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Michael Atherton is interviewed on this week’s PCB Podcast

Michael Atherton
Michael Atherton
©Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Michael Atherton is one of the most respected and decorated England cricketers who played 115 Tests and 54 ODIs from 1989 to 2001. He now enjoys a successful career as a broadcaster with Sky Sports and a journalist with The Times as their chief cricket correspondent.

Atherton visited Pakistan early last month, before the Covid-19 outbreak forced the postponement of the HBL Pakistan Super League, to work on a documentary on the revival of cricket in Pakistan, which is likely to be aired as part of the Pakistan team’s build-up for the summer tour of England.

The PCB digital caught up with him for its podcast show and discussed a wide-range of topics, including his relationship with Pakistan cricket, the evolution of new media and his journey from being a cricketer to replacing Christopher Martin-Jenkins at The Times in 2008.

 

 

Q. England and Pakistan now enjoy a very special relationship. Prior to the 1996 Pakistan tour of England, in which you and Wasim Akram led the respective sides, Pakistan were subject to harsh welcomes but things turned upside down after that series. Was it because of your Lancashire connection with Wasim?

 

Michael Atherton: I think the Lancashire connection helped. Wasim came to Lancashire in about 1987-88 which was about the time that I started at Lancashire as well. I was at University for three years between 87 and 89, but I came back halfway through the summer to play.

 I got to know Wasim really well. We played together at Old Trafford for ten years or so. I wanted to win for England and he wanted to win for Pakistan, but cricket was hard for as it would always be. There was no sense of it carrying over to anything other than friendship off the field.

 Pakistan were a very good team and they beat us convincingly with a two-nil margin. But the relationships between the players were cordial.

 I cannot say it was completely down to me and Wasim, but I think it helped that we knew each other well and we had played together at the Old Trafford for a long time.

 

 Q. You follow Pakistan cricket very closely. Do you subscribe to the view that Pakistan’s progression in international cricket has been affected because they have not been able to play cricket at home?

Michael Atherton: It’s of great sadness that international cricket left Pakistan for the best part of seven or eight years after that attack in 2009. It could not have been easy from all kinds of perspectives to play in the UAE.

Players played in front of empty grounds and were constantly away from home. Which other team has had to play virtually 12 months a year on the road? The financial cost for the PCB must have been significant over that period.

Given all those disadvantages for Pakistan to remain competitive and for the game still to be widely followed here in Pakistan says a lot about the depth of feeling for the game here in this country.

It is great to see cricket come back now.

Q. The HBL Pakistan Super League was launched in 2016 and this was the first time it was held from A to Z in Pakistan. What impact is this season going to have on Pakistan cricket?

Michael Atherton: Well, you only have to look around: the crowds, enthusiasm and packed houses for every game.

Importantly, all these foreign players will now know that it is safe here and they will be able to take that message to the players from their own countries.

I was in a café at the Pearl Continental last night (8 March) and there were about eight to nine English players like Moeen Ali, Ravi Bopara, Tom Banton, Lewis Gregory, Liam Dawson and they were all saying how much they’ve enjoyed the competition, the tournament’s standard has been great and they feel perfectly safe here.

So, this message will get passed back and that will encourage more and more players and teams to come.

 

Q. What makes Pakistan a different and an interesting team to watch?

 Michael Atherton: When I played against them, they had some great bowlers in particular. The last attack that I played against on my tour here of 2000, they had Wasim and Waqar [Younis] then Mushtaq [Ahmed] and Saqlain [Mushtaq]. Now you have got four great match-winning bowlers there.

Pakistan, of course, have produced great batsmen, but I think in recent times, the strength and depth of their bowling and particularly the kind of wicket-taking bowlers - pace bowlers and mystery spinners - have set them apart.

I don’t know why Pakistan particularly produces great bowlers. I suspect it has something to do with the relative lack of infrastructure. In order to produce lots and lots of great batsmen, you've got to have facilities and infrastructure and coaches and a very formal system, but I think bowlers can spring and emerge from anywhere and that's probably why Pakistan produce so many.

 

Q. Pakistan return to England this summer. How are you looking forward to that series?

Michael Atherton: It should be terrific. It's a big summer for England. It won't be as big as the last summer because that was the World Cup and the Ashes, which are always slightly different.

But, this year, we've got Pakistan and West Indies coming. Pakistan have a very good record against England in recent years in England.

