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Captains must counter unsporting behaviour

By E W Swanton

7 April 1998

A WEEK in the frenetic world of international cricket can be a long time. In the euphoria of the two one-day matches in Barbados we rejoiced in two performances of high quality in several respects, albeit one was narrowly lost; superlative fielding and a splendid sense of mutual confidence carried over from Sharjah; in particular Nick Knight's batting was a revelation which must bring him back into the forefront of Test reckoning.

The colourful St Vincent weekend was a rude awakening because a greatly improved West Indian performance was so ineptly countered. England, of course, have no counterparts to Brian Lara and Carl Hooper. If both are on song over 50 overs their side will almost certainly win. What was so disappointing was the batting technique, especially against the slow bowling shrewdly managed by Lara, timid lack of footwork and the incessant ``working'' of the ball to leg rather than hitting straight. The series is lost but let us hope for a worthier epilogue at Port-of-Spain tomorrow.

MY intention is to write an appropriate valedictory piece on Michael Atherton's captaincy, and I will come to it. However, the Test series was so unsatisfactory in crucial ways that no one who knew the game in better times, and who saw one Test in person and much of the rest on TV, can withold judgment.

Integral to all cricket and beyond all else is the pitch, and the undisputed truth is that the only good one from start to finish of the tour was in Barbados: one out of six, though Antigua played well enough after the first day. With so much depending on Test matches, all concerned, and not least the spectators, are entitled to a perfect surface and I trust the International Cricket Council will voice their disapproval and consider penalties in future cases. The best batsmen and likewise the best bowlers have always developed their skills on plum pitches.

THE most serious indictment of the Test series, however, was the undue pressuring of the umpires by constant appealing, some of it quite ridiculous. Worst were cases, tantamount to cheating, of gestures calculated to deceive the umpire. Michael Holding, whose shrewd and fair-minded comment on television throughout the series was a model - he was one of what I took to be a generally well-balanced and impartial team of TV critics - wrote from the heart in a Sunday Times article entitled 'This Unsporting Life' giving chapter and verse and censuring both sides.

On the same day Dominic Lawson, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who watched the Barbados Test, was equally disparaging.

On my inquiry Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the ECB, tells me he went along completely with both these articles. ``We have to ask ourselves what sort of a game we are to pass on to future generations, and especially to the young cricketers now growing up,'' he said. ``There is to be another of the annual meetings of the captains of all Test countries at Lord's in May prior to the series against South Africa. The captains' responsibilities must be expressed clearly once more. Only the accepted standards of sportsmanship will be tolerated.''

What sort of a game are we indeed passing on? Andrew Longmore's bitter denunciation of school cricket standards in the new Wisden underlies the depth and breadth of the problem. Ian MacLaurin added that David Graveney, chairman of selectors, and David Lloyd, the coach, hold equally firm views.

It may be remarked that despite the serious blemishes the two teams, and especially the two captains, remained on friendly terms - which, of course, was very much to the good. The conclusion, however, must be that each side's conduct was tacitly accepted by the other. Lastly, on this matter, my impression was that Barry Jarman, the referee, whose function was to fortify the umpires and do his best to preserve the spirit of the game, was too tolerant.

AND so to Atherton: as I watched him announcing his resignation in Antigua after the last Test, even-tempered, managing a smile, unhistrionic, completely in character, my mind went back to the Lord's Test of 1993 against Australia.

His stock was at such a low ebb that when he went to the wicket against a massive score he must have felt this was probably his last chance. Such was the background to the two innings of 80 and 99 wherein he batted over six chanceless hours. But for the slip turning for the third run which would have given him his hundred, England might even have saved the match.

Gooch had already said that he would resign if and when Australia retained the Ashes, Alec Stewart and Mike Gatting being the favoured contenders. Some people now began to think again. Three Tests later, with Australia three up and two to come, the selectors turned to Atherton, and in his second Test as captain England won a handsome if belated victory, the first in 19 Tests against the old enemy.

England proceeded that winter to West Indies and the usual pummelling by speed. Surviving much intimidation, the captain topped the averages with 56. England surrendered the Wisden Trophy series 3-1, the victory being the famous one at Bridgetown wherein Atherton and Stewart put on 171 for the first wicket.

Such has been very much the pattern of things throughout Atherton's almost five years in the job. When assessing England's prospects in the West Indies at this new year I ventured to say that the result of the series would depend upon the degree to which England's faster bowlers could match the West Indies' opening attack. In the event the disparity was depressingly wide and conclusive. A captain can only be as successful as the talent under him allows.

The crucial encounter was that of the first of the Trinidad Tests played on the hastily prepared pitch following the fiasco in Jamaica. Angus Fraser, with 11 for 110 in the match, had to face the fact that he was on the losing side. Against the England team of Sharjah the West Indies could not have made 150. Atherton must have known in his heart that the real chance he had had of winning the rubber had then almost certainly disappeared.

Atherton is phlegmatic by nature but as the tour progressed he must have been weighed down by the ceaseless columns of conjecture surrounding the captaincy. Day after day The Times ventured into psychological introspection, measuring up Atherton's worth against several candidates for the succession. While England were fighting their long rearguard in Antigua, Daily Mail readers were told ``the match is already so far out of England's reach that it has long since become an irrelevance. Its chief purpose now must be as the final exercise in sorting the men from the boys, of deciding which of a handful of candidates will succeed Atherton''. I found myself sighing for the craft of cricket-writing other, of course, than as in the columns of The Telegraph.

In certain instances, apart from his regular under-use of the razor, the late captain has disappointed. He even declined, surprisingly and inexcusably, on his last day to apologise for a silly gesture on the field despite strong pressure to do so. Yet over most of his record span of 52 Tests he has been the bulwark of the side, an indomitable fighter giving them a courageous example to which they have responded with the utmost respect and much affection. From his two taxing years as Cambridge captain he has shown an admirable sense of fairness and sympathy, an instinctive leader of men. These have been sterling virtues in the service of English cricket: may he now enjoy his batting with the burden off his shoulders.

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Date-stamped : 07 Apr1998 - 12:13