Like most of life’s offerings, Ashes series contested in Australia come with their positives and negatives. On the one hand, we’ll almost certainly lose. Yet the time difference allows us to quite literally close our eyes to the carnage being wrought Down Under – at least until we check the scorecard in the morning and duly wince. Smith scored how many?
Since the mid-1980s, England have won a single Australian series and a meagre six Test matches beneath those blazing antipodean skies. Half those Tests were dead rubbers that turned, say, 4-0 into 4-1; the sporting equivalent of being beaten to a pulp outside the pub and giving your conqueror the finger as he strides away. The other three came in the triumphant tour of 2010-11: remove that series and we have pocketed precisely zero Tests that matter for the thick end of 40 years. The past two tours ended 5-0 and 4-0. These days, the team can’t even snag the consolation prize.
Ignore the Sky Sports promos: for most England fans, the imminent Ashes series isn’t a reason to kick back on the sofa with a crate of Fosters but rather unplug the broadband, maybe book a trip to the outer Hebrides just to be on the safe side. Not since the 1990s has defeat felt so inevitable.
Ah, the 1990s – a decade in which a core of genuinely very good English cricketers had the misfortune to coincide with an Australian team widely considered the greatest ever, a Murderer’s Row of all-timers. Border, Waugh, the other Waugh (two Waughs always felt overkill), Pointing, Warne, McGrath. These were not men but cricketing terminators. They couldn’t be reasoned with. They didn’t feel pity or remorse or fear. And they absolutely would not stop, ever, until they had racked up 685 and bowled out the Poms for 180 by the close of day three.
Captain, opener and talisman for much of this dark decade was Mike Atherton – a Cambridge-educated Lancastrian who played for his county aged 19, his country at 21 and had national leadership thrust upon him by 25. A teammate at Lancashire famously decorated the young batsman’s locker with the initials FEC – not Future England Captain, as the papers assumed, but rather, well, the E stood for Educated.
Atherton casually mentions the locker in the early pages of his autobiography. Most sporting memoirs are a series of narrative banalities filtered through a ghostwriter. Atherton’s Opening Up is a more sophisticated and introspective affair, the recollections of a man comfortable that he did his bit while possessing the candour to acknowledge that his bit was rarely quite enough.
“I was by no means a great player,” he writes of his career. “My final Test record shows that I was nothing more than a goodTest batsman.” But he could play great innings, such as the monumental 185* against South Africa or his famous duel with the fast bowler Allan Donald, one of the most intense periods of cricket ever contested. “Keep staring at him,” Atherton tells himself as Donald screams abuse following an (incorrect) not out decision, “he’s got to turn away first.”
Battles abound: not merely with opposition bowlers but also various England coaches, the media, and his own body. Most of these battles are ultimately lost: Atherton is rarely allowed to pick his preferred team, his relationship with the media is often hostile and a chronic back condition forces his premature retirement at 33. Only in the twilight of his career, after relinquishing the captaincy, does Atherton enjoy a sustained period of success with the national side, beating the likes of South Africa, West Indies and Pakistan. Never Australia.
Considering the immense personal accomplishments of its author, describing Opening Up as a book about failure feels slightly perverse. It’s a book about many things: leadership, team spirit and its dubious existence, dedication, pressure, the intangible yet painfully measurable difference between the very good and the truly great. What it’s like to face Courtney Walsh on a hostile pitch or share a dressing room with Phil Tufnell.
Yes, Atherton fails in his primary goal of winning back the Ashes. As the man himself notes in the closing pages: “There are few, if any, fairytale endings in sport… the 2001 Ashes proved to be the most one-sided that I played in, and as you will be aware by now, that was quite an achievement.” Yet Atherton comes across as utterly at peace with his career and his life. That is success by any measure.
A Lot Of Hard Yakka: Unlike Atherton, Simon Hughes never played a Test match, let alone captained England. However his reflections on a long career with Middlesex and then Durham must rank among the most entertaining sports books ever written. The old days really were the best.
The Unimprovable Game: Not a book but an article – albeit an article with as much depth, insight and drama as any great novel. Read anything Rob Smyth writes on cricket but his account of the epic World Cup semifinal between Australia and South Africa is peerless (as was the match itself).
What Now? Phil Tufnell might be better known these days as a TV personality but in the 1990s he was a talented spin bowler with a knack for self-destruction. Part Carry On Cricketer, part confessional, his autobiography is at turns hilarious and harrowing.