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'The best captains have an instinct for the game'
Excerpts from the show
Subash Jayaraman: You mentioned in your autobiography, Opening Up, that though you had an idea that the captaincy was coming your way after Graham Gooch stepped down in 1993, you felt you weren't prepared for it. Why did you think that?
Mike Atherton: I am not sure you can entirely prepare for it no matter how experienced or old you are. It's a unique job and one that takes you into different areas that you cannot really prepare for. When you are 25, which is what I would have been in 1993, with not that much cricketing experience internationally - I think I had played around 20-odd Tests at that stage, I was just three or four years out of university. I thought an ideal age for captaincy would be 27-28. You are getting the prime time of your playing career in terms of batting or bowling or whatever you do, and also at that stage you are both experienced enough and young enough to do the job.
But you can't choose the time you get these opportunities. I had a back operation when I was 21. I wasn't going to have a long career, so I had to take the opportunity on offer while it was there.
SJ: There is a question from a listener, Dileep, about the perception that you were the future England captain. Did that change your approach to the job?
MA: I think it is an unhelpful tag that you can carry with you. I captained virtually every team I played for, Under-16s, U-19s, Cambridge. I was made vice-captain of England in the 1991 series. I was barely a year into the England team at that stage. There was this kind of expectation and tag. I don't think it is necessarily helpful at that stage in the career. You want to be putting all your energies into being the best player you can be.
Did it affect the way I did the job? No. There is nothing you can do about the tag and expectations others put on you.
SJ: Mike Brearley's idea is, you pick the captain and then the team. And there is the Aussie way - you pick the best XI and then the captain. You tend to agree with the Aussie way of selecting the captain, don't you?
MA: I do, in this day and age. Mike Brearley was one of the great England captains. But the level of media scrutiny now is such that it will almost be an unbearable position if you don't feel you are there by your own performance. If I was selecting, I will be picking the best XI and choosing a captain from them. There may be the odd circumstance where that doesn't apply. I am thinking of Australian Bobby Simpson: if you are in such a mess that you feel a kind of experienced old hand who might not quite justify his place would give you what you are looking for.
SJ: You also mentioned in the book that when you were made captain, you had very little idea about the extent of the responsibilities of an English captain, in terms of media and management training. If you were a player in the English system now, how differently would your grooming be, in terms of captaincy?
MA: Not many England cricketers get a chance to do any captaining at all, because the nature of the schedule of international players these days means they are basically taken out of the counties and most times they play the odd game here and there. But because it is one odd game, they are not made county captains very often. In fact, you have a situation where you are asking people to become the captain even on the basis of less experience than perhaps what I had.
I think the ECB tries to guide these young players, which they weren't able to, or couldn't do, when I was around. Alastair Cook had a number of sessions with Mike Brearley. They realise that they have to find ways to broaden these players' minds, because they are not getting the practical experience of captaincy players of my generation had. I don't see an easy solution, because the nature of international schedule means the guys are not playing any county at all.
SJ: What are the things that are to be in place to enhance your shot at succeeding at the job?
MA: It depends on how you define "success". I wouldn't, as a captain, define it simply by the wins and losses. The wins and losses go against their name and that is how a captain is remembered. If you are the captain of Bangladesh and you are coming up against Australia, you are not going to win too many Test matches, so it will be ridiculous to judge the captain of Bangladesh in a Test series versus Australia simply by whether they win or lose.
A good captain can make a bad team better. A bad captain can make a bad team or a good team worse. A good captain can make a good team great. It is about the influence the captain has on that group of players that really should define how he does the job.
What are the tools that will allow him to do a good job? Obviously, good players are nice if you have them. The best captains have an instinct for the game. You can learn about captaincy and you can learn to become better. But I don't think it is that easy to learn. You either have it or you don't. It is a kind of strong character or personality that you can lead the dressing room. If you are a good player and you are playing well, that helps your decision-making, gives you confidence, your ability to have the other players following you.
Cricket should look to expand and not contract. The strong have to help the weaker, because the weaker haven't always been weak. It seems to me that it is short-sighted to contract the game, because ultimately the strongest teams are only as strong as the weakest link in international cricket
Captaincy is a very difficult thing to evaluate, because you have the on-field tactical side of the game that we all see. Brendon McCullum, Michael Clarke really stand out for their acute tactical awareness. But you've got the stuff in the dressing room we are not privy to.
SJ: You talk about instincts and feel for the job. Even that is evaluated based on what has happened as a result of action taken. Say, for example, if the captain moves the first slip to gully and the catch goes there, they praise that.
MA: I actually don't look at it that way. With good captains you can see exactly what they are trying to do. I watched with great admiration Brendon McCullum against England. When you looked out on to the field and watched the bowlers bowling and the plans that were set, it was absolutely clear at the time what they were trying to do and how they were trying to get the batsmen out. And he didn't let things drift. That plan would change every half hour or so. But you could see clearness of thinking and strategy.
Provided the strategy fits some kind of cricketing common sense, I think that is what you are looking for from a captain - the more fundamental thing of how you are trying to play the game.
