The England cricket team are the reigning 20-20 world champions. They’re ranked the second best one-day international team, and they’re current holders of the Ashes. But now is not the natural order of things. Now is the opposite.
We know this to be true because of the 1980s and the 1990s. The television, radio, and newspaper evidence is extensive. England batting line-ups collapse. England bowlers toil. England fielders drop Matthew Elliot on 29 and wave him back to the pavilion, ironically and 170 runs later, Ashes lost and spectators no longer teased.
No, the real story of English cricket – for the last quarter century at least – is one of hard fucking graft, occasionally leavened by either the odd joyous win or uselessness so extreme it ends up funny. Good times recently are all well and good, but we know better really. Professionalism, efficiency, and winning are all to England cricket what the sun is to English sky: an occasional welcome visitor but certainly nothing more.
Who would have it any other way? Not me. The Australians can have their Schumacher-esque dominance (or have it again, I suppose); surely what we England cricket watchers want is variation… surprise… the sneaking promise of better things to come. More than this, I think, we want players and plays to live longer in the memory than the brute facts of wins and loses. Isn’t that why cricket is the king of sports? The results matter but there’s always so much more.
There is, for example, a Michael Vaughan cover drive – ready to make even a man’s man think of poetry and prettiness. Or, contrastingly, a Peter Such ‘leave’ against the quicks (20% evasive action, 80% falling over). Alec Stewart twirling his Kookaburra bat in between squat thrusts and Caribbean pulls. Or, say, Devon Malcolm’s entire career: a dedicated experiment to see just how much at odds express speed and accuracy can possibly be.
For sure, there’s an awful lot to remember, even if much is probably best forgotten (Hick versus a Waqar Younis inswinging yorker; Harmison bowling to second slip; Robert Croft as designated ‘spinner’). Forget KP, Flintoff, Gough, Gooch or Gatting, though, there’s only one player fit to make the most room for. One player, indeed, who would always need the room, such was the average length of his stay at the crease. Of course: Michael Andrew Atherton.
A magnificent, stubborn old bastard who held an often weak team together through sheer cussed will. Not, you suspect, because of any great surfeit of patriotism, nor, even, any great abundance of talent (though he had more than a fair share). More likely, just because the alternative tasted foul – if he lost, some other bugger won. Witness Atherton battering back all that South Africa could throw at him for lonely hour after lonely hour, most memorably, one time, with only Jack Russell for company. You sometimes sensed he’d give up a lung before he would his wicket. Sweating, spitting opponents would counter his flat bat defence with hostile bowling, verbal abuse, counterintuitive patience, spin, speed and cunning. But Atherton would swat it all away, thinking, perhaps, of what to have for lunch, or who to back in the 3.30 at Newmarket. Then he’d clip an easy four off his pads and go along his merry way.
I like that old line about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only in high-heels and backwards. Well, Atherton did everything he did at the top of a lesser team, against Donald, McGrath, Walsh, Ambrose, Akram, Younis and company, and with a really bad back. Even when he did take the proverbial ‘early bath’ he invariably carried back with him the hopes of his nation. There started the collapse. We never minded, though, how could we? Atherton was always immense, just the same, in failure and in flight. Essentially, like Everest, he was simply there.