Cricket:In search of the lost spark

As Michael Atherton fights the doubts gnawing at his game, his mentor puts concern into perspective; Derek Pringle says England's captain needs head and heart to rule in Barbados
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The Independent Online
AS captain of the England side, Michael Atherton is at the heart of his team's performance. As an opening batsman, he is also at their head; a position where success and failure are closer than Siamese twins. Combine them, and the role takes on the utmost significance, its importance increasing by roughly the same amount as its vulnerability.

The head and the heart. How often concern over one leads to neglect of the other. In cricket, a team game of solo performances, any malfunction tends to stand out as glaringly as a Curtly Ambrose full toss, the symptoms plain for all to see. Diagnosis, especially where batsmen are concerned, is never straightforward in the West Indies, however. With the bowlers fast and accurate, and the pitches fruitier than a Benny Hill salad, confusing a lack of confidence with poor technique is a mistake many observers make. In Atherton's case, that mistake is once again being linked to his abilities as a captain.

There is no doubt that poor form with the bat can gnaw away at a player. One of the reasons that Atherton was set on resigning last summer was the impotence he felt following a string of low scores. Although there was an element of emotional blackmail from Lord MacLaurin and others, Atherton's decision to continue was partly made in the belief that form and fluency, the hallmarks of his batting out here four years ago, would return after a three-month rest.

So far, this does not appear to have happened, but though bad habits can appear overnight in the Caribbean, many feel he his batting much as he always has. One of Mark Ramprakash's party tricks is to perform brilliant and funny impersonations of his team-mates. To do this requires a sharp eye, so Atherton should be encouraged that Ramprakash claims he has yet to detect any change in the man who scored 510 runs at an average of 56 here four years ago.

Then there is Atherton's coach over the last four months, Graham Gooch, another who has captained and opened for England in the Caribbean. He also feels the panic button should not be pressed, despite Atherton's failure to reach 50 in his last 15 Test innings. "As captain, you are always going to have worries, and these get compounded if you're not scoring runs yourself," reckoned the man who played the quicks as well as anyone.

"I've been watching videos of his recent knocks and I can't see anything obviously wrong. It's all very well for people like Fiery [Geoff Boycott] to say you've got to get forward, but on those pitches it's never going to be easy. The ball Ambrose got him with in the second innings in Georgetown would have got anyone out.

"If anything, I feel Mike is lacking a bit of confidence, which is not unusual on poor pitches. When I spoke to him the other day, I told him he looked much better when he was going for his shots, as he did in the second of the Trinidad Tests when he scored a vital 49. When the bowling is of the highest quality, it's easy to go nowhere and I remember Garry Sobers telling me something similar once in Australia when I was struggling. All Mike needs is that little spark to get him going."

Nothing if not a realist, Atherton knows that the sporting pitches which are tormenting him individually also offer the team he captains their best chance of winning the series, so he has not dwelt on his low scores. As a batsman he knows that the pitches, while not exactly minefields, have certainly been mindfields, eating away relentlessly at a player's confidence. However, like more than a few others in the side, he feels that being short of runs is not necessarily the same as being short of form, a belief bolstered by his absence from the present game against Barbados.

Nevertheless, believing something is not wrong is not the same as proving it, which in this case is something only a decent score will really accomplish. Being a back-foot player, and the victim of a chronic back condition, Atherton is at his best when he can play his shots standing tall, which is why he tends to prefer opening bowlers who drive him back to those that bring him forward.

Whether it is deliberate, or whether age has limited their ambition, both Ambrose and Courtney Walsh are now the latter type of bowler, pitching the ball in an awkward zone - neither full nor short. Indeed, hardly a bouncer has been bowled in the series (apart from at the tail-enders) as an opening partnership with almost 700 Test wickets between them have probed and interrogated the batsmen, rather than bombarding them with heavy artillery.

None of which has suited the England captain. The worry is that Atherton, finding himself shorn of his scoring opportunities, will inevitably be drawn back into the black moods of late last summer. The last week will not have helped. If one of the reasons he was persuaded to carry on as captain was the belief that the West Indies were ripe for the taking, the way England were trounced in Georgetown would inevitably have brought the darkest hours of the Ashes series flooding back.

Keeping those from his mind in this week's Fifth Test, will be every bit as crucial to England's chances of levelling the series as his own contribution of a big score. If Atherton is to have anything significant to show for his record-breaking tenure as captain, the head and heart will need to work together now.