SJ: How do you define leadership in sports? As a captain, you have to take care of the other 13-14 people in the squad as well. How did you balance it in your time as captain of England?
MA: That is difficult, I think. It is not an easy job, as Alastair Cook is finding out right now. You have to try and balance the demand of your own game against making sure that you are trying to get the best of the 15-16 men in your touring party.
When we went abroad, there would be a manager, coach and physio. So your responsibilities were virtually all-encompassing - training in the nets and the tactical side of the game. Now a captain has much more help from the backroom staff. The captain's responsibilities are more delineated now. Now you have a coach who might be in charge of all training in the nets and the captain who leads them on the field. That has its difficulties as well.
I think one of the hardest things I find when I am commentating or writing is how to find where the responsibility lies. England have just been whitewashed in Australia and there are a lot of people calling for Andy Flower's head. In the earlier days it was a much simpler equation. The captain was responsible for the results of the team. The players would be responsible for the runs or wickets that they scored or didn't score, or took or didn't take. Now the specialist coaches and that level of responsibility are not so easily appraised. I find that very difficult sometimes. I still go back to responsibilities. As a captain, you need to encourage that in your players. You want them thinking for themselves, ask them to sort their own games as much as you can.
SJ: What were the expectations you had of yourself when you became the captain, in the short term and in the long run? When did you think of giving up? Did you think you got everything out of yourself as a captain?
MA: One of my strengths, I would say, is that I am a very clear thinker. When I took over the job in 1993, England had lost about eight of the previous ten Test matches. We had a horrid trot in the Ashes and then in India and Sri Lanka. It seemed clear to me that we had come to the end of that particular era in English cricket, an era dominated by the likes of David Gower, [Allan] Lamb, [Mike] Gatting, [Ian] Botham. So what I wanted to do was take a group of younger players forward and create a team that, in a sense, England would become the 19th county.
When I started with England, because we didn't have central contracts, players would come for a week of Test cricket and then go back to the counties. We didn't develop a cohesive sense of who or what the English team was. In that side, we had players of my year - [Graham] Thorpe, [Mark] Ramprakash, [Nasser] Hussain, [Alan] Mullally - guys I played with who were just about making their England debuts at the same time. I thought that was a chance to try and develop something. But of course, it was very difficult without central contracts, because you are still playing lots of county cricket between Tests. Fast bowlers would arrive knackered, or often injured. The idea was right, the vision was right, but it was too soon, in the sense that the idea came before central contracts were introduced.
SJ: Now you have your high-performance academies and centres of excellence. Players don't really get to play as much of the first-class game at all.
MA: A balance has to be struck. The England system is getting a pounding at the moment because of the results in Australia. But I am all in favour of generally taking players out of the system and into the Lions and developments squads under top-class coaches. They develop quickly and develop well.
You look at Joe Root. When he came into the team he really looked a top-class player on the back of cricket with Yorkshire and having taken that extra step with the Lions. You still want the players to be playing an amount of county cricket. Not just for the experience they get, but there has to be a feeling for the county game - that they are a part of a wider picture, that they are producing players who are going to play for England. Once they do that, the players are still part of the county and community that they came from. I think it is one of the great strengths of the Australian system - as the players go back and play grade cricket and state cricket and are a part of the community from which they came.
SJ: I remember reading about this NFL coach who led his team to multiple Super Bowl wins. He said he treated his superstar players as superstars. He cut them some slack from time to time at practice sessions, gave them a bit of leeway. Does this sort of thing happen in the cricket set-up? Would someone like Kevin Pietersen get that much leeway? How would you have handled it if you were captain with some of the shenanigans that went around in the summer of 2012?
MA: One of the absolute essentials of leadership is working out the characters in your team and trying to treat them accordingly. It's plainly ridiculous to try and treat everybody exactly the same way. Different characters demand different handling. Having said that, there's a line that you recognise can't be crossed.
Strauss and Flower will have felt that that [the text messages] was a line that should not have been crossed, and was crossed, and therefore there were disciplinary measures to be handed out. Clearly if you have a superstar player you may give them a little more leeway than other players, but it can be damaging if you let things run out of control.
SJ: What was the learning curve for you as you came to writing about cricket and progressed as a TV commentator?
MA: You just learn on the job. I didn't have any training as such. I started with Channel 4. Richie Benaud was working there, Mark Nicholas and a few other guys who had done it for a considerable length of time. So if you are smart, you sit, you listen, and learn.
One thing I did do at the start was get some tapes of myself commentating - to just listen to. The cadence of your voice is quite important, and I have a slightly monotonous voice at times. So I tried to work on that a bit at the start. And also just to listen to how you sound when you are talking, whether you are talking too much, all those kinds of things. I sat with Richie quite a bit early on. He was very helpful.
I tend to think that commentators ought to be neutral when they commentate. I don't think I should be a cheerleader for the England team. When we're commentating in England there will be people who don't want England to win. There will be people listening who want India or West Indies or Australia to win.
