Interview: Michael Atherton - The Educated Cricketer

Exclusive: In an interview exclusive to TCS Sport, former England cricket captain Michael Atherton talks to Kit Holden about Cambridge, England, and why it's important to think beyond cricket.

The last time Michael Atherton played at Fenners, cricket nearly died. It was the 7th April 2000. The day the Delhi police released tapes of the then South Africa captain Hansie Cronje in conversation with Indian bookmakers over fixed games. The day which kick-started the most high profile match fixing scandal in the history of cricket.

Atherton was playing for Lancashire against Cambridge. The former England Test captain – who is also an alumnus of Downing College – was caught for 8 off 15 balls. A forgettable last innings on a pitch which we graced many times as a Blues batsman. But the match itself was destined to be forgotten. It was the game – cricket itself – which faced disaster that day.

Atherton was at Fenners when the story broke. "I was also writing for The Sunday Telegraph at the time, and I remember Scyld Berry, the cricket correspondent was one of the few who believed that it was genuine. I just remember ringing around and talking to the Telegraph about the story breaking."

Happily, Atherton has fonder memories of Fenners. In his time at Cambridge he played every summer for the Blues. And not just the Blues. As a nineteen year old first year, he was called up to Lancashire for his first season in first class county cricket, and even by the time he hit his first Michaelmas lectures, he was already representing England Youth.

"I used to play straight through from April to July. I played all the county fixtures and all the non county first class fixtures for each of the three years. I'd have a two week break for exams, and then go on tour for exams. I'd play the Varsity Match in July and then go on tour afterwards, which was always fun."

He also got a 2:1. Atherton was at Downing from 1987 to 1989. His history degree, though, was practically a side project as he balanced University, county and youth international cricket throughout his undergraduate career. It was a balancing act which would send most undergraduates running back to the safety of sixth form, but he doesn't recall it being too stressful.

"I missed quite a bit of Lent Term in first and second years when I went to Sri Lanka and Australia with Young England, and the summers were ridiculous, with the amount of cricket I was playing. But you find you organise your time better when you're busy. I used to come back and work during the Easter Holidays as well, but I was studying History, which is quite a nice degree anyway. "

First year historians take heed. You are never permitted to whinge about your work load again.

For the student Atherton, it seems, cricket was life. On his first year cricket bag were allegedly emblazoned the initials F.E.C. Future England Captain. Or perhaps, as Atherton speculates in his autobiography, they stood for a more colourful phrase. But the former England captain values his degree. His was one of the last generations of cricketers whose route into the first class game almost invariably involved university cricket. The burden may have been "ridiculous", but the tradition, Atherton says, is a sad one to have lost.

"There are plenty of cricketers who still go through that route, but there are also many who choose not to, and who probably could go to University – Alastair Cook, for example."

Why? Has professionalism swamped the game to such an extent that not a minute is to be spared when carving your niche as a successful cricketer? Or is University less important for the modern sportsman?

"People perhaps feel they don't want to be wasting three years, not that they actually would be. University opens opportunities, particularly for those who don't know if they're good enough to go into first class cricket."

Cricket has indeed changed. Alastair Cook may not have a degree, but his England side have a lot more resources than Atherton's ever did. The current success of the England team, says Atherton, is down largely to the institutional overhaul which has seen television and sponsorship deals boost the ECB budget to upwards of £30 million. "In our day," Atherton reflects, glumly, "we didn't have two beans to rub together."

With more money and more success, however, comes a higher profile. And with a higher profile come more destructive scandals. The current storm engulfing the England cricket team largely revolves around one man: Kevin Pietersen. The flamboyant batsman has seen himself hurled unceremoniously from the England set up following texts he sent to South African captain Graeme Smith, criticising his then England captain Andrew Strauss. Atherton remains philosophical about the whole saga.

"Without being in the dressing room, it's very difficult to know what's actually been going on. I can't believe that what we've heard in public is the whole story. If it is, the whole situation is ridiculous. There were no text messages when I was England captain, but I'm damn sure team mates of mine were saying things that weren't very pleasant about me."

Atherton's eloquence is striking; the respect he commands as a journalist for The Times and Sky Sports speaks volumes for the talent he has beyond the cricket field. And he relishes his new career as much as he did his previous one.

"I don't dwell on my career too much, on what I did right or wrong. Its ten years since I retired and I feel I'm a different person now. It's important to move on. I'm not naive enough to think that my name hasn't helped me get the job at The Times or Sky, but for me personally, it's important to hone a new craft."

He is certainly a rounded individual, and not just within the bounds of cricket. When the interview is over, Atherton sets off to Chicago to watch the Ryder Cup. F.E.C (Former England Captain) he remains, but there is far more to Michael Atherton than that 185 in Johannesburg.

Kit Holden

Article first published November 2012

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest