Lack of a minder adds injury to insult

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DIEGO MARADONA is still facing a prison sentence for firing a gun at a group of journalists in 1994 and last week offered to do a period of community service instead. It may prove to be in Diego's favour that there are many who believe that shooting at journalists is community service at the highest level and Michael Atherton may well be the latest convert to that view.

The England captain didn't need to squeeze a trigger to send a bad report ringing around the world following his team's resounding defeat by South Africa. In a press conference aside, he referred to a Pakistani questioner as a "buffoon". The fact that he didn't direct his insult at the journalist concerned, and might not have intended him to hear it, hasn't saved him from wrath not only in the host country Pakistan, where they haven't been impressed with England's attitude from the outset, but further afield.

Once more, the England cricket team finds itself in an unfortunate odour for folly far removed from the pitch, and heaven knows there's been more than enough on that. Successive managements have proved themselves inept at handling media pressure and thus have added needless weight to the burdens carried by the players.

England might well be redeeming themselves against Pakistan even as this newspaper reaches its readers this morning. Whether they do or not does not alter the fact that a ham-handed approach to public relations will continue to build up an image that is undesirable and may even be undeserved. Atherton should not have made the remark but, more importantly, he should never have been placed in that exposed situation. Even big boys like him need protection especially after the humiliating experience he had been through; out for nothing after spending two minutes and four balls at the crease and leading his team to a 78-run defeat.

Where, for a start, was the manager? Ray Illingworth says he didn't know it was on. Press conferences follow games as sure as resignation calls follow England defeats and even if he had to be fetched from far away it shouldn't have started without him. A strong chairman is essential to a public inquest of that gravity. He needs to bat away the daft questions and slow down the good ones to give the recipient more time to think.

Every press conference audience I've been in has had its sprinkling of people who could be called buffoons but a far larger proportion of sharp cookies who would attract less printable descriptions. But the man with the microphone is always in control. There was a time when we'd jostle for our quotes outside the dressing-room door. Structured conferences haven't helped the flow of essential information but we need them to feed the insatiable appetite for knowledge and understanding that pays for them to be there in the first place.

After losing your wicket so early we know you feel gutted but we like to hear you say it. In fairness, Atherton had handled matters with commendable patience before the fateful question arrived or, rather, didn't arrive. The gentleman spoke little English and made three attempts before Atherton's unfortunate reaction. The presence of an interpreter would have prevented it.

There are lessons to be learned by more people than the England captain but, perhaps, a different tack will be adopted. There was a report last week that the England players want Ian Botham to be the manager. It appeared on the same day that Botham was to be found practising diplomacy in his Daily Mirror column. "We couldn't beat a team of Eskimos," he wrote before proceeding to lambast the county chairmen and secretaries who "are destroying our game".

The prospect of Botham facing the media after a serious England defeat would be enough for a man to give up buffoonery for ever. It would be worth giving the game a miss to make sure of your seat at the press conference.

L AST WEEK I commented, on not very complimentary terms, on the fact that bookmakers were seeking to reduce the age of those allowed into betting shops from 18 to 14 years. Apparently, not all of them are so minded. The Betting Office Licensees Association have asked me to point out that they are not pursuing such a change. I am delighted to hear it and also pleased to hear that BOLA's fight against the ravages wrought on their turnover by the popularity of the National Lottery continues apace. This weekend, the Chancellor's reduction in betting tax by one percentage point reached the betting shops and punters now need to pay only 9p in the pound instead of 10p. This would explain the number of people you saw turning cartwheels of joy yesterday.

In the summer, the shops will be allowed to install fruit machines so that persistent gamblers will have something to occupy them during a boring six-furlong race. BOLA want to add to all this fun by betting on the lottery which at the moment is against the law. In Ireland, bookies are allowed to offer odds against particular numbers coming up and claim this has stabilised their betting industry without hurting the Irish lottery.

The odds are in the region of 5-1 against a single number being drawn, 45-1 against two and 450-1 against three and so on. It seems harmless enough but if the government agree I trust they will remember that the lottery is chiefly about raising money for good causes and demand that the bookies devote a slice of the profits to the needy. The lottery's massive success has caused much distress in the gambling world and last week's concessions to the casinos and bingo halls show that the government are sensitive to it. But the line will have to be drawn somewhere. As anyone who takes part in gambling should know - we can't all win.

IT WILL soon not be safe for sports stars to venture into public toilets for fear they may find someone subjecting their image to nasty outpourings. A report by Kevin Pilley in our Review section last Sunday sent shivers of anticipated indignity through the ranks of the famous. Kevin revealed that a bar in Aberdeen has become the first in the world to have television screens in their lavatories. Not on the walls, I fear, but inset into the urinals; right in the line of fire.

What do the screens display? Anyone you request. On your way to the place in question you signify to the barman which person you would like to see appear before you. This being Scotland, Will Carling has been very popular lately with Gary Lineker, Geoffrey Boycott and Frank Bruno among the other favoured sportspeople. Vinny Jones is never short of support and when a video of Paul Gascoigne's debut for Rangers came out you had to book well in advance.

Publicans all over the country are now being bombarded with requests from degenerates who can't wait to direct their spleen at our heroes. There are no plans for the screens to appear in the ladies but I understand engineers are busily working on designs to answer the inevitable call for equal rights.