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The unbeaten 185 in Johannesburg, the challenges and trials of England captaincy, the "dirt-in-the-pocket" affair, the Trent Bridge duel with Allan Donald, and the hereditary back condition which eventually triggered retirement this time last year -
Review by Stephen Lamb
September 3, 2002
Mike Atherton -
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The unbeaten 185 in Johannesburg, the trials and tribulations of England captaincy, the "dirt-in-the-pocket" affair, the Trent Bridge duel with Allan Donald, and the hereditary back condition which eventually triggered retirement this time last year - all are matters of primary interest in the career of Mike Atherton, and all are dealt with in his autobiography "Opening Up" published by Hodder & Stoughton and available through CricShop.
However the book - written in Atherton's own words and showing an above-average intensity in consequence - is no less engaging for some of the less well-known incidents in a first-class career that spanned 14 years, all but the first two as an England player. From that early period at Cambridge it emerges that The Reverend Andrew Wingfield Digby's competitiveness and sledging "belied his profession". A little later there is a glimpse of the rites of passage in the Lancashire dressing room, where Paul Allott, returning from a long bowling spell, removed Atherton's wet clothes from the dryer to make way for his own. "I got up and repeated the act," he writes succinctly.
Atherton went on to play in 115 Test matches, a record 54 of them as captain, and this is an honest and objective assessment, both of his own performance and of the professional relationships he encountered along the way. "I was by no means a great player," he writes. "My final Test record shows that I was nothing more than a good Test batsman." However the strength of his mental attitude in an England side that was often struggling - and particularly on the two occasions against South Africa mentioned above - shines through.
If there was any doubt that the "dirt-in-the-pocket" affair, which almost led to Atherton's resignation as captain after the Lord's Test in 1994, was a primary cause of his increasingly sour relations with the media while captain, it is dispelled here. Atherton himself is less than 100% certain: "Maybe Captain Grumpy emerged from the dust at the home of cricket. Maybe." However he describes press conferences as "something of a chore to be endured and survived" and admits that the affair was ultimately damaging.
About other aspects of his captaincy, Atherton is much more positive. ""I would like to think that I had the respect of the dressing room, as a player, leader, and human being. I was honest and fair, loyal and supportive." He is less happy about the failure to win some games that England ought to have won, and the fact that one or two players, including Andrew Caddick, felt he didn't rate them. He tells how he envies Nasser Hussain his support and central contracts (recommended by Atherton himself as early as 1996), and believes that the captaincy may have come his way too soon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Atherton rates Glenn McGrath as "the only bowler I felt truly uncomfortable facing throughout my career." McGrath dismissed him 19 times, the last of them, at The Oval last year, to end his final Test innings. He tells of his relationships with consecutive England coaches, of which the first, with Keith Fletcher, and last, with David Lloyd, were plainly the more comfortable. As for the back trouble that plagued him for the bulk of his career, the difficulties it posed are revealed much more clearly than they sensibly could have been while he was still playing.
"Cussed" is a word that was often used to describe Atherton's batting, and he uses it here. He ends prosaically, with a reference to the excellent progress of Michael Vaughan, his replacement at the top of the England batting order. "No, I don't think I shall be missed at all," he concludes. But it is surely beyond argument that he gave inestimable value to an earlier England side that often struggled for runs, and which for over a decade would have been the poorer for his absence.
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