The dirt in the pocket affair
It seems extraordinary to recall now, given all the seismic scandals that have clawed away at the integrity of cricket over the past decade, but at the start of the 1990s, there was no issue more emotive than ball-tampering. Much of the resentment stemmed from a them-and-us culture. From Imran Khan's admission that he used to gouge the ball with bottle-tops, to the suspicion that surrounded Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram's unplayable spells on Pakistan's fractious tour in 1992, the unspoken implication was that an England player would never stoop so low.
So when the England captain, of all people, was caught on camera at Lord's, of all places, manipulating the ball in a distinctly fishy manner, the pictures were flashed around the world in an instant. The British press were caught on the hop by what they saw, and exploded in a frenzy of righteous indignation, the like of which had not been seen since Mike Gatting's finger-jabbing altercation with umpire Shakoor Rana at Faisalabad in 1987-88. And barely a year after assuming the England captaincy at the tender age of 25, Michael Atherton found himself being crushed by the weight of the moral majority.
The biggest travesty was the timing of the furore - it was not just any old match that became so rudely interrupted. After 29 years of exile, South Africa were back playing Test cricket in England, with Nelson Mandela newly elected in the country's first free presidential elections, and though they had played several matches in the intervening period, to step out at Lord's was the ultimate proof that they had, at last, been fully re-integrated.
Riding a tide of emotion, South Africa made a rip-roaring start to the match as well. Kepler Wessels scored a typically nuggetty century to guide them to 357 in their first innings, and by the time England had been bundled out for 180 in reply, the game was all but sewn up. Matters came to a head shortly before tea on the third day, although the England team didn't think much of it at the time. As Graham Gooch passed word of the simmering row through to his captain, he added: "It must be their ball, because ours is doing **** all!"
That evening, Atherton himself recorded his version of events, as they had unfolded, in his typically matter-of-fact diary. "Hot and humid day. Gough is getting some reverse-swing and tells [mid-on and mid-off] to make sure we keep our sweaty hands off the rough side of the ball. Sals [Ian Salisbury] rubs his hands in the footholds of an old pitch on the grandstand side and I put some dust in my pocket from a used pitch on the Tavern side. I use the dust to keep my hands and the ball dry three or four times."
To this day, it is unclear quite what Atherton was playing at, or whether, indeed, he was contravening the rulebook, which was suitably ambiguous. Law 42.5 states: "No-one shall rub the ball on the ground, or use any artificial substance, or take any other action to alter the condition of the ball," and seeing as dust is neither artificial, nor in this particular case, on the ground, the only issue at stake was Part No. 3. And it was on that point that opinions differed wildly.
Atherton's defence - and he had a case regardless of the incriminating footage - was that he was not seeking to alter the condition of the dry and roughed-up ball, but maintain the condition it had already reached. Unfortunately that was not the story he told to Peter Burge, the fearsome former Australian batsman turned match referee, who presided over that evening's hearing. By his own admission, Atherton was called before the headmaster ... and panicked. When asked why he had been caught with dirt in his pocket, he now claimed that it had been specifically to dry his sweaty hands.
That excuse differed significantly from the line Atherton had spun to the England management of Keith Fletcher and Ray Illingworth, and Burge was understandably livid. Had he known the true intention of the dirt, Burge later said, he would have suspended Atherton for two matches, and in all probability brought about an early end to his tenure as captain. Meanwhile, back at the cricket, South Africa completed an historic 356-run victory with a day to spare. But the result was entirely lost in the melee.
"Melee", however, was not a strong enough not the word for the shambles that followed. A press conference was arranged in a hellishly airless cupboard, somewhere in the bowels of the pavilion, where Atherton was fed to the lions. Sitting alongside him was Illingworth, who duly announced that he was fining Atherton £2000 - half for using dirt to dry his fingers, and half for lying to the match referee - and Jonathan Agnew, the BBC cricket correspondent, who led the interrogation and unwittingly became the second villain of the piece, when it transpired that the entire sordid affair had been broadcast live on Sunday Grandstand, without anyone's knowledge.
Agnew spent half the session leaning across Atherton to record Illingworth's opinions, and as a result of his unwitting live performance, he became the leading voice in the "Atherton Out" campaign that followed. As Aggers himself later wrote, he was only going by his own evaluations of the situation, adding that had he been caught in a similar position, he would have resigned on the spot.
Atherton, however, was made of sterner stuff, and was determined to ride out the storm - even though the idea of being front-page news was absolute anathema to such an intensely private man. As the moral posturing continued, Atherton fled to the Lake District in an attempt to collect his thoughts, only to dart back to Cheshire - and his team-mate Gehan Mendis's flat - when someone in the hotel shopped him to the press.
Atherton was adamant that he had been a fool, not a cheat, and though the logical course of action would have been to resign and return to the job at a later date when the furore had blown over, that was never the Atherton way, in life or at the crease. And perversely, his stubborness endeared him to his public, not least at Headingley for the second Test when, under the most intense scrutiny, he knuckled down to score his second 99 in consecutive summers - if he'd been seeking the sympathy vote, he couldn't have planned it better.
There was one last twist to Atherton's summer, and it came at The Oval in the final Test, when Burge took his opportunity to exact his revenge. Facing up to Fanie de Villiers, Atherton was nailed first ball of the innings, not for the last time. However, there was a clear inside-edge, and as he trudged off the pitch, Atherton shook his head in disappointment. That was ample dissent for Burge, who was watching his every movement like a hawk. The upshot was a fine of 50% of his match fee, and at a dinner party that evening, Atherton completed his day by escaping over the rooftops of Piccadilly to avoid the press yet again.
It is a measure of how times have changed that eight years later, when Sachin Tendulkar was caught and punished for a similar offence in a Test against South Africa, it was not the player but the match referee (Mike Denness) who bore the brunt of the media's wrath, and ultimately caused a row that threatened to divide the world game in two. That hardly condones Atherton's actions, but it does perhaps put them into context.
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Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket