Atherton impressed by India's treatment of U-19 cricketers

“I’m optimistic by nature,” former England captain Michael Atherton says. “I think it’s a great game, there’s a huge demand to watch it and see it so I’m not full of gloom at all.”

Atherton is speaking at Old Trafford, the ground where he spent so much of his playing career for both Lancashire and England, about the current state of English cricket. After a poor winter for the Test team and the less than warm reception given to the announcement by the ECB that their new eight-team tournament in 2020 will be in a totally new 100-ball format of the game, things have not been all sweetness and light of late.

Throw in criticisms of the ECB’s corporate governance by former Somerset Chairman Andy Nash as he resigned from the governing body’s Board and accusations of unfair treatment given to those counties which host international cricket, prompted by a payment to Glamorgan for not bidding for international matches, and the optimism which usually surrounds the start of the English season has gone AWOL. Yet Atherton is not too down about things.

“The reaction to the new “Hundred” competition has been pretty downbeat and I don’t think it’s been put out there that well,” he says. “But if you look at the audiences for the game this summer, they’re selling more tickets than any international summer outside an Ashes series, sales for the Blast are up 20 per cent, so I’m not that full of gloom. I think it’s a great game and people have got an appetite to watch it.”

Atherton, who will be part of Sky Sports’ coverage of England’s international summer, has recently been to India, spending some time with Rajasthan Royals in the IPL and seeing the strength of the appetite for the game of cricket in that country. India are, he says, “the powerhouse of the game” and he expects them to be a “force for a long time to come given their greater numbers and the money that flows through the Indian system.”

What particularly struck Atherton were the opportunities given to young Indian cricketers in the IPL compared to the relative scarcity of young English players selected in the early rounds of the County Championship. “There are about half a dozen of the young Indian cricketers from the Under-19 World Cup winning squad who have had an opportunity in the IPL,” he says. “I saw three of them play and the three looked outstanding to me.

“And then I looked at the early rounds of the Championship games here in England and none of their Under-19 cricketers were involved for various reasons. I suspect that India’s players are a bit more ahead of the curve at that same stage which is not to say England don’t have good young cricketers. Clearly we do. But I think India’s are probably a bit ahead of the curve.”

Before India arrive later in the summer for what should be an enthralling five-match rubber, England begin their international summer against Pakistan at Lord’s on Thursday (May 24), the first game in a two-match series. They start as strong favourites in early English season conditions and a victory would be welcome after the travails of the winter’s tours to Australia and New Zealand. “It was a pretty difficult winter and England’s away form for the last two years has not been good,” Atherton says. “They’re not alone in that, it’s quite tough for anybody to win away from home.

“I quite like the look of the team that’s been selected for the first Test against Pakistan. The batting, to me at least, looks to have a better balance of right and left-handers and I suspect they’re going to have a successful start to the summer.”

Jos Buttler’s selection was perhaps the most eye-catching of Ed Smith’s first squad as England’s new National Selector given Buttler has been playing T20 cricket for the Royals in India for the past six weeks. What, however, that says for the primacy of Championship cricket, or for those trying to press their Test claims using it, is anyone’s guess. “Playing in the IPL was never perceived to be an advantage for Test selection but Buttler’s selection shows that it’s not a disadvantage now,” says Atherton.

Despite England’s desire to use a more analytical, data driven approach to selection in the new set-up, the picking of Buttler, first-class average of 31, as a specialist Test batsman is, to put it simply, a hunch based on his fine performances in white-ball cricket. “You can’t ignore numbers,” Atherton says. “Cricket is a numbers game and any batsman worth his salt is going to point to the averages and say that’s why I’m a good player because I am getting runs.

“In modern sport, you have to look beneath the bonnet of the headline numbers and get more of a feel for what the numbers mean. But equally, it’s got to be a balance of cricket judgement otherwise you’d just have a computer picking the teams. There has to be that balance of feel, judgement, instinct allied to reasonable reliance on data and numbers as well. That mix of both art and science is where the good selectors are found.”

Time will tell whether Smith proves to be a good selector for England but he has certainly made a bold start, picking Buttler and Somerset’s 20 year-old offspinner Dom Bess for a likely Test debut when more conservative choices were available. “I’m glad they didn’t go back to Moeen Ali because his limitations as the sole spinner were exposed during the winter,” Atherton adds. “So we will see what Dom Bess brings. It’s a very exciting opportunity for him.”

Whatever the results of the two-series this summer, England’s struggles overseas for the past two years, suffering heavy defeats in India and Australia, drawing in Bangladesh and losing in New Zealand, need addressing. As Atherton says, this is not simply an English problem and the lack of away Test victories has proven to be a difficult puzzle to solve for lots of teams. Perhaps one option could be for England to pick a line-up at home based on the qualities they think they need to prosper overseas?

“You pick the team to beat the team that’s in front of you in the conditions you’re playing in. There’s no point picking a team against Pakistan at home in May, thinking about playing Sri Lanka in Colombo in October,” Atherton says. “When you get there, you can pick a different attack according to the conditions. That’s what selection is about. Clearly the bowlers who will be successful in May against Pakistan are not necessarily going to be the same ones which are successful against Sri Lanka in Colombo. I don’t see anything wrong with horses for courses selections.”

England’s squad for the first Test at Lord’s does, however, give a nod to their failings overseas. It contains some pace in Mark Wood and frontline spin in Bess, qualities which were both missing from their attack during the 4-0 Ashes defeat and which are vitally important in foreign climbs. But for now, it is Pakistan at Lord’s this week which is England’s sole focus as they attempt to put a bleak winter behind them and lighten the gloom.

Sky Sports Cricket is the exclusive home of England Test and ODI cricket this summer, broadcasting live action against Pakistan, Australia, India and all women’s internationals, starting with England v Pakistan on Thursday (May 24)

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