Richie said something early on that has stuck with me. He said you are a guest in somebody's front room. Cricket is on all the time. It's on five or six hours a day. So try not to be an irritable or irritating guest. Try not to talk too much. And beware of stating the bleeding obvious, I suppose.
SJ: Andrew Strauss, soon after giving up playing and captaincy of England, joined the commentary box, and if I remember correctly, he said "we" a few times when he was referring to England's performance. How hard was it for you to tune out the fact that you had been an English player?
MA: I didn't find it that difficult, to be honest. Clearly, if you said to me now, who I wanted to win the Ashes, I'd obviously want England to win. You are not going to get away from the fact that you are an Englishman, a former England player and a former England captain. Obviously I would prefer England to win. But in all truth, I enjoy watching good cricket. I enjoyed watching the cricket Australia played this winter. So even though it was 5-0 and a bit painful for England, I enjoyed watching Mitchell Johnson bowl quickly and all those kinds of things. I stopped worrying about the results of the England team when I stopped playing, because I no longer have any influence over it.
SJ: You write for the Times and you do commentary for Sky. Is it easier to write your cricket reports and pieces because you've been at the cricket all day? Or is it harder because you may not get time to switch off from the cricket to refresh and refocus?
MA: I think the two complement each other quite well. Writing keeps you sharp. You have to turn up at some press conferences. You've got to be there the day before, watching the players, listening to the captains. It helps you stay on top of things. The commentating helps form ideas in your mind before you sit down to write.
You have to watch carefully because you are commentating. And you are kind of formulating ideas way in advance. The difficulty sometimes is, you find yourself pushed for time. If there's a tight deadline and you have to combine the two, you sometimes don't have the time you would like to write a properly polished piece.
SJ: I have to ask you about the issue that's been on the front pages recently - the leaked draft of the ICC's position paper. Plenty of people have sent in questions. I'm going to name one, Victor. He wants to get your thoughts on the draft plan.
MA: I've been reading the leaked draft over the weekend. And I want to read it again. I'm going to write about it next week. So I haven't really formulated my thoughts.
But sport is not business. And it seems to me that these proposals are based on the off-field strength of England, India and Australia, rather than what happens on the park. My view is that cricket should look to expand and not contract. The strong have to help the weak, because the weak haven't always been weak. West Indies, for example, were dominant over a 20-year period and probably produced the greatest cricket team that has ever been. Just because they are in the doldrums now doesn't mean that they'll always been in the doldrums.
In any case it seems to me that it is short-sighted to contract the game, because ultimately the strongest teams are only as strong as the weakest link in international cricket. You want to make those international teams that are struggling a bit currently stronger. I'm not so sure that the proposals from what I've seen, are going to make them stronger.
SJ: You mentioned that sport is being seen as a business rather than as a sport. You constantly hear this thing about how Test cricket is not viable beyond England, Australia and India. Kartikeya asks: We are at a time where cricket is making more money than ever before in the history of cricket. And yet, somehow we are not able to find enough money to support all ten Test teams playing a full Test cycle involving series of at least three Tests. Why is there not enough noise about this?
MA: Well, I suppose what happens is that however big or small the cake is, you spend that money accordingly. So it doesn't necessarily mean that because you might have ten times the amount of income that you had a decade ago, the game is ten times better off. It just means that you find ways of spending that money. I'd argue that the game is not fundamentally stronger than it was a decade ago. You've got Pakistan who can't play at home, you've got West Indies and New Zealand who are undoubtedly weaker, you've got Bangladesh and Zimbabwe who hardly play any Test cricket at all.
SJ: How poor is leadership in cricket?
MA: We had the last chief executive trying to force through the Woolf report and now three countries going in virtually a 180-degree opposite direction. That suggests that it's an organisation struggling to find its place in the world. I think the leadership of cricket is not good at the moment. The solutions and answers to that are not immediately apparent.
SJ: As a former player, and now a commentator and writer, what are your hopes?
MA: Well, if the proposed paper is put forward at the end of January, I'd hope that the other countries outside of those three would vote against it. I don't think they will, but I'd hope they would. I asked a former West Indian cricketer what he thought of the proposal and he said that if the other countries vote for that proposal, they deserve all they get. They've got a chance to make a stand, I guess.
SJ: If the proposal goes through, where do you think that leaves cricket?
MA: What you are looking at in that scenario is, there'll be three or four countries playing marquee Test series among themselves, and then there will be more room for the domestic T20 competitions. The Big Bash from December through February, IPL from March through to May, the T20 competition in England through the summer months here in the northern hemisphere. So they are increasing the scope, I would say, for having the best players playing those. And then you have the marquee Test series between England, India, South Africa and Australia. So the scope for countries like New Zealand and West Indies producing good Test cricketers of the future would be reduced and players from those countries will be looking at the domestic T20 tournaments as their big thing, which is not ideal. But that would seem to me to be obvious result of these proposals.
What it is doing is contracting the game. In the last two or three decades, the ICC's mission statement has been to spread the game, to make it a world game. And these proposals don't accomplish that.
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Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch