Bill Athey: A domestic warrior who was an underachiever as England player

Bill Athey © Getty Images

Bill Athey, born September 27, 1957, was yet another English player with a moderate international record despite being amongst the best in the domestic circuit. Hailing from Yorkshire, Athey played 23 Tests and 31 ODIs, but could not cross 1,000 runs in either format, although he boasted of over 25,000 First-Class runs. Karthik Parimal looks back at the career of this right-hand batsman who could possibly have donned more caps than he eventually did.

Charles William Jeffrey Athey, popularly known as Bill Athey, will be remembered as an under-achiever in England’s cricketing circles. Hailing from Yorkshire — the largest county in the United Kingdom and home to several first-rate cricketers, it was perceived that Athey would scale the pinnacles of success, in First-Class cricket as well as in the English flannels. With extraordinary flair as a youngster, he plundered runs in competitive cricket matches and his effulgence filtered into the boardrooms where the powers that be met to pick a squad for the Championship. At the age of 19, Athey was already vying for a spot in Yorkshire’s First XI.

In the years to come, he would go on to be a successful player at the domestic ring. On the international stage, however, it was a different story.

Early life

In his formative years, Athey looked every bit the highly rated recruit. He was a stylish batsman with an uncomplicated technique, nimble on his feet and a fine fielder, who would also chip in as a medium-fast bowler when the situation called for. Representing the Yorkshire Second XI, he would often share century partnerships with Peter Squires, a bloke who later made the cut as England’s rugby union player. It was during this phase he drew comparisons with the likes of Herbert Sutcliffe, Maurice Leyland, Sir Leonard Hutton and Geoffrey Boycott — three of whom were former Yorkshire cricketers, whereas Boycott was the protagonist of the side at the time.

With a mentor to help push his game close to the top level, Athey was soon considered to be a natural successor to Boycott in the Yorkshire ranks. He was recognised by the Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB; now England and Wales Cricket Board) as well. In 1976, he was one of the four young players who were thought to be future England stars — Ian Botham, Mike Gatting, Graham Stevenson the other three — and was selected for the Whitbread Young Player Scholarship to Australia. It was a three-month, expenses-paid trip and an excellent opportunity to further his cricket education.

The benefits of that trip Down Under were instantly visible. For Yorkshire, it reaped rich dividends. In the next seven seasons, Athey would score more than 6,000 runs, inclusive of 10 centuries. The swagger, too, came to the fore and the Union Jack tattoo on the arm only added to his exuberant spirit. Nevertheless, another young cricketer, one who accompanied Athey to Australia during the scholarship, Botham, had already been elevated to the level of a rock star in the country. In four years, thanks to the absence of many top-grade cricketers offering their services to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and rebel tours to South Africa, Botham became the team’s mainstay and soon its captain.

Having watched Athey from close quarters, Botham would testify the former’s credentials during selection meets. The next fixture in the pipeline was against Australia, and as the head honchos gathered to pick fresh faces, the Yorkshire camp was quietly positive. They wouldn’t be disappointed.

Initial years

On August 28, 1980, the day John Arlott walked into the confines of the commentary box for his final stint behind the microphone, Athey donned the English colours in Test cricket for the first time, at the majestic Lord’s, for the Centenary match against Australia. Rain constantly intervened on the first three days, and Athey’s performance matched the sombre weather. Just one week earlier, he thrived against a bowling line-up featuring names the calibre of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Len Pascoe with brisk knocks of 32 and 51, in two One-Day International (ODI) games. Against the same attack this time around, he could muster two single digit scores (nine and one) in two innings. The swagger was amiss and the backdrop perhaps overwhelming. Dark clouds gathered over his spot for the upcoming tour of West Indies with that display.

As Botham, the captain at the time, and the selectors gathered to pick the cavalry, what was expected to be a brief meeting stretched for over three hours. Botham, surprisingly, wanted Athey replaced with Middlesex batsman Ronald Butcher, since he felt the latter had the technique and stroke-making ability to counter the extra pace on West Indian turfs. The selectors, on the other hand, were adamant that Athey’s presence in the tour party was a necessity and the debate prolonged. They grudgingly agreed to Butcher’s inclusion in the end and named Athey as the first reserve. However, Brian Rose’s injury duly enabled the selectors to call up Athey for the remainder of the series.

Roped in for the final two Tests at Antigua and Jamaica, Athey could score just seven runs in four Test innings and with that Botham stood partly vindicated. Thereafter, the batsman slipped off the radar. Although Botham’s term at the helm soon came to an end, the selectors refrained from looking Athey’s way, this despite him amassing runs for Yorkshire on a regular basis. The captain’s snub prior to the West Indies tour perhaps had a role to play in denting his confidence, but whatever the cause was, he failed to make a comeback into the English side for the next five years.

Finally, a purple patch

The years 1986 to 1988 were Athey’s finest with the bat for England. He moved to Gloucestershire from Yorkshire in 1984 and his graph since then had been on the ascendancy. During the course of these two tournaments, Athey tasted moderate success but his red-letter series was the Ashes of 1986-87. He was bumped to the openers’ slot from his position in the middle-order and the move proved to be a masterstroke. Born two days apart from each other, he and Chris Broad combined to form a solid opening partnership throughout the Australian summer.

