Retirement plans?

In an exclusive interview with Derek Pringle, Michael Atherton gives his clearest hint yet that he won't be England's cricket captain for much longer
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Meeting up to interview Michael Atherton at this time of the year is not usually a wise thing to do. Unless monosyllabic grunting is your thing, you'd be better off spending the day listening to train announcements.

By August, all cricketers are tired. If you are captain of England, as Atherton currently is, you should be shattered; a zombie incapable of little bar a few faltering steps towards food and water.

However, when we met at the end of last week Atherton, despite the hard encounters with the Aussies and the demands of a benefit year, was looking fairly chipper. In fact he'd been playing golf in the Lake District, a luxury he rarely indulges in during the season lest it affect his dodgy back.

"Actually it loosened it up," he pipes, before having a cackle about how Devon Malcolm had threatened to "Bruise him bad," in the county game just finished. In fact Malcolm did prevail, getting him twice for just four and five, a bruising to the ego as Lancashire plunged to defeat inside two days.

With the Ashes now lost, England's captain has clearly been doing some thinking over his future; the golf is evidence of that. But should he step down, as Geoff Boycott has insisted he must? Or should the man who has captained his country more times than any other remain at the helm, a situation David Graveney, the chairman of selectors appears to want.

Indeed, had he himself decided one way or the other? Surely these were not the kind of questions that could be answered between tee and green?

"The position remains the same as it did at the last Test," he says thrusting a well worn verbal pad down the pitch. "I was appointed for the summer so I'll be seeing the match at The Oval through. Obviously then there is a clear decision to be made."

Having known him since he was a skinny undergraduate, I suggest that his buoyant mood and returning impishness are not simply the product of a few rounds of golf, and that he'd probably already made his mind up.

"Maybe," he counters, the merest suggestion of a Mona Lisa smirk for once betraying a chink in that famous dead-bat response he seems to reserve exclusively for the Fourth Estate.

If there were still serious thoughts about carrying on, then surely being the scapegoat for a high proportion of England's defeats - during his 45 Tests as captain England have won 11 and lost 16 - will be enough to dissuade him? After all he was not born with rhino hide, but with a complexion all rosy cheeked and Lancashire red.

"I've always done the captaincy for the right reasons. Which is not money or kudos but because you hope to make a difference. To make an impact.

"I don't regard the captaincy as a burden, so giving it away, if that's what I do, would not be a release. It's been a hugely enjoyable experience. A great challenge. Obviously in the aftermath of defeats like Headingley and Trent Bridge there is a backlash pointed at the captain. Which is fair enough. I don't balk at the criticism. That goes with the territory. After all, following our win at Edgbaston I was lauded to the skies."

Didn't he feel being singled out by a judgemental media more than a tad unfair? After all, Australia are the best Test side in the world. If England's football team were to play either Brazil or Germany over five games, the loss would not be any less emphatic than the 3-1 so far precipitated by Australia this summer.

"I recognise that Australia are a top side, and that we're not as good as them. But its still disappointing because we had such a very good start. So the expectation was there. Ultimately though, when you stand back, you have to say we were beaten by a better side who do the basics well under pressure."

Before hindsight and England's capitulation at Headingley and Trent Bridge offered a clearer picture of the gulf between the two sides, England had competed favourably, particularly at Old Trafford, where they squandered chances with both ball and bat on a green pitch tailored to suit them.

"To me that's the most frustrating thing. Although we've beaten Australia when I've played before, they have virtually controlled all the other games from the first day on. If we were playing in games where we didn't have a sniff of a chance then that would be disappointing. But it's even more frustrating to know you've had opportunities and not taken them.

"Whatever people say about Mark Taylor's decision to bat first in Manchester, it presented us with a great opportunity to go two up. We had the best of the pitch to bowl on, and we had the best of the pitch to bat on. And we fucked up.

"When I was walking out to bat in our first innings at Old Trafford, I was telling myself over and over: `This is the innings. This is the one. This could decide the Ashes.' It was that important. If I could have played well there and given us a first-innings lead it might have been a different story. Unfortunately I couldn't [he was out for five, gloving an attempted hook off Glenn McGrath]. And neither could the team."

