The last of the Mohicans

Published : Oct 06, 2001 00:00 IST


THE young man, appearing distinctly unhappy with the world, walks up to make a phone call at the reception of the team hotel in Chennai, doesn't get the line, bangs the instrument down in disgust. His visage is a picture of anguish.

The season is 1992-93 and it has been a frustrating tour of India for Michael Atherton. He is not a part of the XI for the first two Tests... and is not even able to get his call through!

The people who matter are listening nevertheless. Within two years, the Lancashire cricketer is appointed the England captain and that marks the beginning of an emotionally roller-coaster journey, taking him across continents in a career both fulfilling and dramatic.

A small story that tells us what life can have in store for us. You never ever know.

Well, his career back on the rails, Atherton plays 62 Tests in succession, leads England in more Tests than anyone, scores over 7000 Test runs in often testing conditions before retiring when many still asked 'Why?'

In the recent Colombo Test, India was staring down the barrel, an innings defeat loomed large. Six second innings wickets were down and the side had to bat out the final day.

A situation that prompted someone in the pressbox to say, "You've got to bring Atherton here somehow, he might save the day for India." That's the kind of respect the man still commands.

Indeed, Atherton's epic unbeaten 185 in the Johannesburg Test of 1995-96, where the Englishman fought the fires that threatened to consume him for a mindboggling 643 minutes to rescue a Test for England, will go down as one of cricket's masterpieces.

And truth to tell, the great defensive knocks are in danger of becoming extinct. That ability to keep the concentration going ball after ball, ticking off overs, sessions and days, driving the bowlers to despair, Atherton could do all that and more.

They are a separate breed, these gutsy batsmen with that in-the-trenches resolve. Men like Atherton, Steve Waugh, Andy Flower and Rahul Dravid, players who have it in them to bat till kingdom come.

The quality to grind the attack also stemmed from Atherton's enormous mental strength, that self-belief which enabled him to spot the light at the end of the tunnel in Jo'burg while several others might have seen nothing but darkness.

In this age and times of media created superstars, who pop out of the tube every now and then, he was a real hero, someone with the heart for the battle, irrespective of the conditions, irrespective of the odds.

That classic in Jo'burg remained Atherton's greatest legacy to England cricket, with the man bidding adieu at the conclusion of The Oval Test of the Ashes series this summer.

An intense, introspective cricketer, Atherton will go down as one of the finest England batsmen of this era. Technically well equipped and brave of heart.

A persistent back injury that had required two operations, was the primary cause for Atherton's retirement, for at 33 he had a fair bit of cricket left in him.

Among the foremost openers of his time, Atherton was well equipped to combat all kinds of bowling. He was also a tenacious customer, a cricketer who would never say die, one of England's most trusted soldiers.

There are several innings that would speak for the man's ability. And Atherton's 103 in the Edgbaston Test of 1998, when Donald was in a distinctly mean mood, would surely rank among the very best.

The South African quick posed searching questions to the Englishman, but Atherton, never once flinching, batted with that trademark straight blade, dealt admirably with the short balls whistling past his nose, seldom taking his eyes away, and proceeded to play some spanking drives when the opportunities came along.

Then his unbeaten 98 later in the series, at Trent Bridge, a match-winning knock, was again an education in fire-fighting at the crease, providing a glimpse of the man's remarkable character.

And as recently as last season, Atherton, ever the marathon man, slugged it out for 10 hours in the heat and dust of Karachi, an effort that clinched the Test for England. He was an adequate player of spin too, if not the most flamboyant.

The famous bulldog spirit was very much visible in the man's attitude and approach. He put a price on his wicket and earning his scalp was a hard job for the bowlers. In Test cricket, nothing should ever be given away easily and Atherton's fighting ways was representative of that.

Endless hours at the nets perfecting his skill, a probing mind, and a thirst for success were the driving force behind the Englishman's long and distinguished career.