In the first Test at Brisbane, poor form in the warm-up matches notwithstanding, he thwacked 76 to propel England and set the tone for the series. At Perth, he bettered his best by scoring 96 on one of the fastest surfaces in the country before registering yet another half-century at Adelaide. Leading the series 1-0, England clinched the urn with a second victory at Melbourne in the fourth Test and, although Athey’s contribution was just 21, he labelled it as one of the best moments of his cricketing career. “There are so many happy memories of that tour. I would probably single out the final moments of the Test in Melbourne when we won to go two up with one to play. It was a great tour, with success on the field but great times off it too,” he told the BBC.

Athey finished the tour with 303 runs at an average of 33.66, whereas Broad had 487 at 69 per Test. The opening pair was indeed largely responsible for England’s happy conclusion.

Seldom regarded as a one-day player, Athey achieved more in the shorter format of the game. Immediately after his return in 1986, he smashed an unbeaten 142 against New Zealand to help England easily chase down 284, which at the time was unimaginable. Alongside Graham Gooch, he compiled the highest first-wicket partnership (193) in ODIs. In the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup — a triangular tournament— right after the Ashes, he scored 111 against Australia and 64 against the West Indies.

With the World Cup just months away, he’d comfortably booked his berth for the Holy Grail in the sub-continent. Prior to its commencement, Athey warmed up with a maiden Test hundred against Pakistan. It was to be his last, too. His World Cup campaign began with a brightly 86 versus Pakistan, again, this time at No 3, followed by reasonable scores of 21 and an unbeaten 40 against West Indies and Sri Lanka respectively. In the final at Calcutta against Australia, he kept his team in the hunt with a stoic 58 before he was run-out going for a third run by a 22-year-old Steve Waugh, and that doused England’s hopes.

From June 1986 to December 1987, Athey’s run of scores saw a marginal rise in his career-average. Moreover, his name was a given in any team sheet. In fact, he missed only one of his 20 Tests from 1986 to 1988.

Bill Athey: A domestic warrior who was an underachiever as England player

Bill Athey played 23 Tests for England and scored 919 runs at an average of 22.97. In 467 First-Class matches he scored 25,453 runs at an average of 35.69 © Getty Images

Eventual decline and halt to international career

After the 1987 World Cup, Athey’s form with the willow took a dip. In the next five ODIs, he trudged off with 30 runs whereas in Tests his best was 37. Around the same time, England’s administrators set out to experiment with the infusion of young blood. Able replacements were found and Athey was axed. A glorious two years, followed immediately by a chunk of failures and, at the age of 31, Athey had played his last for England. His Test career, spanning 23 matches, was spread over eight years. His numbers in ODIs painted a relatively better picture — an average of 31 from as many games. He nonetheless fell short of 1000 runs in both formats.

In 1990, he toured South Africa as a rebel player and was suspended from the game. Two years later, after they were welcomed back to the international fold, the suspension was off, but Athey could not force a return.

A county stalwart

Athey made his debut in First-Class cricket representing his home county Yorkshire, in 1976. For eight years, he was an asset, tirelessly delivering whenever called upon. Although his knocks weren’t as huge as team-mate Boycott’s, they were certainly swifter. In 1983, fallout between Boycott and the committee ensued and it was decided that the Yorkshire great’s contract would not be renewed. This led to constant tension in the dressing room confines and, having had enough of the politics, Athey chose to move out. “Boycott’s attitude and the atmosphere he created had everything to do with my decision to leave Yorkshire,” he stated to biographer Leo McKinstry. Boycott, however, didn’t subscribe to the theory.

A switch in clubs didn’t alter Athey’s performance a great deal. He thrived at Gloucestershire and, in 1989 was appointed its captain. During this juncture, he bagged four successive hundreds. As the well of opportunities began to run dry, he moved to Sussex in 1993 where, within a span of few months, he reached the landmark of 25,000 First-Class runs. By the time he hung his boots from all forms of cricket in 1997, Athey had 467 matches, 25,453 and 55 domestic hundreds to show for.

Life after retirement

His association with the English counties didn’t end there. Athey signed on as coach of Worcestershire and, following a spate of poor results — which involved relegation from the top division of the National League, resigned after three years in the role (it remains unknown whether his contract was terminated). Having decided to stick with the sport he’s well-versed in, he also contemplated taking up umpiring. When The Guardian asked Athey why the new role now, his reply was straightforward, “It’s not like football where you have 92 clubs. In cricket there are only 18 and if one has just got rid of you [perhaps referring to Worcestershire here] that leaves 17. It’s a very narrow field.”

Athey later took up the offer to coach First XI of the Dulwich College School in South London. Chris Jordan, who recently made his debut for England against Australia in an ODI at Southampton, was Athey’s discovery and a product of a cricket scholarship at the aforesaid college.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)