Of course, I fully believe Atherton when he says he was drying his hand, not tampering with the ball. Ball tampering - scratching it on one side, picking the seam, applying various substances to it - is helpful to the bowler because it allows him to swing the ball more and thus to deceive the batsman. But it is also against the laws of cricket. And as we all know, an Englishman never cheats. Foreigners may flout the rules, they may take drugs, their referees and umpires may be biased. An Englishman, however, merely has a dirty pocket.
As it happens, it would have mattered little if Atherton had admitted to ball tampering. Plenty of other cricketers, such as the former Essex and England all-rounder Derek Pringle and his New Zealand namesake Chris, have explained how they have doctored the ball both in domestic and test matches. No press witch- hunt followed.
The English press only got hot and bothered when the Pakistan team, spearheaded by the fast bowlers Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, thrashed England two years ago. The former England batsman Geoff Boycott observed at the time that Waqar and Wasim could 'have bowled England out with a pair of oranges'.
But as far as the rest of the press was concerned, just as Englishmen are incapable of cheating, so Pakistanis were incapable of winning without cheating. Suddenly ball tampering became an international issue.
What the ball tampering row really shows is that the true values of cricket are not those of fair play and gentlemanly conduct but of hypocrisy and racism. For more than 150 years the game has been the embodiment of all that is English. When the Reverend James Pycroft wrote the first history of cricket in 1851, he noted that 'none but an orderly and sensible race of people would so amuse themselves'. And while 'English settlers everywhere play cricket', there was no cricket club that 'dieted either of frogs, sauerkraut or macaroni'. If the good Reverend was writing today, he would no doubt have included chapattis and rice and peas in his list of non-cricketing diets.
The Victorians gave cricket its special status in English life, as a way of transmitting the values of discipline and national pride to the new working class and of training the elite in its role as guardian of the Empire. The demarcation between amateur and professional in cricket was not a question of payment but social status. The amateurs - the Gentlemen - were the aristocracy, both in society and in the game. The professionals - the Players - were the plebs. From the playing fields of Eton to the countless cricket greens, cricket's internal code taught Gentlemen how to deal with Players in the real world.
The Victorians used the game to maintain social decorum at home and as a building block of Empire. The MCC secretary Lord Harris thought cricket had 'done more to consolidate the Empire than any other influence'. As governor of Bombay in the 1890s, Harris introduced cricket to India to teach 'moral lessons to the masses'.
The map of the world may no longer be coloured pink, but the spirit of Empire lives on in the game. 'When we gave up the Empire and the white man's burden,' the former Daily Telegraph editor W F Deedes noted a few years ago, 'we passed much of the load on to our cricketers'. And that is what makes England's humiliation at the hands of its former black colonies, and particularly Muslim nations such as Pakistan, so hard to bear.
To maintain the idea of cricket as embodying a social code, the authorities have continually promoted the myth of fair play as the essence of the game. But it is a myth steeped in hypocrisy. Cheating has been at the heart of cricket since the origins of the game. In pre-war days cheating was written into the rules. The captain of the Gentlemen had greater authority than the umpire, and could simply ignore his decision - which he often did, even in Test matches.
With the abolition of the Gentlemen-Players distinction in 1963, this prerogative disappeared. But cheating did not. Flouting the laws and deceiving the umpire remains a key cricketing tradition. Nor is deception confined to the mavericks of the game: the former Australian captain Richie Benaud is a respected elder of the cricketing world and authoritative commentator for the BBC. The former England fast bowler Fred Trueman tells the tale of how, in a test match between England and Australia, Benaud deliberately deceived the umpire by pretending a ball had hit his arm and not his bat: 'At Lord's in 1960 I had Richie caught behind first ball, and he was given not out. He went on to score 97 . . . Some years later he told me the ball went off the edge of the bat, flicking his shirt, and went on to Godfrey Evans. But Richie, by immediately rubbing the arm where the ball had brushed the shirt, got the decision.' (Quoted in Derek Burley, The Willow Wand, page 31.)
There cannot be a game of cricket in which such deception does not take place. Nor can there be a game in which the ball is left untampered. In a recent edition of the BBC's On the Line, the former Derbyshire and England fast bowler Mike Hendrick claimed that 'every fast bowler and every swing bowler I have ever played with or against did it'. He added: 'Had I known that you could have used something to scratch the other side of the ball (the specific charge levelled against the Pakistanis) then I would probably have tried it myself.'
In the end it is not what has been done but who has done it that has caused controversy. When white players tamper with the ball, and openly admit to it, no one seems overly worried. When Pakistanis do it, it makes international headlines. For the old duffers of the Lord's Long Room, allowing the 'fuzzy-wuzzies' to tamper with the ball is simply not cricket.
There is one final argument that could conclusively prove Atherton's innocence: most people cheat to win. Aiming to win is one charge that cannot be laid at England's door. Surely even England's top schools cannot teach their pupils to cheat to lose? Or can they?
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content