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Atherton: 'Warne was the most outstanding'

Tony Becca, Contributing Editor

Australia's Shane Warne celebrates bowling England's Andrew Strauss to secure his 700th test wicket on the first day of their fourth Ashes cricket Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on December 26, 2006.

Michael Andrew Atherton, OBE, otherwise known as 'Mike', served as England's captain for a record 54 times. As an opening batsman, he scored 16 centuries, including four against the West Indies.

He is now an outstanding writer and commentator, he is married to a daughter of Guyana, he has a holiday home in Barbados and today he talks to former Senior Sports Editor, Tony Becca, on some interesting topics, including what is the greatest innings he ever played, who, in his opinion, is the greatest bowler he ever faced, his memories of that afternoon in Port-of-Spain when his England team was routed for 46 runs, what is the future of Test cricket and who should be the boss - the coach or the captain?

TB: During a career lasting 12 years, during which you played in 115 Test matches and scored 7,728 runs, with 16 centuries, which is the greatest innings you have ever played?

MA: Well, I suppose it was my 185 not out against South Africa in Johannesburg in 1995. Most players, I suppose, even the great ones like Brian Lara, have an innings that they remember and for me that was in Johannesburg in 1995. I suppose every player has one innings that characterises him, that people will remember him for. I was a player who tried to get everything out of what I had and that innings, against (Alan) Donald and (Shaun) Pollock brought everything out of me. (Set 479 to win, England ended up at 351 for five with Atherton, who stroked 29 boundaries, batting undefeated for 643 minutes while facing 492 deliveries).

The innings I remember most, however, was in a one-day game. I had a reputation of being a slow batsman and on that day, in 1995, I scored a century - and against the West Indies at that.

Who was the greatest bowler you have ever faced?

Shane Warne was, in my mind, the outstanding cricketer of my generation. He mastered the very difficult art of leg-spin bowling, right-arm leg-spin that is, and I believe, based on what he did with the ball, he is the greatest spin bowler that ever lived. I remember the Ashes series in 2005, how brilliantly he bowled. As a great player, he rose to the occasion while some others who were regarded as great players, their performances went down a notch. You knew, whenever you scored runs against him, that you had to be at the top of the game. Apart from his skills, he worked batsmen out. He was a master. He was he a clever bowler, he was a great cricketer. On top of that, he knew the game. In fact, I believe he would have made a great captain.

That's fine, but who was the greatest fast bowler of your time?

Well, I played against some of the very best. I played in an era when some of the best, the very best, were around. In fact, some may say that I was unfortunate to have played in that era, because, according to them, I may have got a few more runs. In that era, there were the likes of Waqar (Younis) and Wasim (Akram) of Pakistan, Curtly (Ambrose), Courtney (Walsh) of the West Indies, (Alan) Donald and Pollock (Shaun) of South Africa, and apart from (Jason) Gillespie of Australia, there was, of course, also (Glenn) McGrath who, as you will remember, got me out a few times.

The best two, I felt, because of their all-round ability, were Waqar and Wasim, because they bowled brilliantly with the new ball and because they bowled brilliantly with the old ball.

Curtly and Courtney were fast, they were accurate and they were difficult to bat against; but I believe, generally, that Waqar and Wasim were the best of the lot, the best of my time.

In your first match, batting at number three against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1989, you failed to score. Apart from that, what is your most disappointing moment in Test cricket?

Well, from memory, that must be the third Test against the West Indies at Queen's Park Oval in 1994 when we were dismissed for 46 runs - one short of our lowest total ever. We led the West Indies on first innings, we were going well until we dropped Shiv (Chanderpaul) a couple times in the second innings. We ended up needing 194 to win, we looked like we were going to win the game and suddenly it was all over. What you need to remember is that we had only about an hour to bat and apart from that putting some pressure on us, it probably inspired the West Indies, and especially Curtley, to come at us.

Had there been three hours left, instead of one hour, Curtley may not have been so devastating.

