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Selectors reducing Atherton's shelf-life

By Scyld Berry

4 January 1998

THIS is the Year of Living Hectically. In the next 13 months England will play 15 of the hardest Tests imaginable, while the 16th - a one-off against Sri Lanka - has the hint of a banana skin.

Allow for some warm-up games before each of those major Test series, away to West Indies, at home to South Africa and away to Australia. Allow for a few days of practice and visualization before each Test, and a few more days afterwards for rest and performance-review if you wish to make the most of your cricketers. That will leave little or no time for anything else - like one-day internationals or county cricket (albeit our county chairmen seem not to understand).

That is the first reason why the selectors' decision to appoint Mike Atherton for the one-day series against West Indies was unsound: it will reduce his shelf-life as Test batsman and captain. The more he dives around at backward point in April, playing five internationals in 11 days straight after back-to-back matches that will climax the Test series, wearing down his back and battery, the less likely he is to tour Australia in the autumn - and England are to regain the Ashes in this millennium.

The decision to appoint Atherton for the one-day series against West Indies, rather than Adam Hollioake, was largely the work of Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, the two RSMs of the English game with all the attendant virtues: neither of them has ever been accused of being a visionary. The present selection panel - David Graveney, the chairman, is the third - is proving too small and like-minded, insufficiently diverse. The addition of an older, more objective voice, like that of the former England seamer, Bob Cottam, might also have averted the two big mistakes of last summer, the selections of Mike Smith for the Headingley Test and Ben Hollioake for Trent Bridge.

``God Save The King'' Gooch and Gatting have declared, because that's the way it was in their day, without due appreciation of how quickly world cricket is changing. Last summer the nine Test captains recommended no more than 12 Tests and 30 internationals per year: fat chance of their being heard by Boards of Control who can't let a week go by without arranging a triangular or quadrangular one-day series for satellite TV, or at least that pestiferous novelty, a two-Test series.

Starting last September, India and Pakistan have already played 14 internationals each and meet again next weekend in Bangladesh for another tri-series, as the world of one-day cricket gets ever madder not only in Test countries but in Nairobi and Dhaka too, not to mention the off-shore venues of Toronto, Sharjah, Singapore, Hong Kong and, sooner or later, Florida.

In September, England have to send a separate one-day team to Sharjah for the 'Mini World Cup' if Test players like Atherton are to have any rest before their tour of Australia. If Sharjah exists, that is. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe England's winning of the Champions Trophy there last month was a desert mirage, as the selectors seem to be saying. Sober witnesses however - and you have to be sober in Sharjah - would be prepared to swear that England found the long-mislaid formula of winning, without being in anything like mid-season form. In 10 days Hollioake's team won as many full internationals as Atherton's in the last three winters.

There can be no criticism of our distinguished columnist for accepting the selectors' offer: he would not have been in the right frame of mind for this tour if he had refused a challenge. Atherton could well win the one-day series too, as his best one-day cricket has been saved for West Indies: against them he averages 70 and has won three Man of the Match awards in 11 games. And if he likes anything better than denying bowlers his wicket, it is confounding his critics.

But Atherton was able to stage his Johannesburg epic partly because he was brought up in the same culture as Hutton and Boycott. It is inconceivable that he could have staged it if he had rated one-day and Test cricket as being of equal importance and been able to cream a shot a ball. Different natures and abilities should be given different tasks. Moreover, so much Test cricket has and is being asked of Atherton that something has had to give.

In 28 internationals since May 1995, Atherton has scored 559 runs at an average of 20: the brilliant hundred against Australia in May was the exception to a rule of ever-diminishing returns. He puts everything into each international but it was apparent during the shambles of England's last World Cup that there is not enough left in his battery to energise himself and his team fully in one-dayers which follow a Test series. England have a fine new body of one-day all-rounders, the Matthew Flemings and Dougie Browns, and eventually a body takes its cue from the head.

If you had to select England's World Cup party for 1999 today, Atherton would have a place in the squad as an opening batsman. England's first game is as early as May 14, when the ball may well be darting around in low-scoring games, and if they can top Group A, they will play two of their three Super Six matches at seamer-friendly Edgbaston and Headingley. But he could not be guaranteed a place by the time of the semi-finals and final in mid-June, when higher and quicker scoring will probably be required. There is the fielding as well: in Sharjah, England's standard was so excellent that Mark Ealham was turned from a racehorse in the Test side last summer into a third-man carthorse, and Atherton's favoured positions of backward point and mid-wicket were usurped by Nick Knight and Graham Thorpe.

A savvy old seamer like Cottam on the selection panel might also have led to a different replacement for Darren Gough, a severe loss. Gough was the one variation on England's theme of tall fast-medium seamers pitching just short of a length and trying to frustrate the West Indian shot-players into indiscretion. Gough was to nip out back-foot West Indian openers with his fuller new-ball length, then to lower his arm and reverse-swing through the tail.

Worthy trier as he is, Chris Silverwood makes it five tallish, fast-medium bowlers out of five, and leaves Andy Caddick and Angus Fraser as the only ones of experience, a crucial commodity in front of passionate crowds. Ealham, if Atherton had been prepared to use him, would have offered accuracy and the fuller length that might have gained LBWs on low or uneven pitches, like his former Kent colleague Richard Ellison did at Sabina Park in 1985-6; and better than any other bowler in the party, Ealham could have batted at No 8. England took two steps forward in Sharjah last month, two steps backward last week.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:38