They're always a valuable team to come and they get good support from the crowds. The cricket should be good and highly competitive.

 We're looking forward to seeing Pakistan in England this summer.

 

Q. And are there certain individuals that you have earmarked in the Pakistan side you will be looking forward to?

Michael Atherton: Babar Azam looks a fabulous player to me. He looks so skilful and the game looks so easy to him at times. I am very much looking forward to watching him play.

It is a challenge for players when they come from the subcontinent to England. The last two, three years conditions, in England, have been extreme actually: the Duke's ball and the floodlights and, you know, the way the ball has moved around, so it's going to be a challenge for all Pakistan's batsmen, but I think they will be up to it.

 

Q. Your first visit to Pakistan as a cricketer was in the 1996 World Cup. Then you returned with Nasser Hussain’s side in 2000 and since then you have been a frequent visitor to Pakistan. What has brought you to Pakistan so often?

Michael Atherton: I actually didn't come back from when I toured in 2000 and then the next time I came was about 2014-15, I came back to do a series on Imran Khan before he was Prime Minister.

We went to Islamabad and spent a little bit of time on the road with him up in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the north, then in Kashmir and then we did a big long sit down interview with him at his house.

We talked about his political aspirations and you know his hopes and dreams of becoming Prime Minister and we did a long, long sit down with him for about an hour and a half and his final words to me were “One day I am gonna win” and he has won obviously.

 

Q. You are one of the most respected voices in cricket. I want to understand how this transition has been from being a cricketer to now a commentator and a journalist?

Michael Atherton: I have been at it for a while since I retired in 2002 [2001]. So, I've been doing it for almost as long, if not longer, than I played.

 I've been lucky with the people that I've worked with at Sky in England, we continue to, you know, cover the game well and have the resources to do it and they allow us to come to places like Pakistan and do these documentaries whether it's on Imran or the return of cricket here.

It is not just about the cricket. They allow us to tell the stories around the cricket, which is great.

I love doing all that and then I'm looking on the writing side of it. I write for The Times, which is great newspaper in England.

I have been lucky with the people that I work with. I enjoy the job. I enjoy watching cricket, talking to cricketers and telling stories about cricket.

You have to enjoy, you have to love the game because there's a lot of it. And, if you don't, it's going to get pretty dull, so you have got to love it and I still do.

 

 Q. Is it easy to sit behind the keyboard and criticize teams and their players?

Michael Atherton: It is not easy and I do not feel it is my job to criticize.

I think it is your job to speak honestly and truthfully. You still need to empathize with the players, remember how tough and difficult the game is.

Occasionally, you do have to criticize and there is no way around it. But, I think if you're fair and the players know that you have no axe to grind and that you're being fair-minded then I think that's fine.

 

Q. How do you keep yourself positive when your team is not performing up to the expectations?

Michael Atherton: Well, I don't really regard myself as having a team. I mean, I'm English obviously and I want England to win.

But, essentially when I've got the microphone in my hand, I regard myself as a neutral commentator because even in England if you are commentating on England, you'll know that there are many fans watching who'll be supporting Pakistan and there will be many fans watching who will be Indian or whatever nationality it is.

 So, I think it is important to maintain a bit of neutrality that's maybe an old-fashioned view. I still think it's quite important to do that as a broadcaster. So I never use the word “we” and always speak neutrally as a commentator.

 

Q. How do you rate and treat traditional media versus the new media and what is your preference?

Michael Atherton: It is all rolled into one now in the sense we still commentate on the game as we always have.

I will still write a thousand words on a game as I always have but obviously we are aware now that social media is very important. I have a Twitter account and a following, but I am not avidly on Twitter all the time.

I try and stay a little removed from it. But you know around cricket and the coverage we will do short clips. We do two or three minute pieces. We're aware that this generation wants shorter clips on social media, and that's how the game is followed.

So you have to be aware of all kinds of media and you have to try and be adept to bringing it all together and doing both sides of it.

 

Q. It seems like it is becoming very important that at one hand you're writing a thousand words for your newspaper, but then you also have to write within 240 characters for Twitter. When we see your social media posts, they are very measured and, of course, that is not the case when we look across to the other accounts. Why is that?

Michael Atherton: I just made a conscious decision. Before you get involved on social media, you have to think and say to yourself, what you are trying to get out of it.

