Gutsy, determined and fearless, Michael Atherton was as indomitable as they come. Having made his England debut in 1989, few batsmen in the modern era have taken to the hearts of the English public quite like the classic opener. Thrust into the Test captaincy at the age of 25 and in a difficult decade of decline for England in the 1990s – Atherton became the resolute elder statesman.
At his best, he dug deep in the trenches, grinded out an innings and relished a personal battle or two with a lightning fast bowler. Statistically, a Test batting average at a shade under 38 did not do him justice, but his unflustered nose to the grindstone ability to make it count when it mattered could not be faltered. His 643 minute, 185 not out against South Africa in Johannesburg saved a match in 1995-96 where England had been down and out and proved his country could ill afford to be without his presence.
Unconventional and often understated, he captained England up until 1998, before retiring from the game three years later. Since, he has moved seamlessly on to Fleet Street and has demonstrated his ability as a no nonsense journalist. From the Sunday Telegraph, to his current role as chief cricket correspondent for The Times and, of course his central position in the Sky Sports commentary team – Atherton has rightly earned his reputation as an outstanding sports journalist.
Before he took part in a London School of Economics Public Lecture entitled ‘An Evening with Michael Atherton’, focused on his new book ‘Glorious Summers and Discontents: Looking Back on the Ups and Downs from a Dramatic Decade’, Michael spoke exclusively to Stuart Appleby about the book, the future of Test match cricket and his transition from international sportsman to award-winning journalist.
It is probably fair to say that since Michael Atherton retired from cricket a little over a decade ago, few could have predicted the changes that have taken place in the game since.
“It’s been one of the more tumultuous decades in cricket,” he said. “Time will tell how influential it has been, I don’t think anyone really knows right now.
“Things like match fixing, terrorist attacks and the rise of Twenty20 cricket has fundamentally altered the game. These are big changes. How they’re play out? I don’t think anyone knows but it’s definitely a period in which change has come quickly.”
From the introduction of 20 over cricket to the English domestic calendar back in 2003 and to the riches of the IPL in India, the rewards on offer are far greater to players today. The sheer volume of cricket is influencing an international player’s schedule and has already seen the likes of Australian Brett Lee and Sri Lankan bowler Lasith Malinga, for example, cut short their Test careers to pursue quicker and bigger ‘bucks’ elsewhere.
While the five-day game has suffered in recent years through falling attendances and Test nations such as Pakistan and West Indies no longer being the forces of old, Atherton believes the answers are relatively simple to maintain the popularity of the longer format of the game, which many claim ‘defines’ you as a cricketer.
“Well you need to put two good teams together on a pitch that offers something so you get a decent contest.
“Cricket pricing needs to be accessible – which they did on the final day of the first Test between England and India at Lord’s and people came and watched. It’s fairly obvious stuff but not every Test match is like that,” the Lancastrian says.
Atherton, who read history at Cambridge, represented both the Combined Universities Cricket team (an assortment of British university cricketers) and Lancashire whilst studying, before making his Test debut for England against Australia at Trent Bridge.
Although cricketing commitments dictated the path of his immediate career, Atherton’s passion for writing stayed with him and his effortless switch into the media has rightly established him a reputation as one of the better player-broadcasters. This was summed up, when in 2009, he earned the coveted Sports Journalist of the Year accolade.
“Well I was writing throughout the time that I played, from about 1993 onwards, but only once a week in the Sunday Telegraph. I quite enjoyed the pieces I wrote and then you get to the end of your career and you think what the hell am I going to do?”
Having succeeded Christopher Martin-Jenkins as The Times cricket correspondent in 2008, Atherton combined print journalism with broadcasting as he worked as a member of the Channel 4 commentary team before joining Sky Sports in 2005.
“It was just an option that was on the table in the absence of other options. It goes pretty nicely with the broadcasting, you can do both and I enjoy it. You keep the same kind of lifestyle that you used to. It’s not a nine-to-five job so in that sense it’s a good thing to do.”
Atherton’s knowledge and understanding of the sport cannot be disputed, however he is reluctant to draw upon what he has achieved in the game in the line of work he does now.
“I just don’t particularly enjoy talking about myself too much! When you become a cricket journalist and writer, you are then an observer. You are not there to bang on about yourself all the time, you’re there to observe the game and pass on some insight into the sport,” the 43-year-old said.
“I don’t personally think there’s anything worse than just hearing somebody talk about what they did all the time – so I try and avoid that.”
While he enjoys both facets of journalism he operates within now, Atherton confessed it is difficult to compare working in the media to playing cricket for England.
“Well nothing really beats playing. You can’t get that buzz you get from playing, the challenge and the gut wrenching nerves of excitement,” he said.
“Your experiences are more heightened when you play but it (broadcasting) is the next best thing I guess. It’s a totally different thing but enjoyable.”
Atherton’s book ‘Glorious Summers and Discontents’ documents the changes in cricket during the last decade, but he believes the fundamentals of a cricketing contest will always stay the same in the future.
“The game itself doesn’t change really. It remains a game between bat and ball, between two individuals within a team contest and that never changes.
“But things around the game, around the periphery change, like technology and Twenty20 coming in. So cricket will always evolve in that same sense but it’s essence at the heart of it. It’s the same game it’s always been.”
‘Glorious Summers and Discontents: Looking Back on the Ups and Downs from a Dramatic Decade’ by Michael Atherton, Published by Simon and Schuster Ltd.