that he will become a journalist.

He is not so sure. "I would rather do something completely different from cricket that represents a completely new and different challenge," he says. And what might that be? The answer is most uncharacteristic of Michael Atherton. He doesn't know.