I try to stay fairly rational on there because it's not always a rational place. Of course, other people use it differently and they will use it to create controversy and drive followers to them or try and get as many clicks as possible.

But, it's just not how I do it and I've kind of made that decision and I'm going to stick with it for a while.

I am not saying it's the right thing to do and I'm not telling other people how to do it. I'm comfortable and happy with the route I have chosen for myself.

 

Q. Are you happy with how the game is being covered digitally?

Michael Atherton: Yeah! I think the game is covered fantastically well now.

I worked on the recent World Cup which I thought was fabulous both the way the game was covered in its traditional sense and then the three or four minute clips that the broadcaster would put out which had a huge following.

I think the coverage of the World Cup this summer was fabulous. I mean it was a great game to complete that tournament and that always helps when the cricket is so good. But I think the coverage of it now is fantastic.

 

Q. Do you feel sorry for the players when they are subject to harsh criticism on the social media and do you think that the players should respond or should not respond in that situation?

Michael Atherton: I think it is harder for players now than I played.

There was no social media when I played. Of course, you still had criticism from commentators and journalists and maybe the tabloid media was a bit stronger in England then than it is now.

The social media interest didn't exist then and I think it is tougher for young players now as it is very hard to get away from social media.

The players are encouraged to be on social media for all kinds of reasons: for personal sponsorships and general availability.

But that level of vitriol and criticism is quite tough to deal with particularly if you are young.

I was thinking of some of the young England cricketers. I saw some of the Under 19s this winter in South Africa, who got dumped out of the tournament at an early stage and took a fair bit of criticism on social media. At 19, that is quite hard to deal with, but it is a fact of life.

It is one of those things that you have to find a way of dealing with. You can either say to yourself, ‘Well, I am not going to engage with it by not reading the papers’. But, in the end, usually these things get to you somehow.

 People will make you aware of what is been said or what is been written. It is tricky and difficult. You just have to find a way of coping.

 

Q. Do you think that social media has taken away the privacy of the players?

Michael Atherton: That is how life has gone a bit.

People are much more open than perhaps they were in my generation. Today, in fact, there is an eight-part Amazon Prime documentary series on the Australia cricket team where the cameras have been in the dressing room. They have been in every team meeting and I think the filmmakers had 2,600 hours of footage there and that's just outside of the cricket.

People are much more open than they were and with that come advantages: you get to see people as they really are and you get a great deal of authenticity about it.

But that lack of privacy can be tricky and difficult. Players need to feel that they have somewhere in a cricket ground where they can let off steam, without the cameras prying.

I would be wary about cameras in the dressing room all the time if I was playing.

 

Q. What is your advice to the current and future generations of cricket correspondents?

Michael Atherton: Love the game. Enjoy the game. Tell good stories.

I still think it is about good storytelling. I know statistics and technique and all those kind of things are important and are very much at the heart of the modern landscape. But I think telling good stories is still at the heart of what journalists, broadcasters, documentary-makers and commentators, whatever tell good stories about a great game.

Michael Atherton is one of the most respected and decorated England cricketers who played 115 Tests and 54 ODIs from 1989 to 2001. He now enjoys a successful career as a broadcaster with Sky Sports and a journalist with The Times as their chief cricket correspondent.

Atherton visited Pakistan early last month, before the Covid-19 outbreak forced the postponement of the HBL Pakistan Super League, to work on a documentary on the revival of cricket in Pakistan, which is likely to be aired as part of the Pakistan team’s build-up for the summer tour of England.

The PCB digital caught up with him for its podcast show and discussed a wide-range of topics, including his relationship with Pakistan cricket, the evolution of new media and his journey from being a cricketer to replacing Christopher Martin-Jenkins at The Times in 2008.

 

Q. England and Pakistan now enjoy a very special relationship. Prior to the 1996 Pakistan tour of England, in which you and Wasim Akram led the respective sides, Pakistan were subject to harsh welcomes but things turned upside down after that series. Was it because of your Lancashire connection with Wasim?

Michael Atherton: I think the Lancashire connection helped. Wasim came to Lancashire in about 1987-88 which was about the time that I started at Lancashire as well. I was at University for three years between 87 and 89, but I came back halfway through the summer to play.

I got to know Wasim really well. We played together at Old Trafford for ten years or so. I wanted to win for England and he wanted to win for Pakistan, but cricket was hard for as it would always be. There was no sense of it carrying over to anything other than friendship off the field.