He says it without a hint of bitterness. His public persona may be unsmiling and tight-lipped, but the man behind the mask is bright, inquisitive, and still capable of the kind of prank most tend to leave behind at university after graduation.

One trait Atherton clearly does not possess is malice. Though wasn't that a problem as far as the cut-throat nature of today's professional sport was concerned?

Surely England's inability to take those chances was a direct product of our soft cricket, a convivial circuit which tends to treat exposed jugulars with labrador-like deference instead of pitbull hostility?

"There's been a lot of talk in the last week about mental toughness. But its nothing to do with sledging, or the pushing and shoving that went on the other evening between Crofty [Robert Croft] and Ramble [Mark Ilott].

"Firstly, it's about an inner confidence in your own game, especially when things are difficult. Secondly, as a team, it's about recognising the need to fight when things are tough, something Steve Waugh did twice at Old Trafford with hundreds in each innings.

"However, it's also about hammering home an advantage when you are on top. At different times during the series, we've failed to apply all three, though it's really the last one that has cost us dear."

With English cricket still some way behind Australia's, what did he make of Lord MacLaurin's blueprint, "Raising the Standard"? Was it necessary, or was it simply a question of finding a couple of world-class players?

"That would help enormously, but you'd have to ask where do your world- class players come from. We've not had any since Botham, Gower and Gooch. Do they grow on trees, or is it cyclical? Are we due one now? Is that how it works? I don't think so."

I point out that Steve Waugh took almost 30 Tests to score his maiden century and that Shane Warne reached the 30-wicket mark in his 11th Test. If they'd have been English they would probably have been dropped long before the upsurge in their talent began to show.

"Maybe, but I think ours is a deeper-seated problem. The real worry is the number of kids growing up playing cricket. In Australia, every school plays the game. Here football dominates. That's why Lord MacLaurin's proposals look pretty good at the bottom end. Mind you, they seem a bit fudged at the top, where financial considerations and compromise appear to dominate, presumably in order that the counties vote them in.

"What I'd have liked to see was two divisions of nine teams, with each playing the other teams in the division home and away. Then have four up and four down at the end of the season. Scrap the Benson and Hedges, but keep both the NatWest and the Sunday League. You see I don't believe that county players play too much cricket."

If it sounds like a batsman talking, he stresses the phrase "county players," as opposed to Test players, who these days undertake ridiculous schedules at the behest of their cricket boards.

Apart from the last two Tests of the previous Ashes series four years ago, his captaincy began with a sequence that started with a three- month tour of the West Indies; took in a six-month domestic season which included series against New Zealand and South Africa; before culminating in a 16- week tour of Australia. After the final Test in Perth, Atherton admitted to hitting the wall and spent all but an hour of the 17-hour flight home asleep.

"There is no doubt that captaincy adds another dimension physically to general playing fatigue. Add to that the fact that your mind is constantly ticking over about cricket and the job is a tiring, though not unenjoyable one."

I decided to stir him, suggesting that one of the recurring criticisms is that he is a cautious captain. It has the desired effect and should have perhaps come with the warning: "Light blue touch paper and retire."

"I do find that perception irritating," he says, his Mancunian monotone rising an octave. "If you ask the lads in the team, they will tell you I over-attack. I admit I might have been cautious in some of my early games, but I don't think I have for the past couple of years. Next you'll be saying I should have turned Cambridge University into a team of world beaters."

He laughs at this last point, a man whose affection for his old Fenner's muckers is refreshingly undimmed by his own elevation within the game. He is a loyal friend and catches up with his old varsity chums when he can, often at Paul Getty's ground, where he occasionally turns out for the Quidnuncs (Old Cambridge Blues) in their annual fixture there.

And yet, if he hankers for a return to those untroubled days of discovery he is not letting on, and he says - irrespective of the captaincy issue - that he would like to play for another three years. "Try and play 100 Tests and score over 7,000 runs."

I ask him if the admiration of his opponents, especially the Australians was not more important than mere figures. After all Steve Waugh had recently paid him the back-handed compliment of likening him to a particularly robust cockroach. "No matter how hard you stamp on him," said Waugh, "he keeps scuttling back."

He looks nonplussed and then responds with more than a hint of resignation. "Well, all you can do when you are getting beat is try like hell. Mind you, I think they've perhaps poured too much Domestos on the cockroach this time."