Right choice, probably

Michael Atherton has commentated and written every Saturday in a Sunday newspaper. His TV work does not appear to have suffered — indeed he has now improved to a standard which makes him about the best in the country, writes Ted Corbett.

Michael Atherton, captain of England in 54 Tests and now a television commentator, has been appointed cricket correspondent of The Times, which means that all the cricket-loving broadsheet newspapers in Britain have former international players leading their reporting teams.

Mike Selvey, the fast bowler who bowled Viv Richards on the first day of his Test debut in 1976, began the trend 20 years ago for The Guardian, followed by Derek Pringle at the Daily Telegraph, and most recently Angus Fraser at The Independent.

There are others — Vic Marks at the Observer, Peter Roebuck, earning a crust wherever he can from the columns of The Hindu to the back page of the Sydney Morning Herald — on the same road. Where will it all end?

I asked the same question 17 years ago when Jon Agnew was appointed as cricket correspondent of the Today newspaper. I wanted to know what were his qualifications beyond a certain fame. His sports editor wrote that he would never give me work again for posing such a question.

You see, I have a problem with the promotion of men without training in the profession I have loved for 50 years.

Yes, I understand that they know more about cricket than I do, that they can write adequately and that they have the good of the game at heart.

But when push comes to heave-ho my hearties, when the chips are burning, will their desire be to make journalism greater or will they duck the big issues?

I know one former cricketer, now heaven alone knows how famous on the small screen, who was offered a leading role by a newspaper and drew back. “I cannot possibly write about cricket,” he said. “I have too many friends in the game to criticise anyone.” What if the famous four all take the same attitude?

Having made my position clear — and having fought against men who moved effortlessly from the dressing room to the press box all my newspaper life — I have to say that I know Atherton will be as big a star on The Times as he was on the field.

He plans to continue his television commentary. “He will be bloody tired,” Fred Trueman said when asked if anyone might one day pass his world mark of 307 Test wickets. Anyone who has done both broadcasting and writing on the same day will be tired but I am sure Atherton can cope.

He will have sound judgement as any England captain might, he will know every player even though he has been retired five years and he writes easily enough to produce 1,000 words a day soon after play finishes.

On a standard Test day there will be no concerns.

Just supposing though — and these things happen as you will see when this sentence evolves — in the middle of his second or third television stint of the day there is an incident.

Perhaps the home captain will be seen rubbing dirt into the seam of the ball. A foreign television company may pick up the story. Some expert will damn it as unsporting, or cheating or worse.

Atherton’s television producer will want him to lead their investigation into the furore and at the same time his sports editor will want words to describe, to analyse and to direct the paper’s thoughts.

It happened once before, you may remember, when Michael Atherton was leading England against South Africa. It, or something like it, will happen again. The last time I was caught up in such a riptide of accusation and counter-claim play in 1994, play finished at 6 o’clock and I left the ground just before 10 o’clock.

Television commentary is, I am told, a drain on the reserves of strength and writing, when the pressure is on, I know, calls for every bit of stamina.

Atherton is still under 40, still slim and fit and, you will not be surprised to know, as determined as the opening batsman who defied Courtney Walsh in the Caribbean and Alan Donald in this country and was one of the bonniest fighters who ever pulled on an England sweater.

“I think I have shown I can cope,” he once barked at me when I questioned how much he would be affected by going for a record at Lord’s at the height of an Ashes series.

He has shown that all over again in what you might call a net for his big trial at The Times. He has commentated and written every Saturday in a Sunday newspaper. His TV work does not appear to have suffered — indeed he has now improved to a standard which makes him about the best in the country. His articles of perhaps 2,000 words each Sunday show the same reliability, the same insight and the same level-headed choice of words you might expect from his performances as a — mainly losing — Test captain.

However I would much rather read half a sentence from Nasser Hussain than Atherton’s output for the season.

If you want to taste the flavour of Hussain’s writing you should read his autobiography or, since it is quicker, his piece on Steve Waugh in Wisden a couple of years ago.

Or his diaries during the Tests when he was captain. Not only did he have insight and judgement and the ability to tell the tale but he had that willingness all writers have to find. He could get his innermost thoughts, troubles, concerns and angst from his soul on to the printed page. The Welsh have a word for this skill in sharing angst. They sing about “hiraeth” which is akin to the blues singer’s ability to detail grief, pain and the loss of a lover.

I read Hussain’s piece on Waugh and met him soon afterwards. “If you can write like that you are wasting your time in the commentary box,” I told him. I was fairly forceful. He replied with absolute candour; you get used to that from Hussain.

“I don’t have the time to write at the moment,” he said. “I don’t have the discipline either. You guys have the discipline.” I thought that sentiment, coming from one of the most dedicated cricketers of my time, was as big a compliment as any writer might need.

Atherton has the discipline to concentrate on first one job and then the other and the skill and personality to front both, and in the era when celebrity has taken over The Times have got the right man.

Unlike the Test selectors, the men at the Times have probably made the right choice but by the end of the summer their new boy will be Trueman tired.