The pitch was fine, but it was still a pitch that was worn and so there were three things against us - a wearing pitch, an hour to survive and Curtly storming in. At one stage we were winning the match, suddenly we were on the back end of things and then we were losing it. So those three things just went against us. Curtley must have bowled as well when he took seven for one in a spell in Perth, but he could hardly have bowled better than he did on that afternoon. He was deadly. I was out first ball of the innings, there was a run out, we were one for two, we were five for three, we were in a slide and we never got out of it.

Test cricket, one-day cricket and Twenty20 - do you believe they will all survive?

Well, I think there is a place for all forms of the game. Like you, I love Test cricket, but I believe that the people will decide. I do not believe that you can force people to watch one form of the game over another form of the game, and that, over time, more people will want to watch Twenty20 cricket because of the convenience of it. It fits more conveniently into their lives, it fits into their daily schedule and that is why cricket officials have to be careful how they schedule the game. If they want to protect the game, to protect Test cricket, they will have to make sure that Twenty20 cricket is not dominant.

There is no question that Twenty20 cricket is important to the game. It is the perfect vehicle to breathe new life into the game.

In England, County cricket was in trouble, Twenty20 cricket came along and suddenly people came into grounds. Attendance at cricket matches shot up and that is what Twenty20 cricket is about. It is about providing excitement over a short period of time and that is great for domestic cricket.

Now that it is international, now that it has been so successful on the international scene, you got to be careful - you got to be careful that it does not destroy the other forms of the game. That is the danger of Twenty20 cricket. You have to make sure that Twenty20 cricket has its place. What you do not want is for Twenty20 cricket to dominate the game. What you do not want is for players to decide, to be forced to decide, whether they should represent their country in a Test match or go off somewhere and play Twenty20 cricket.

The way things are going, however, Twenty20 cricket is here to stay, Test cricket, one-day and Twenty20 cricket will have to live together and I believe that sooner or later there will have to be a window - not for Test cricket, not so much for one-day, but for Twenty20 cricket.

Test cricket is the real test of a player's ability, but Twenty20 seems to be the cricket of today - the cricket where the real money is. In the end, the people will decide.

What about you, would you have preferred to be a great cricketer, or a rich cricketer?

Like most of the players, obviously, I would prefer to play Test cricket and Twenty20 as well (he answered with a smile). I would prefer to be great and to be rich. I would love to play Test cricket where I can parade my skills and I would love to play Twenty20 where I can make more money. That's why the window system is important. You have to make it as easy as possible for the players to play all forms of the game so that they can parade their skills and earn as much as possible.

Captain or coach, who should be the top man?

I don't think cricket has quite come to terms with where the power does lie, between the captain and the coach, and I think that is the problem. I think that was the problem in England recently. In modern sport, where there are so many things that go on in and around the game, I think England, for example, have a band of 30 or 40 people here and it is difficult for a captain to control all that while he is trying to keep his own game in order and sort out the rest of his team as well.

I mean, there is so much is going on around him, the media, television, that the captain needs help. The nature of that help is what needs to be sorted out. What should happen, what I would have liked as a captain, is that I would be in charge in the dressing room or when the team goes on to the field, for things like preparation and other things like that, and a manager-type person to coordinate things and help you out, to take the pressure off the captain and leave him to concentrate on the cricket and things relating to what happens on the field.

But certainly the captain needs to concentrate on what happens on the field because it is a peculiar game. It is not football, where decisions are made off the field. Cricket is a game where the captain makes decisions on the field so he has to be in charge.

You are married to a Guyanese, you have a house in Barbados and you visit the Caribbean every year. What is it about the Caribbean that is so attractive to you?

Well, I met my wife in London, not in the Caribbean. I have been to the West Indies a number of times, starting in 1994. I love the climate in the Caribbean, it is sunny, nice and warm. As far as I'm concerned, the Caribbean people, unlike their fast bowlers, are friendly, very open and warm and, because of that, because of the snow in London, along with my wife and two children, I spend three or so months a year in the Caribbean.

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