IT IS no coincidence that Mike Atherton's most recent predecessor as England captain is going rather thin on top. Leading this present side in the field can be a hair-tearing exercise. But while Graham Gooch's locks can enjoy a wrench-free period now that he has metamorphosed into England's specialist long-leg, Atherton may be paying a visit to a hair restorer this time next year. Or maybe a plastic surgeon, as he is more of a face scratcher than hair-puller.
Before people start sharpening their knives, however, let us get the record straight. The fact that England are battling to survive another Test match is not Atherton's fault. Bowling attacks win Test matches and England's combination looked impotent as Ian Healy and Merv Hughes compiled a seventh-wicket stand of 107 with relative ease. Throughout this series, England's main failing has been their inability to skittle the Australian batting. Once the opposition pile up half a thousand, you have completely lost the initiative and are unlikely to regain it. Atherton desperately needed a fifth bowler, and given that this was his first match as captain, it is a fair guess he did not have a unilateral say in team selection on this occasion.
But with Alec Stewart as the all-rounder, there is no reason not to play a full complement of bowlers and it is also a common misconception that dry, turning pitches will be of no assistance to seamers. Paul Reiffel undid England in the first innings with reverse swing as the ball became naturally scuffed on the grassless pitch, while Martin Bicknell made the ball jag as the seam gripped. Selecting Steve Watkin instead of one of the batters would have been far more sensible.
Having exonerated Atherton from any real criticism, there is just one mild rebuke - for not using Graham Gooch's taxing trundlers. A change of pace, of trajectory, a little wobble might just have induced the breakthrough yesterday morning when others had tried and failed. It would have been worth a go, just to keep the batsmen thinking. Ray Illingworth always believed in giving all his bowlers a few overs in the first session 'to see whose day it was going to be'.
Otherwise, Atherton's performance was well-nigh faultless. It is good for bowlers to get into the habit of trying to make something happen, and none was allowed to lapse into a long, meaningless spell. Just when you thought someone should be taken off, they were. Emburey and Such changed ends several times and were dissuaded from going on the defensive too early. There were minor field adjustments for different batsmen - a sign that a captain is doing his homework and aware of the advantages of fine tuning, and he canvassed opinion often, using the canny Emburey as his main lieutenant, leaving Gooch to graze on the boundary.
It was one of Mike Brearley's great qualities that he would involve every member of the team, however young, in the decision- making process. 'What do you think we should do now?' he would say to the 19-year-old at square leg, when a wicket hadn't fallen for a while. It ensured that all 11 players felt involved and part of the set-up. Atherton will not shy away from this approach in due course. Yesterday, he was happy to accept suggestions from Stewart to tinker with field placings, and there was a clear change of strategy after lunch - perhaps Fletcher-induced - with Bicknell encouraged to bowl straighter, exploiting the low bounce, with an extra man on the leg side.
He was enthusiastic and appreciative throughout despite various frustrations. One was the tendency for Bicknell to dish up an inviting half-volley off the sixth ball of an over, thereby releasing any pressure that had been applied. This inexperience or lack of concentration is something captains have had to contend with for generations - bowlers are only human after all, and must be allowed the odd bad ball.
Another was the reluctance of the ball to turn as the spinners' fingers grew tired and the frequency with which Hughes, in particular, chipped balls into gaps. It is well known that captaincy is 90 per cent luck and 10 per cent skill, and Atherton certainly did not receive his ration of the 90 per cent yesterday. If at times he seemed slightly unsure of how the Australian tail might bat, this was excusable, since it hasn't been required to appear very often, never mind wag.
In the end, though, a captain can only permutate the bowlers at his disposal and England at present do not possess the propellants with enough control, skill and confidence to bowl a good side out on a benign surface. If Atherton could instantly solve the present malaise of our domestic system, which cripples pace bowlers and discourages adventurous spinners, then his agile brain should be tapped for something more significant than merely leading England at cricket. His own strokeplay did not suffer either. He has the nous, ability, and respect of the players to become a very good captain in time. For the moment, his cherubic features are destined to become a good deal more wizened as the the next few months unfold.
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