The New Statesman Interview - Michael Atherton

Sport is in his genes and he can still play the heroic innings, but the ex-England captain is now re

Michael Atherton was destined to become a professional sportsman. His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer. His father was on Manchester United's books as a goalkeeper. His mother's brother was a professional golfer, and his parents met when they were both competing in a tennis tournament. In 1981, his father took him to the Old Trafford Test match against the Australians. He was electrified by Ian Botham's staggering 118 in 123 minutes, and the genetic inheritance asserted itself. He captained Manchester Grammar School's cricket team, then Cambridge University's, and, by the age of 25, only three years after his first Test, he was England's captain.

Atherton was discussing his genes at the hotel bar towards the end of a long conversation - although it could conceivably have been at the barre. He does the exercises - known as Pilates - that ballet dancers use to strengthen the stomach muscles. The purpose is to protect his congenitally weak back. Not even his sporting genes can protect him from that.

When he led the England team, he was known in the tabloids as Captain Grumpy, and he says himself that he has never been a media-image type of cricketer. Outsiders have been at a loss to understand why he is so popular in the England dressing room, but, despite being a Cambridge man, he is one of the boys, happy to irritate the game's grandees by not shaving in the morning. There was stubble on his chin when he was fielding for Lancashire at Leicester (between the Fourth Test against the West Indies and the Fifth, now playing at the Oval), but when we met at the end of the day, he was so clean-shaven that he seemed to gleam. He wore an open-necked shirt ("I never wear a tie"), and he looks younger in the flesh than on television - but then, most sportsmen do. He runs his hands through short, curly hair, and his laughter is usually either rueful or ironic. In conversation, he is reflective and straightforward.

He captained England in 52 Tests in four and a half years; no one has led the team so often. He retains his place in the team, and played a heroic innings at Lord's in June, which kept England in the series against the West Indies. But his cricketing career is coming to an end. I ask for how long he will stick it out, and he replies: "I can't really envisage going beyond next year. Not much longer than a year, that's for sure. Whether it be for Lancashire or England, the next year would be the maximum period." He pauses as though he has surprised himself: "I said that without really thinking about it." Although he is not sure what he will do when his sporting life comes to an end, there is already a valedictory tone in his voice.

When you talk to an international cricketer these days, you talk about match-fixing. Atherton believes it has been going on for longer than people think. The England team had talked about it for years, and the names of Pakistan's Salim Malik and India's Mohammad Azharrudin were common currency. "But it was always rumour and innuendo," he says. Atherton played in a one-day international that he thought might be fixed, but he is a stickler for evidence and, without it, refuses to name the game.

He is not so reticent about Hansie Cronje and the Centurion Test against South Africa last January, when an improbable declaration by Cronje allowed England to sneak an unlikely win. He was furious at the time, he says; now he is more coldly analytical. He recalls: "The declaration was out of character. I justified it initially by the thought that he had had a poor run with the bat, and his captaincy had been criticised throughout the series. Offering a generous declaration would look like creative captaincy, and he would come out smelling of roses. Then we lost a few wickets; at one stage, we virtually shut up shop when Stewie and Vaughnie [Alec Stewart and Michael Vaughan] were in. At that point, he brought on Pieter Strydom, an inexperienced bowler, and a couple of boundaries off him kept the game open. That was when I thought there was something going on. South Africa were trying to win the game, but it was clear that Cronje was after a result." It was not clear, however, to the rest of the world, until Cronje confessed that he had taken money from a local bookmaker to get any result other than a draw.

Last year, after the New Zealand captain reported an approach by an Indian, Atherton made a statement to the police. He has not been questioned since. "I've not had any doubt about an England player. I can't say with hand on heart that I'm absolutely certain it hasn't happened, but I'd bet against it." He discovered only this summer that Ray Illingworth, England's manager, had been telephoned in his hotel room by a bookmaker during the 1996 World Cup in Karachi. The caller suggested to him that England should not score more than 250 against Pakistan. Illingworth, who reported the call to the match referee, did not tell his captain. (Coincidentally, England scored 249-9.)

The awful truth is that England have always been too inconsistent for any bookie to make him an offer. Only the best cricket teams are capable of fixing matches: "For betting people, the only way to make money is when a sure-fire winner doesn't win. We were never in that position."

The thought that his friend Wasim Akram, the brilliant Pakistan all-rounder, might have fixed a match is so painful for Atherton that he is not able to talk to him about it. (The Qayyum Commission concluded that Akram was "not above board", and recommended his removal from the Pakistan captaincy.) Atherton's view is that Akram is almost, but not quite, a genius. There is only one cricketer in his generation who is: Brian Lara, despite his recent loss of form. Lara's problem, Atherton says, is to retain desire, intensity and determination. "Against Australia in Barbados in 1999, he played one of the greatest innings of all time. You must think to yourself: 'I'm not sure I can top that.' Once you think like that, it is much more difficult to keep your focus."

