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Michael Atherton: “The face of the English spirit”

Michael Atherton:

Michael Atherton hits Glenn McGrath for four in the second Npower Ashes Test at Lord’s in 2001 © Getty Images

Michael Atherton, English captain, opening batsman, and reputed journalist, was born on March 23, 1968. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a player who had braved handicaps of all sorts to sustain at the top level over a prolonged period of time.

One wonders whether Michael Atherton would have had a better career, had his confidence not been dented by the British press, and had he led England in an era when the side was stronger. Was it simply a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Would his career have blossomed a lot more than it had, despite his severe back problems, and his defensive, outdated approach towards cricket in general? Would he have been more successful if he was more brash and outspoken than his nature permitted him to be?

We will never find out.

The good and the bad

Atherton was definitely a better batsman than his numbers suggest. Batsmen over the world tend to be ‘bunnies’ to certain bowlers — like Victor Trumper was to Syd Barnes, Arthur Morris  to Alec Bedser, Graham Gooch to Malcolm Marshall, or Darryl Cullinan to Shane Warne.

Atherton was a ‘bunny’ to three such bowlers: he leads the chart, being dismissed 19 times in 17 Tests by Glenn McGrath; then, after Morris-Bedser (18 times in 21 Tests), he features at positions three (17 times in 26 Tests against Curtly Ambrose) and four (17 times in 27 Tests against Courtney Walsh).


Additionally, he has been dismissed 11 times by Allan Donald and 10 times by Warne. It is statistics like these that have overshadowed his career over the years, and have made him an object of ridicule to the fans and the media in the dark days of the 1990s.

What people tend to forget that despite a perpetual back pain, he had carried the weak England side on his shoulders for over a decade. His tally of 7,728 runs from 115 Tests at 37.69 with 16 hundreds sounds rather ordinary by any standards. By his own admission, “I was by no means a great player. My final Test record shows that I was nothing more than a good Test batsman.”

It must not be forgotten, though, that the 1990s was an excellent decade for the fast bowlers —with several champions of all times tormenting the opening batsmen. Other than Mark Taylor, Atherton was the only other opening batsman to score over 6,000 runs in the decade, which meant that he was battered more than anyone else.

Baptism with fire

A Cambridge Blue and a Lancashire regular, Atherton made his debut in the fifth Test of the fateful home Ashes series of 1989. Several England cricketers had left on a rebel tour to South Africa, and Australia had already acquired an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series, which led to Atherton making his Test debut. Earlier, in 1988, he had scored 411 runs for Cambridge and 602 more for Lancashire — a total of 1,013 First-Class runs in his debut series.

By the time Atherton had reached the top level, though, he had already captained Combined Universities to the quarter-final of the Benson and Hedges Cup, and had already acquired the label of FEC (Future England Captain). In his autobiography, though, Atherton mentions that his teammates had come across multiple variations of the acronym, almost all of them significantly less tasteful than the original version.

At Trent Bridge, Atherton came out to bat when the scoreboard read one for one, and two balls later, Terry Alderman trapped him leg-before to gift him a rather unceremonious debut. He top-scored in the second innings, though, with a gutsy 47, but Australia won by the huge margin of an innings and 180 runs.

He did not do too well in the next Test at The Oval. Though the fast bowling was hostile, the ruthless sledging by the Australians (especially the snarling Merv Hughes) that have typically tormented batsmen all over the world, did not have an effect on him. Being an introvert and shy personality by nature, he could not come to terms with the concept of sledging.

Atherton writes: “He [Hughes] snarled at me constantly through his ludicrous moustache. He was all bristle and bullshit and I couldn’t make out what he was saying, except that every sledge ended with ‘arsewipe’… I smiled and shrugged and saved my energy.”

Cementing his position

Atherton’s supreme temperament meant that he could not be kept out of the side for long. He made a comeback next summer against the Kiwis at home. After Phillip DeFreitas bowled out New Zealand for 208 on the third afternoon on a rain-washed Test, England lost captain Graham Gooch, Atherton’s opening partner, in the first ball. The next morning they were in trouble at 45 for three, but Atherton added 96 for the fourth wicket with Robin Smith. By the time he was seventh out for 151, England had amassed a sizeable lead.

Though he got a duck in the next innings, he scored fifties in the remaining three innings in the series. In the last Test at Edgbaston, Atherton scored a crucial 82 in the first innings, and added 170 with Gooch. In the second innings, Atherton top-scored with 70, and was eighth out in a total of 158 against Richard Hadlee, Danny Morrison, and John Bracewell. His innings turned out to be the difference as England won the Test by 114 runs, thereby winning the series. The innings cemented Atherton’s place in the side. He followed this with a 131 and three more fifties against India late in the summer, and from six Tests in the season he had scored 735 runs at 66.81.  He won the Young Cricketer of the Year Award that season, and was also awarded a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

In the Ashes of 1990-91, though, he had a mediocre series, despite scoring a hundred to draw a Test at Sydney, and then scoring an equally crucial 87 to draw the Adelaide Test. Australia reclaimed the Ashes 3-0. They would go on to extend this run for over a decade and a half.

