By Anthony K
Last Wednesday evening saw Mike Atherton at the LSE to promote the new compendium of his journalism, “Glorious Summers and Discontents.” He was introduced and interviewed by Professor Robert Baldwin of the LSE’s Law Faculty before the event was thrown open to questions from the floor. In a wide-ranging session, Atherton brought his customary wit, generosity and intelligence to a variety of topics.
He spoke of his admiration for Brian Lara, who could do things that were simply beyond his ken and David Gower, whose mixture of brilliant success and ignominious failure made him a difficult man to follow, but who would go on to hand Atherton his first England cap, and of the education he received by watching Graham Gooch at his peak from 22 yards away. As far as regrets were concerned, he wished he had had more faith in his technique and hadn’t tinkered so much.
His battles with South Africa, and Alan Donald in particular, were especially fascinating to hear about. He described his legendary ten-hour rearguard action in Johannesburg, where his 185 not out saved the game for England, as being the only time he remembers feeling “in the zone”. “After six or seven hours, I just knew they weren’t going to get me out.” He used his other epic encounter with the same opposition, at Trent Bridge in 1998, to illustrate the camaraderie that should underpin even the fiercest on-pitch duel. Referring to his failure to walk when he gloved a ball to the keeper, he said that Donald later asked him to sign the glove for charity, which he was happy to do, recalling the big red mark where he signed. As an aside, he recounted how his son was struck on the hand in an under-9 match recently and, having wrung his hand in pain, was duly given out. “He has,” said the Times’ Chief Cricket Correspondent, “a lot to learn.”
He paid tribute to those batsmen before his time who, in the absence of effective protective clothing, had “their courage questioned at the very deepest level” before moving on to praise the current England side. Central contracts, which he’d like to have been around when he was captaining England, meant that the management were able to foster a culture of hard work and focus where continuous improvement was almost inevitable. He expressed his admiration once again for Kevin Pietersen, on both a personal and professional level, and lamented the public’s failure to take “KP” to its heart in the way it had done the likes of Flintoff, Collingwood or Tufnell, whose sharp cricketing brain he also complimented.
He answered the accusation that Sky was helping to make cricket more exclusive by saying that the money they paid helped fund development work and, having touched earlier on the parlous state of some counties’ finances, the implication was that the game might not survive in its current form without it. At the same time, he commended the work of Chance to Shine and the clubs, though he noted sadly that a generation of black children seemed to have chosen football over cricket.
He thought the DRS should be used to its fullest extent in international cricket; T20 was not a threat to test cricket, though anyone thinking of using the word “crickettainment” around him should probably prepare for the worst; he was pessimistic about the future of West Indies cricket; he wisely declined to add to Kumar Sangakkara’s recent “Spirit of Cricket” lecture when questioned by a Tamil member of the audience on the morality of engaging with the Sri Lankan board in the light of recent events there, save that he hoped the ICC’s threat to impose sanctions on boards subject to political interference would improve the governance of the game; and on spot-fixing, he repeated his hope for the rehabilitation of Mohammad Amir and his view that captains “caught in the act” should receive life bans.
Ninety minutes had flown by, as was perhaps not always the case when he was batting, and this most engaging of speakers made his way out to the foyer for the obligatory book signing, leaving his audience with much to ponder, but, at least in the case of this observer, wanting more.