Have England burnt out Michael Atherton

In the Test series his brilliance carried the team, but now England's captain is struggling. Robert Winder reports from Peshawar
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The Independent Online
The day after the final Test of a hot and exhausting series against the West Indies last summer, Mike Atherton spent the morning fielding at slip for Lancashire against Surrey. There were not many spectators there (this is county cricket we are talking about) but those who did turn up could see how slowly England's captain was moving. Mostly he stood in that familiar one-legged slouch of his, the stance of a man who wishes he was somewhere else. Like asleep, maybe.

But England's cricketers do not get much rest these days. A few weeks later he was on the plane to South Africa, where his redoubtable batting was all that stood between England and a thrashing. At the end of January he flew home again, but a week later he was in Lahore, practising for the World Cup. This tournament will finish just in time for pre-season nets in Manchester. Another long summer, and then it's off to Zimbabwe. From there, New Zealand. It does not stop.

There are signs that the strain is showing. There are even a few whispers about his position as captain. Several pundits have gone so far as to suggest that Dermot Reeve might have made a better one-day skipper. This is almost outrageously tough on Atherton. Only a couple of months ago he was saving two Test matches almost single-handedly, and everyone wheeled out the Rorke's Drift metaphors and insisted that Captain Fantastic could have the job for life if he wanted it.

But that string of six defeats in South Africa, which perhaps struck the players as inconsequential at the time, has wrapped itself into a noose around England's neck, and is biting deep. No one could have imagined South Africa making a mess of beating the United Arab Emirates, and they didn't - Gary Kirsten caned them for 188. But England, with Hick injured (or rested), there were serious fears that it all might go horribly wrong. After all, the one-day game is a lottery, right? Anything can happen. There were a few moments earlier on, when Mazhar Hussein clocked five fours with some ease, when experienced England-watchers felt a familiar tingle of anxiety. Hussein was not a novice - he played for Pakistan before he, as it were, emirated to the Gulf - and only a couple of dropped catches stood between him and a big score. That the Emirates were in the end so easily dismissed will have come as a greater relief than most of the England players would care to admit.

As for Atherton, well... There's no doubt that the reluctance he brings to the public-relations side of the job does him - and the team - few favours. Happy to have beaten the Emirates? Yes. Er, what about the performance. Pleased? Yes. Er, anything in particular? We did what we had to do. Think you'll need to raise your game against Pakistan? We'll beat Pakistan. Er, right, thanks.

In Ahmedabad he disappointed the local journalists, and pretty much ensured that his team would be depicted as misanthropes the next morning, by declining to talk to them. And at Peshawar he committed a sad faux pas during the toss-up. Two local children in traditional costume accompanied the captains out to the middle bearing bouquets of flowers. After the toss was lost, the suave, Maserati-driving Emirates skipper Sultan Zarawani, accepted his flowers and smiled at the cameras. Atherton simply trudged back to the pavilion, making bowling signals to his team-mates.

These are tiny matters, and it is a pity they contribute so powerfully to England's image as sourpusses, because in all other areas Atherton is unmistakeably the man in charge. In fact, the disconsolate air he brings to his public performances is the flip side of his absorption in the game itself. He is the one directing fielding practice on the days before the match, whacking the ball into the field and shouting instructions to the backers-up; and when it is over he gets one of the lads to hit some over- the-shoulder steeplers for him to catch (or drop). At Peshawar it was Atherton who went over, when everyone else started to pack their bags, to chuck slog-food at Fairbrother.

His own batting has not been spectacular in the two matches so far, but it isn't as if he has to prove himself in that department. It was interesting, actually, to see him batting at No 4 against the Emirates. This was not a casual move. Atherton himself murmured afterwards that it was prompted by a desire to steady the middle order, and there might well be something in this. In Pakistan the new ball tends to swing a bit for about 10 overs, and then calm down. The prospect of Atherton holding the latter half of the innings together is quite appetising. It might lack panache - it might not look like leading from the front, but for all Hick's recent impressive form Atherton remains England's key batsman, and it would not be wholly surprising to see him continuing in the role.

Either way, it is important that a few things go Atherton's way. Any talk of replacing him is really no more than malicious gossip: not many people can seriously think of anyone who could fill his shoes. But he could do with someone giving him a hand so far as England's batting is concerned - he's been carrying the team for a long time. And he is tired, for sure - he has a tiring job. This World Cup is not a holiday, though so much time is spent at airports that it does feel like one. The danger, perhaps, is not that England gets tired of him, but that he (and his aching back) gets tired of England. Luckily, the one thing we know he has got is staying power.

ATHERTON'S RECORD ON THE WINTER TOURS

Tests v South Africa

First Test (Pretoria) 78 Match Drawn

Second Test (Johannesburg) 9 & 185*

Match Drawn

Third Test (Durban) 2 Match Drawn

Fourth Test (Port Elizabeth) 72 & 34 Match Drawn

Fifth Test (Cape Town) 0 & 10 South Africa won by 10 wkts

One-Day Internationals v South Africa

1st (Cape Town) 35 Lost by 6 runs

2nd (Bloemfontein) 85 Won by 5 wkts

3rd (Johannesburg) 0 Lost by 3 wkts

5th (Durban) 17 Lost by 5 wkts

6th (East London) 6 Lost by 14 runs

7th (Port Elizabeth) 3 Lost by 64 runs

World Cup

v New Zealand 1 Lost by 11 runs

v United Arab Emirates 20 Won by 8 wkts

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