Atherton has never had the confidence that comes with genius. He admits it, too: "I don't believe there's anybody who doesn't have a period of self-doubt. Professional sport doesn't work like that, because confidence is so fragile." He often appeared aloof when he was captain. He puts that down to shyness, which must be the reason some younger players find him difficult to approach. "I need younger players to come to me. I'm much better with older people, because I'm naturally inquisitive with them. I don't like to impose myself on younger people."

He had used a curious phrase about a captain who was led by his team. Clearly, he did not approve, and he began to talk about the character of various captains he had played against. Three Australian captains beat him, and all were different. Alan Border took over a losing team and moulded it to become hard and aggressive, like him. Yet the bark was worse than the bite. They had a loud, moustachioed fast bowler called Merv Hughes, but familiarity tamed him: "He could spit and snarl at you from 22 yards, but when you had a beer with him, you realised he was just a silly old poodle; after that, he didn't frighten you so much," Atherton recalls.

Mark Taylor, who inherited a winning team, wanted to be liked. While he did not want to lead a team of pussy cats, he wanted a more sporting image. He achieved it, and kept on winning, too. But Taylor's team had a reputation for losing matches at the end of a series that was already won. His successor, Steve Waugh, is more ruthless. "When he's batting, he doesn't give you a sniff, and I think that is how he's trying to take his team."

Atherton hopes to be back in the fray in next summer's Ashes series. He is 32, but the bad back always threatened to cut short his career, despite Pilates, painkillers and an injection of steroids every six months. He and Nasser Hussain, the present captain, are exact contemporaries, born within five days of each other, but Hussain was 31 when he got the job. "That is the absolutely perfect age to get the captaincy," says Atherton. "You are still in your prime as a batsman and you've got the experience." He admits now that, at 25, he probably got the job too young, but the state of his back meant he had to seize the chance when it came. He found it hard work: "During the game, I used to come off the field after each day's play with a headache. I would think about the game in the evening, and I wouldn't sleep well. Up at the crack of dawn. Nasser's like that now."

Atherton was accused of being short on imagination. But he took over a team that had lost nine out of ten games, and one of his first tasks was to make England less easy to beat: "I think we managed that." Then, in 1995, he had his own Damascene conversion, in Adelaide, after a conversation with Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain. "It was the first time I'd ever sat down and talked about the captaincy, and he's not one to mince his words. We won my second game as captain against the Australians at the Oval in 1993, and Chappell said he had the impression that he'd seen a more positive England. In 1995 in Australia, he felt I'd lost faith in my team. Someone might bowl badly, but if you throw them the ball, you've got to set fields as though they were bowling well, and I wasn't doing that. I looked at it, and in the Adelaide game and after, every time there was a 50:50 decision - conservative or aggressive - I always tried to go the aggressive way."

Aggression is not a word usually associated with Atherton's captaincy, but he is fascinated by risk, and thinks that all good captains are gamblers. (Literally so: he likes a punt and his breakfast reading is the Racing Post.) The statistical record shows that the change of attitude did not have the desired effect on England's results. Before Adelaide, Atherton's England won six, lost nine and drew seven. After Adelaide it won seven, lost ten and drew 13.

There is a let-out, albeit a small one. Atherton freely admits that his greatest single regret about his captaincy is that he did not end it when he believed he should have. "I did one tour too many. I knew instinctively that I should have packed it in when we beat Australia at the Oval in 1997. People say never take a rash decision. That's bollocks. The more you think about it, the more you get talked round to a thing you don't want to do." If he had behaved instinctively, his post-Adelaide record would have been won six, lost seven, drew 12. A bit better.

Defeat has left scars on some of his predecessors. He thinks he has survived, but the years of defeat have left him with some strong opinions about English cricket. The game's administrators do not like them at all. When Atherton doubted the value of county cricket as a nursery for England's Test team in the spring, he got a letter from Gerald Elias, the English Cricket Board's disciplinarian-in-chief, saying that he was bringing the game into disrepute. He did not retract, and no action was taken, but he has not changed his mind. "I would halve the number of championship games [from 16 to eight]. That's all you need." As he says, there aren't many people watching it.

Atherton detects a profound systemic weakness in the English game. Above all, English cricketers play too much cricket. Hardened professionalism breeds caution. ("When it's your livelihood, you're possibly looking at the safety-first option; cricket played at its best always involves risk.") There is no sense of history. ("The Aussies keep things more sacred, like the baggy green cap.") Coaching is too conservative. ("It's a very natural and instinctive game, but the emphasis is on defence and technique.") And pitches made of the wrong soil mean the end of medium-pace and spin bowling - which have been England's traditional strengths.

Inside the game, everyone assumes that Atherton will become a journalist when he retires. He writes regularly, clearly and expertly for the Sunday Telegraph. (The ECB's censor still reads what he writes before publication.) He could earn a comfortable living as a journalist and broadcaster. But the surprise is that he is not sure whether he wants to do it - to spend the next decade living off the capital accumulated through his experience as a Test cricketer. He thinks he would like to try something else, but he's damned if he knows what.

There is a life outside sport. His father became a headmaster. But I wouldn't be surprised if the sporting genes win out in the end.

Stephen Fay writes about cricket for the Independent on Sunday