Illingworth unconvincing in support for Atherton

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Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent,

hears the chairman of selectors draw up

demarcation lines for England's captain

captain are starting second honeymoon

Raymond Illingworth's re-endorsement of Michael Atherton as the England cricket captain yesterday was as verbally unenthusiastic as it had been temporally long-winded, reinforcing suspicions that Atherton came perilously close to walking the plank on charges of uninspiring leadership and insubordination to a superior officer.

Far from displaying a united front, Illingworth and Atherton conducted separate press conferences yesterday, and despite Illingworth concluding with "our relationship is as good as ever" this is a clear case of a second honeymoon starting with separate bedrooms.

Atherton, in fact, probably owes his job to a combination of two things. Firstly, the removal from the selection panel of Brian Bolus, who was more completely in Illingworth's pocket than any of last summer's dirt in Atherton's, and the poor performance in Australia, culminating in his retirement from Test cricket, of Mike Gatting.

Illingworth was not convinced about promoting the vice-captain, Alec Stewart, but was sufficiently dewy eyed about Gatting (not to mention piqued at Atherton's not very well concealed displeasure at Illingworth's insistence on Gatting's inclusion in the winter tour squad) to have gone back to Gatting had the former captain made a better fist of it in Australia.

Neither would his co-selector Fred Titmus, who publicly rebuked Atherton for moaning about both the age of the selectors and some of his team-mates, have fought in Atherton's corner, and it is just as well for the captain that Bolus's replacement on the selection panel, David Graveney, went in to bat for him.

Unlike his predecessor Ted Dexter, Illingworth is not the sort to go in for cosmetic displays of harmony when something is needling him, and yesterday he made it pretty clear that he would prefer Atherton to be a little more expansive on the field, and a little less expansive off it.

"We have had problems over the past few months, which is no secret," Illingworth said, "and we want the captain to do the business on the field." Off the field, however, Illingworth's preference is for Atherton to mind his own business.

"We wanted to clear up a few things with him, and demarcation lines have been drawn up," he said rather ominously. "It is not a captain's job to be going around criticising selectors, and I certainly wouldn't have gone around criticising Alec Bedser and Don Kenyon when I was in charge."

This would probably have brought a wry smile to Atherton's face, in that Illingworth did not mention that they had come to any reciprocal arrangement, whereby the chairman would promise not to call the team a bunch of leaderless twerps at media luncheons.

"If he [Atherton] has got something to say, he can say it in committee," said Illingworth. And he (Atherton) doubtless will do after digesting Illingworth's comments about his on-the-field deportment, which the chairman apparently finds less than inspiring.

"The team was a bit flat in Australia," Illingworth said, "and Mike feels the same. But whether we agree on the reasons is another matter."

This they clearly do not. Illingworth pointed the finger at Atherton's low-key body language, while Atherton blames Illingworth for dodgy selections.

When Atherton arrived at Headingley after a Sunday morning game of golf, his first question was "what's he [Illingworth] been saying?" And when he was informed that the chairman considered that his body language was straight out of Madame Tussauds, Atherton rather took the hump.

"Want me to wave my arms about a bit more, is that it?" Atherton said, and then adopted body language that conveyed extreme shirtiness. "I may not always look it, perhaps, but I am always very enthusiastic about my cricket."

And what about Illingworth's references to demarcation lines? In other words, would he care to mind his tongue in future?

Atherton said: "I think it's important that what is said in a private setting remains that way. But I have never been shy of expressing opinions. Raymond certainly hasn't, and I shall be expressing my opinions to him."

He would be as well expressing them to the Speaking Clock, and Atherton's conclusion yesterday that he did not feel his authority had been watered down appears to be based on the understanding that Illingworth has consented to allowing him to conduct the toss.

Illingworth also announced yesterday that he had yet to appoint the specialist coaches he had expected to finalise last week, which, decoded, means that Geoffrey Boycott is playing hard to get. The one cheery omen for the summer is that the West Indies will be nothing like as difficult opponents as England manage to create among themselves.

Cricket, page 33