Michael Atherton was destined to become a professional sportsman. His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer. His father was on Manchester United's books as a goalkeeper. His mother's brother was a professional golfer, and his parents met when they were both competing in a tennis tournament. In 1981, his father took him to the Old Trafford Test match against the Australians. He was electrified by Ian Botham's staggering 118 in 123 minutes, and the genetic inheritance asserted itself. He captained Manchester Grammar School's cricket team, then Cambridge University's, and, by the age of 25, only three years after his first Test, he was England's captain.
Atherton was discussing his genes at the hotel bar towards the end of a long conversation -- although it could conceivably have been at the barre. He does the exercises -- known as Pilates -- that ballet dancers use to strengthen the stomach muscles. The purpose is to protect his congenitally weak back. Not even his sporting genes can protect him from that.
When he led the England team, he was known in the tabloids as Captain Grumpy, and he says himself that he has never been a media-image type of cricketer. Outsiders have been at a loss to understand why he is so popular in the England dressing room, but, despite being a Cambridge man, he is one of the boys, happy to irritate the game's grandees by not shaving in the morning. There was stubble on his chin when he was fielding for Lancashire at Leicester (between the Fourth Test against the West Indies and the Fifth, now playing at the Oval), but when we met at the end of the day, he was so clean-shaven that he seemed to gleam. He wore an open-necked shirt ("I never wear a tie"), and he looks younger in the flesh than on television -- but then, most sportsmen do. He runs his hands through short, curly hair, and his laughter is usually either rueful or ironic. In conversation, he is reflective and straightforward.
He captained England in 52 Tests in four and a half years; no one has led the team so often. He retains his place in the team, and played a heroic innings at Lord's in June, which kept England in the series against the West Indies. But his cricketing career is coming to an end. I ask for how long he will stick it out, and he replies: "I can't really envisage going beyond next year. Not much longer than a year, that's for sure. Whether it be for Lancashire or England, the next year would be the maximum period." He pauses as though he has surprised himself: "I said that without really thinking about it." Although he is not sure what he will do when his sporting life comes to an end, there is already a valedictory tone in his voice.
When you talk to an international cricketer these days, you talk about match-fixing. Atherton believes it has been going on for longer than people think. The England team had talked about it for years, and the names of Pakistan's Salim Malik and India's Mohammad Azharrudin were common currency. "But it was always rumour and innuendo," he says. Atherton played in a one-day international that he thought might be fixed, but he is a stickler for evidence and, without it, refuses to name the game.
He is not so reticent about Hansie Cronje and the Centurion Test against South Africa last January, when an improbable declaration by Cronje allowed England to sneak an unlikely win. He was furious at the time, he says; now he is more coldly analytical. He recalls: "The declaration was out of character. I justified it initially by the thought that he had had a poor run with the bat, and his captaincy had been criticised throughout the series. Offering a generous declaration would look like creative captaincy, and he would come out smelling of roses. Then we lost a few wickets; at one stage, we virtually shut up shop when Stewie and Vaughnie [Alec Stewart and Michael Vaughan] were in. At that point, he brought on Pieter Strydom, an inexperienced bowler, and a couple of boundaries off him kept the game open. …