Captain of the national side at 25, and one of the most successful top-flight opening batsmen in the game, the bare facts of Mike Atherton’s career portray him as one of the golden boys of English cricket, but in Opening Up he reflects on a sporting life equally characterised by his struggle to match lofty expectations, and the off-field politicking that tested his resourcefulness to the limit.
From his early days as a university-educated upstart marching into a Lancashire first-team dressing room filled with seasoned pros, to the constant wrangling behind the scenes of the English game, and a rarely harmonious relationship with the press, Atherton has found himself engaged in a constant battle to retain focus on events out in the middle. Even when there, things were far from plain sailing, and he recounts it all with admirable candour, epitomised by the story of his Test debut, where the fresh-faced youngster was given a lesson in professional reality by a senior team-mate: “You play your first [Test] for love, and the rest for money”. Elsewhere, amid the analysis of his time at the helm of an often struggling England side, Atherton highlights a career-long battle with injury and pain suppression, which resulted in what would have been seen in other eras as a very early retirement. At the centre of the book is the infamous ball-tampering row in 1994. Illustrated with extracts from Atherton’s diary of the time, the man at the centre of the huge media storm makes a concerted defence of what many argued was behaviour unworthy of any cricketer, let alone a national captain.
There can be little debate however that Atherton, a broadsheet columnist, can write. His characterisations are deftly drawn, particularly of key figures such as Illingworth, Gooch and Boycott, and there is plenty of pithy humour, some earthy language and an eye for what makes good gossip, to counterbalance what is at heart a refreshingly serious and thoughtful book. Too often sports autobiographies leave readers wishing that a more subtle, expressive and observant author was reporting from the arena–not in this case. Atherton resists the temptation to manufacture controversy, but comments on his own, and other’s achievements, with a laudable sense of perspective. An enjoyable, skillfully worked “knock” from a tenacious and talented cricketer. –Alex Hankin