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Atherton V-sign underlines job qualifications

By Scyld Berry

15 March 1998

THE future of Mike Atherton's captaincy of England will be determined in the next 10 days. He has to make a score of some proportions either in the rest of this match or in the sixth Test in Antigua if he is to preserve his job under the pressures which are threatening him.

One of those pressures is the controversy which blew up after Atherton made a brief and discreet, but offensive, gesture on Friday evening following the dismissal of the West Indian opening batsman Philo Wallace. It was conduct unbecoming to an England captain on the field of play because of the example that he sets, a violation of the ethical standards which are demanded - reasonably or not - of the England cricket captain above all other persons in British sport.

But to give a dismissed batsman a send-off, either by gesture or word of mouth, is so customary in modern Test cricket that it might jeopardise its very drama if Atherton had been punished under ICC regulations for his lapse in a heated moment. That, at any rate, was the view taken by the match referee, Barry Jarman, who commented: ``The pictures mean nothing to me. He could have been asking for two legs.''

No official complaint was made from any other quarter, either. England's tour manager, Bob Bennett, spoke to Atherton yesterday morning about the incident and later said he was ``content that there was no intent to insult or offend. There was no complaint from the West Indies or match referee, so we consider the matter closed.''

It is significant, too, that nobody beyond the field of play remarked upon Atherton's gesture at the time. It was only when a press photographer was developing his film after the close of play on Friday that it came to public light.

Rumours of attempts at an official cover-up were hotly denied yesterday. The incident was replayed at normal speed by BSkyB, not in slow motion, but the presence at Kensington Oval of the ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, was dismissed as coincidental by John Gayleard, executive producer of Sky Cricket.

``There was no official complaint so we showed the incident in the context in which it occurred,'' Gayleard said. ``I didn't think it was fair to judge Athers on the basis of four frames of vision, which is less than a quarter of a second. We'd have treated the incident in the same way if it had been a West Indian player.''

For certain, Atherton urgently needs runs to preserve not only his captaincy but his England place. His one innings of note in this series was in the second of the Trinidad Tests, when his 49 was a crucial component in the century opening stand which carried England halfway home.

If Atherton should not make runs before the end of this Test series, it is already being suggested that he should be removed from the captaincy of England's team for the five one-day internationals which follow. It was, in any event, an imprudent move to appoint him ahead of Adam Hollioake after England's victory in the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah last December, considering that Atherton's batting average in one-day internationals over the last two years is only 20 and his number of wins over Test countries only two.

There again, Friday's incident only served to highlight the qualities which Atherton has brought to the most pressurised of jobs. With the exceptions of the 1994 home series against South Africa, when he was accused of ball-tampering in the Lord's Test and of dissent in the Oval Test, and the odd spat with journalists over the years, Atherton has been as diplomatic as his predecessor, Graham Gooch: and England captains have to be diplomats, if nothing else.

Hence the speculation that Mark Ramprakash is now ``the natural successor'' to Atherton, perhaps after an interim reign by Alec Stewart, is absurdly premature. Even more so than Nasser Hussain, Ramprakash has a combustible nature which is mellowing but has not fully done so yet.

It would be better for English cricket, therefore, and for his possible successors, if Atherton's form does come good in the next fortnight and he does carry on as the Test - but not one-day - captain for the summer series against South Africa. There is always the one-off Test against Sri Lanka in August as an opportunity to make a change of leader before England set off to contest the Ashes.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 15 Mar1998 - 14:34