Odd couple cast around for their exit lines

Fourth Test: Confusion ahead for the selectors as Atherton hints he may go while Stewart signals he may stay
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They are an odd couple. By comparison, Felix and Oscar were well matched. Had they not played for the same team 114 times each and opened the batting together 50 times, you would barely speak of Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart in the same breath. It does not take much observation of either man to realise that if Stewart, prim, proper and organised, ever moved in with the somewhat less pristine Atherton, they would be at each other's throats within the week, though Stewart would insist on sporting a clean shirt for the bout.

As it is, they are inextricably linked with the ups and considerable downs of England. Still are, after all these years. Now they are being talked about in the past tense. This week, their story may come to its end. Or not.

England, the team and the country at large, want to know if they are planning to retire before the winter tour of India, thus ending their auspicious international careers on an immense low.

The signs are uncertain, though it is clear that both men could go on a while yet and the likelihood is that Stewart will definitely stay and Atherton will go. If they have a common feature it is their cussedness ­ that and their refusal to say much of a personal nature in public.

Atherton is still the best opening batsman in England, with due respect to Marcus Trescothick, despite his indifferent returns in this Ashes series; Stewart has reinvented himself as a wicket- keeper who can bat in the lower-middle order, as he demonstrated yesterday. But depart sometime, and soon, they must.

The longer they stay, says one school, the longer they are preventing their successors bedding down in Test cricket: the earlier they go the more England will be exposed, says the other school. Stewart is 38, Atherton is 33, and deciding when to retire from the only profession either has known is the hardest decision they will ever have made. It must always be so with any professional sportsman, it is more difficult still when you are still at the top and may not fully have decided what the hell it is you want to do next.

Advice has pursued Atherton through a long and illustrious career. It is part of the deal for all top sportsmen, and if you become captain of England at 25, lead the team 54 times and do much to persuade lexicographers that they understated the definition of the word single-minded (not to mention pig-headed), the supply is never likely to be less than abundant.

There have been two previous periods in Atherton's cricketing life when he was subject to a surfeit of guidance and counsel, sound or unsound, from the great unwashed. There was the dirt-in-the-pocket affair in 1994 which ended his honeymoon as a bright young leader, and perhaps affected his thought processes forever.

A stray television camera in the Lord's Test against South Africa showed him taking soil from his pocket and apparently rubbing it on the ball. The veteran commentator Tony Lewis was nonplussed. It did not take long for manager, match referee and media to get involved. The story about whether he was or was not ball-tampering ran for a week, during which calls were made every hour for his sacking, his honourable resignation or his immediate elevation to the peerage.

Two years ago, reduced to the ranks once more, he came back from a tour of Australia with his chronic back condition seemingly irreversible. His international days looked over, his initial foray into the media seemed to suggest he had more to say than ever he had in his captain's press conferences, and it was widely presumed and advised that he would and should not return. By the end of that grim season he was indispensable again.

In both those episodes his natural inclination was to say nowt and let others do the talking until they dropped. This is his approach lately. Unsubstantiated stories ­ though rather more than tittle-tattle ­ have appeared about his plans to write an autobiography (for a rumoured ­ this probably is tittle-tattle ­ six-figure advance). This he would do in the winter before taking up a similarly lucrative offer of employment from Channel 4.

He is probably being candidly honest when he says he has not yet made up his mind. Nor will he be rushed, but once before he stayed when he knew in his heart that he should have gone, keeping the captaincy at the end of 1997 for one last trip to the West Indies. There is no indication in the way he plays and the passion-ate, if detached, way he writes about it that he has lost the taste for the battle.

Being dismissed for the 17th time by Glenn McGrath on Friday, caught behind again, might just have given cause for contemplation, as would the slip catch he downed off Ricky Ponting in the gloom last evening. Yet he was the only England player to go out for a little batting practice afterwards. Cussed, you see.

The back has not let him down recently and, at 33, it is still too early for him to retire, if he wants some more advice. The book can wait, as will Channel 4, on which account he has to balance being part of a losing dressing-room and spending long hours in a broadcasting box with Dermot Reeve. Another tour, perhaps even an Ashes tour the winter after this one, would give him a chapter or two more. But he has to balance that with England's need to formulate a structured future.

A similar argument applies to Stewart, whose innings yesterday was thrill-ingly, sometimes foolhardily, advent- urous, and with each attacking shot you had to examine his lips to see if he was mouthing "I told you so". A few months ago an (unfounded) allegation that he took money from a bookie for information in India in 1993 might have finished him. He stuck it out and rode the blows.

Stewart would be less adept in a media role than Atherton, though that would not preclude him being an anchor-man within five years. Many names have been proposed to succeed him. None of them are as yet fit to iron his trousers.

The best guess is that Stewart will stay and Atherton will go and the odd couple will part. There will be no sequel.