After a torrid time against West Indies and Pakistan at home, and against India in India, Atherton was not a certainty in the return Ashes of 1993. In the interim he had already had issues with his back — an injury that would haunt him for the rest of his career — and had to undergo a spinal surgery in the winter of 1991.

He did not do well in the first Test at Old Trafford, either, where Warne bowled his ‘ball of the century’, and Australia won comfortably. In the second Test at Lord’s, Australia scored a humongous 632 for four. Atherton held fort with a dogged 80 as England collapsed to 205. Following on, Atherton added 71 with Gooch and over a hundred with Mike Gatting. Then, with Atherton on the verge of his first hundred at Lord’s, he was run out when Gatting refused a third run — and Atherton slipped. Ironically, the fielder who threw the ball to Ian Healy was none other than Hughes. Atherton would never score a Test hundred at Lord’s. England folded for 365.

Atherton failed at Trent Bridge, a Test where England managed to get away with. The fourth Test at Headingley was almost an encore of the Lord’s Test: Australia scored 653 for four, Atherton scored two fifties, England scored 200 and 305, and lost by plenty. This meant that England had now relinquished the Ashes yet again.

An agitated and frustrated Gooch resigned from captaincy mid-series. In a surprising move, the England selectors appointed Atherton, all of 25, as the new England captain.

First stint as captain

Atherton scored 72 at Edgbaston in his first innings as captain, but Australia still won the Test comfortably by eight wickets, taking a 4-0 lead now. In the last Test at The Oval, both Gooch and Atherton batted brilliantly, and the England seamers Angus Fraser, Devon Malcolm, and Steve Watkin bowled England to a victory by 161 runs. It was the first time after 18 matches that England had managed to win an Ashes Test.

Having triggered an Ashes turnaround of sorts as captain, and having scored 553 runs in the series at 46.08 with six fifties, Atherton suddenly became the blue-eyed boy of English cricket. A few months earlier he had been struggling to make it to the side.

Along with Alec Stewart, Atherton battled well against the West Indians, but England were completely routed, especially at Port-of-Spain, where they were bowled out for 46. Whatever pride was salvaged by the victory at Bridgetown was forgotten by Brian Lara’s epic 375 at St John’s (Atherton would later admit that he envied Lara’s immense talent), and West Indies won comfortably by a 3-1 margin, but the selectors still kept their faith on Atherton, especially due to his two hundreds in the series.

Though his 135 at St John’s was overshadowed by Lara’s innings, his 144 at Georgetown was a quality innings. He batted resiliently for close to seven hours for his well-grafted 144 against Ambrose, Walsh, and the two Benjamins — Winston and Kenneth. He added 171 for the second wicket – a new record at Georgetown — with Robin Smith. For once he had managed to dominate the hostile four-pronged pace attack. Ambrose went on to trouble Atherton throughout their careers — that had virtually coincided – but on this occasion Atherton had emerged as the winner.


Ball-tampering and other issues

Atherton came back to his elements with two hundreds against New Zealand at home. Subsequently, he led England at Lord’s in South Africa’s first Test on English soil after 25 years. It was in this Test that Atherton landed himself into trouble.

With South Africa firmly in control at tea on the third day, the mood in the England camp was somewhat sour. What followed, in the words of Atherton, is as follows: “I put some dust in my pocket from a used pitch on the Tavern side. I use the dust to keep my hands and the ball dry three or four times.”

A video footage showed that he had later rubbed dirt on the ball. Atherton defended his cause first by saying that he had tried to keep the condition of the ball intact, rather than alter it, and then by claiming that he typically kept dirt in his pocket to dry his hands.

The match referee Peter Burge was not convinced. A hasty press conference was held in a cramped dressing-room cupboard, where English coach Ray Illingworth announced that Atherton would be penalised £1,000 for tampering the ball, and £1,000 more for lying to Burge.

The press attacked Atherton vehemently over the issue. True, he had committed an error, but he was proved guilty, and had paid his fine. The press, however, was ruthless on Atherton, and even that is an understatement. The fact that South Africa had won the Test by 356 runs went virtually unnoticed. The ‘Atherton Out’ campaign was on top on the priority list of the British press.