In the end, Atherton finished with 7,728 runs from 115 Tests, with 16 hundreds and 46 half centuries. And his average of 37.69 doesn't tell the whole story.

Atherton invariably opened in conditions where the ball swung and seamed, especially early on during the innings, and seen in that context he performed his role with distinction.

In several respects he was old fashioned in his methods. Test cricket always came first to him and he wasn't the kind to make compromises. Completely committed, he certainly was.

He also led England in more then 50 Tests, surpassing the previous record held by Peter May, and though his captaincy often lacked sparkle, Atherton was a dependable man at the helm, unlikely to commit a bloomer.

He was catapulted into England captaincy during the Ashes series at home in '93. Graham Gooch was having a forgettable time and Atherton, who had impressed the selectors with his combative spirit at Lord's while making 80 and 99, was the surprise choice.

Atherton assumed charge as England captain after the Leeds Test, and, in fact, skippered the side to a consolation victory in the final Test at The Oval.

However, his next campaign, in the Caribbean, was a rather disastrous one, bringing him face to face with a harsh reality. The West Indians possessed too much firepower in bowling with Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, and England, in pursuit of just 194 for victory at Port of Spain, was blown away for 46.

England managed to salvage some pride by breaking the West Indian stranglehold in Bridetown, a Test where Alec Stewart made a hundred in each innings and Andrew Caddick bowled his side to victory, yet the tour was still a rude awakening for Atherton.

Atherton's problems as England skipper were triggered by an often unhealthy relationship with the media that saw him earn the sobriquet 'Captain Grumpy.' And his bleakest moment came when the television cameras caught him rubbing dirt from his pocket on to the ball during the Lord's Test of '94 against South Africa, prompting match referee Peter Burge to swing into action.

The England captain was fined 2000 pounds and was now directly under the line of fire from the media. Atherton's argument that he was only trying to make it easier for the pacemen to grip the ball on a sultry day did not find too many takers either.

Ironically, earlier in the year, he had enjoyed one of his best runs with a bat, with three centuries in four Tests, and now he had some extremely uncomfortable questions to answer.

The fact that he was locked in a duel with Raymond Illingworth, the then chairman of the England selection panel, did not help matters too. Temperamentally, they were very different, and it was essentially a clash of personalities and egos.

Yet, Atherton outlasted Illingworth and was in his element during the Christchurch Test of the New Zealand tour of 1996 - carrying his bat while making 94 in the first essay and piloting England to a convincing 2-0 series victory with a fine 118 in the second essay. A complete performance from an opener.

He went on to captain England in 52 successive Tests before relinquishing the job subsequent to the 1-3 reverse in the Caribbean in 1998. It had been a lengthy, at time difficult, tenure but Atherton deserved a measure of credit for never allowing his chin to drop even while England was going through the most torrid of phases. He was much too proud a cricketer for that.

And he was durable. Indeed, it marked a special occasion for him when he walked out for his 100th Test, against the West Indies at Old Trafford, last year. There was some reward afterall, for weathering the various storms over the years.

It is a stunning fact that Atherton opened with as many as 13 partners for England in Tests, Marcus Trescothick being the last but not the least of them. The association with Graham Gooch was the most productive one while Atherton and Stewart, in their contrasting methods, struck a useful combination.

He won several famous duels standing up to those magnificent fast men over the years, until the tall, raw boned New South Welshman Glenn McGrath had his measure.

Atherton's judgment on or outside the off-stump was impeccable on most occasions, yet McGrath nailed him in that area, with the movement enhanced by bounce. The Australian haunted Atherton in his final series too, the opener making just two half centuries.

Yet, this shouldn't take anything away from Atherton's lion-hearted displays for England in situations that were demanding and emotionally draining.

The English jersey and the cap suited him fine, for along with them he took into the field of play certain values.

Atherton's contribution to England cricket is immense. In several respects, he is the last of the Mohicans.

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