Atherton escaped to Lake District, and then to Cheshire, but his hotel leaked out the information that he was boarding there, and the press hounded him out yet again. He should ideally have resigned, but he did not. Few players, especially one as introvert as Atherton, would have managed to bring himself together the way Atherton had after his private life had been ripped apart by the media, but to his credit, he stuck to his task stubbornly.

He played the next Test at Headingley, where he scored the second 99 of his career — widely acknowledged as one of his best — and the Test was drawn. In the third Test at The Oval, Atherton was trapped in front of the stumps by Fanie de Villiers first ball, but replays showed that there was an inside edge. When Atherton walked out reluctantly, shaking his head, Burge took the opportunity to consider this as dissent and fined him 50% of his match fee.

It took Atherton a serious effort to escape the press that night. Had this been some other country, the media would probably have had a go at Burge, but by now Atherton had become their favourite punching bag. To show the mettle he was made of, Atherton masterminded a run chase of 204, playing a sheet-anchor’s role and supporting Graeme Hick to help level the series.

Fighting the tide

It was under these circumstances that Atherton took the flight for the Ashes to Australia — easily the toughest mission for any English captain in the 1990s. He was well aware of the fact that his would lose against the mighty Australians, and he would be ripped apart by the press if he had.

It was lose-lose battle from the first Test. Once again England were trounced, but they were able to salvage some pride with a resounding win in the fourth Test at Adelaide. Atherton fought grittily, and scored 407 at 40.70 with four fifties. He led England to a close series against a very strong West Indian outfit. The series ended in a 2-2 draw, with England coming back twice to level the series. Meanwhile, Atherton retained his batting form, scoring 488 at 40.67 with a 113 and two fifties.

The magnum opus

England headed for South Africa in the winter of 1995. Atherton batted well with 78 in the first Test at Centurion, but rain washed out the rest of the Test after tea on the Second Day. The teams headed for Johannesburg for the second Test — one that has become a part of cricket folklore.

South Africa scored 332, and then bowled out England for 200. Then, in full command of the Test, they made a crucial blunder — one that probably cost them the Test: Hansie Cronje delayed the declaration to give Brian McMillan his hundred. While they could have had six sessions and 10 overs to have a go at England, they ended up having five sessions and four overs. What made the decision look even more horrific that McMillan had even come off during the delay because of bad light.

England were asked to score 479, or more realistically, bat out the time. Atherton and Stewart saw of the new ball, but then McMillan clean bowled Stewart and Mark Ramprakash in successive deliveries after bright start. Graham Thorpe followed suit, and Hick did not last long either. England ended the day at 167 for four, with Atherton unfazed on 82, Smith keeping him company. South Africa needed to take six wickets, and had the entire day to themselves.

The next morning Atherton ambled to his hundred. Smith, the last of the specialist batsmen, hung around for a while, but perished while attempting an upper-cut off Allan Donald. It was left to the captain to save the Test.

In Atherton’s own words, “I tried to break it down into small periods — a two-hour session until lunch, tea or close of play; an hour up to the drinks break; a bowler’s spell, which might be 40 minutes; each over; then to the smallest unit, each delivery.”

It was on such determination and resilience that the magnum opus was built, brick by brick. Jack Russell had joined him after Smith’s departure with the words “don’t give it away now, it’s not finished yet.” Russell also got superstitious as the match progressed, touching Atherton’s pads with his bat before every over.

The new ball was taken after Russell had arrived, Donald, Meyrick Pringle, McMillan, and Shaun Pollock bowled all-out to the duo. They swung and moved the ball off the pitch prodigiously, and often unleashed a bouncer or two. Atherton drove, cut, pulled, and hooked with confidence, but for the majority of the innings, it was dour defence. Clive Eksteen, the left-arm spinner, sent down 52 overs, but in vain. Even the third new ball did not help.

When the umpires eventually called off the Test, England were 351 for six with Atherton unbeaten on 185 from 492 balls. He had batted for 643 minutes, and Russell had scored 29 in 274 minutes. It was one of the greatest rearguard actions in the history of the sport. During the innings he had also reached 4,000 in Tests, and 1,000 in 1995.

Though England lost the series 0-1, the particular performance made Atherton a hero in the public eye yet again, and for once, the English press was silenced.

Losing captaincy, and revival of the duel

After an unexpectedly hard-fought 2-3 defeat against Australia (England were up 1-0 at one time) at home and a 1-3 (the series was 1-1) in West Indies, Atherton resigned, and was replaced as English captain by Stewart. Keen to prove a point, he took field against South Africa at Edgbaston.

He scored 103 and 43 in the series opener against his old foe Donald. England were decimated in the second Test at Lord’s, and the third Test at Old Trafford, with Atherton scoring 41 and 89. Then, in the fourth Test, he scored 58 in the first innings, and England conceded a lead of 38.

Chasing 247, Atherton was up against Donald, Pollock, and Jacques Kallis, then in his prime as a bowler. In Donald’s own words, “What followed was the best duel I’ve ever had with a batsman over a prolonged period.” After the first ball of his second over, Donald switched to round the wicket, and bowled with seriously hostile pace.

Atherton was caught behind in Donald’s third over, but he did not budge, and fortunately Steve Dunne ruled him not out. There was a heated verbal confrontation between the two, with Atherton surprising everybody with a rare moment of temper and expletives. Donald, though, later admitted to Atherton that he wouldn’t have walked as well under the same circumstances.

Donald went on all out; he kept on hitting Atherton everywhere on his body, but Atherton braved it and carried on. Atherton later commented “both of us gave our all, laying ourselves bare, with nothing in reserve.” He scored an unbeaten 98, and England won by eight wickets. It was after this innings that Steve Waugh called Atherton ‘The Cockroach’, since Atherton was very difficult to stamp out! South Africa never recovered from the Atherton innings, and Darren Gough bowled England to a Test and series victory at Headingley.

Losing his form

The rest of the career passed in a misery, with Atherton slowly losing his form over time, suffering mostly against quality pace attacks of Australia and West Indies. When he visited South Africa in 1999-2000 (by now Nasser Hussain was the captain), Donald and Pollock were ready with vengeance in their hearts. Atherton lasted two balls before he was bowled by Donald, and Pollock dismissed him for a golden duck in the second innings to complete his pair. He scored 108 at Port Elizabeth, but was generally a failure with the bat.

Despite the persistent back injury, Atherton, to his immense credit and tenacity, did not miss a single Test due to injury till the last Test of the 1998-99 Ashes — after being unable to move at one stage in the previous Test at Melbourne. He was later diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis.

The last series, and second stint as captaincy

Atherton began the 2001 Ashes well, scoring 57 at Edgbaston, but unable to save England from an innings defeat. Hussain had broken his finger in the first Test, and had ruled himself out. Stewart declined when he was offered the post, and Mark Butcher, the only other candidate, was not keen either. Gough had shown keen interest, but the selectors preferred Atherton — for a record 53rd time. It turned out to an anticlimax, as Australia won easily yet again.

Atherton got to lead once again at Trent Bridge, scoring a 51 as Australia won again, to seal the series. With Hussain back at the helm, England won the fourth Test but lost the fifth by an innings, with Atherton scoring 13 and nine, dismissed by McGrath in what turned out to be his last Test innings. He announced his retirement immediately afterwards.

There was general sadness to see his career come to an end. What made one sympathetic was the harshness with which the British press had treated their unflinching captain and batsman. Butcher said, “he’s been a magnificent servant to English cricket, he’s also become a really good friend to me as well and he’s someone I’ll really miss.”

John Buchanan, the Australian coach, called Atherton “the face of the English spirit.”

Atherton, though, was as honest as he had always been: “No, I don’t think I shall be missed at all”, was his statement after his retirement.

The man

Contrary to popular beliefs, Atherton had a terrific sense of humour, and was always one for practical jokes. He mentions an incident in his autobiography, where Paul Allott had removed Atherton’s wet clothes in the dryer at the Lancashire dressing-room to replace them with his own. When Allott had left, Atherton “got up and repeated the act”.

On another occasion, Healy had appealed for a caught behind against Atherton. When the appeal was turned down, Healy called Atherton a ‘f***ing cheat’. In response, Atherton simply uttered the words in a nonchalant tone: “When in Rome, dear boy.”

The buffoon incident

During the 1996 World Cup, Atherton was being interviewed by Pakistani journalist Asghar Ali after their comprehensive defeat against South Africa. When Atherton could not comprehend Ali’s unfamiliar accent and convoluted question, he said: “Can someone get this buffoon out of here?”

Ali made several attempts to sue Atherton, dragging the matter for several years, taking it even to the new millennium. He also had a book published with the title ‘Buffoon: Me or You?’. Unfortunately, Ali was turned down by his fiancée as she “did not want to be the wife of a buffoon”.

The later years

Atherton had a seamless shift to journalism after his career was over, and turned out to be one of the finest journalists ever among ex-Test players. He started as a member of the Channel 4 commentary team for the home series, while working for BBC and Talksport for overseas tours, and gained a reputation and fan-following for his dry, no-nonsense sense of humour.

After working with The Telegraph, he replaced Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times in 2007. In 2009 he was named the UK Sports Journalist of the Year (across all sports) by the Sports Journalists’ Association. It was a unanimous choice.

In photos: The Life & Times of Michael Atherton

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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