Pakistan were a very good team and they beat us convincingly with a two-nil margin. But the relationships between the players were cordial.

I cannot say it was completely down to me and Wasim, but I think it helped that we knew each other well and we had played together at the Old Trafford for a long time.

 

Q. You follow Pakistan cricket very closely. Do you subscribe to the view that Pakistan’s progression in international cricket has been affected because they have not been able to play cricket at home?

Michael Atherton: It’s of great sadness that international cricket left Pakistan for the best part of seven or eight years after that attack in 2009. It could not have been easy from all kinds of perspectives to play in the UAE.

Players played in front of empty grounds and were constantly away from home. Which other team has had to play virtually 12 months a year on the road? The financial cost for the PCB must have been significant over that period.

Given all those disadvantages for Pakistan to remain competitive and for the game still to be widely followed here in Pakistan says a lot about the depth of feeling for the game here in this country.

 It is great to see cricket come back now.

 

Q. The HBL Pakistan Super League was launched in 2016 and this was the first time it was held from A to Z in Pakistan. What impact is this season going to have on Pakistan cricket?

Michael Atherton: Well, you only have to look around: the crowds, enthusiasm and packed houses for every game.

Importantly, all these foreign players will now know that it is safe here and they will be able to take that message to the players from their own countries.

I was in a café at the Pearl Continental last night (8 March) and there were about eight to nine English players like Moeen Ali, Ravi Bopara, Tom Banton, Lewis Gregory, Liam Dawson and they were all saying how much they’ve enjoyed the competition, the tournament’s standard has been great and they feel perfectly safe here.

So, this message will get passed back and that will encourage more and more players and teams to come.

 

Q. What makes Pakistan a different and an interesting team to watch?

Michael Atherton: When I played against them, they had some great bowlers in particular. The last attack that I played against on my tour here of 2000, they had Wasim and Waqar [Younis] then Mushtaq [Ahmed] and Saqlain [Mushtaq]. Now you have got four great match-winning bowlers there.

Pakistan, of course, have produced great batsmen, but I think in recent times, the strength and depth of their bowling and particularly the kind of wicket-taking bowlers - pace bowlers and mystery spinners - have set them apart.

I don’t know why Pakistan particularly produces great bowlers. I suspect it has something to do with the relative lack of infrastructure. In order to produce lots and lots of great batsmen, you've got to have facilities and infrastructure and coaches and a very formal system, but I think bowlers can spring and emerge from anywhere and that's probably why Pakistan produce so many.

 

Q. Pakistan return to England this summer. How are you looking forward to that series?

 Michael Atherton: It should be terrific. It's a big summer for England. It won't be as big as the last summer because that was the World Cup and the Ashes, which are always slightly different.

 But, this year, we've got Pakistan and West Indies coming. Pakistan have a very good record against England in recent years in England.

 They're always a valuable team to come and they get good support from the crowds. The cricket should be good and highly competitive.

 We're looking forward to seeing Pakistan in England this summer.

 

Q. And are there certain individuals that you have earmarked in the Pakistan side you will be looking forward to?

 Michael Atherton: Babar Azam looks a fabulous player to me. He looks so skilful and the game looks so easy to him at times. I am very much looking forward to watching him play.

It is a challenge for players when they come from the subcontinent to England. The last two, three years conditions, in England, have been extreme actually: the Duke's ball and the floodlights and, you know, the way the ball has moved around, so it's going to be a challenge for all Pakistan's batsmen, but I think they will be up to it.

 

Q. Your first visit to Pakistan as a cricketer was in the 1996 World Cup. Then you returned with Nasser Hussain’s side in 2000 and since then you have been a frequent visitor to Pakistan. What has brought you to Pakistan so often?

Michael Atherton: I actually didn't come back from when I toured in 2000 and then the next time I came was about 2014-15, I came back to do a series on Imran Khan before he was Prime Minister.

We went to Islamabad and spent a little bit of time on the road with him up in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the north, then in Kashmir and then we did a big long sit down interview with him at his house.

We talked about his political aspirations and you know his hopes and dreams of becoming Prime Minister and we did a long, long sit down with him for about an hour and a half and his final words to me were “One day I am gonna win” and he has won obviously.

 

Q. You are one of the most respected voices in cricket. I want to understand how this transition has been from being a cricketer to now a commentator and a journalist?

 Michael Atherton: I have been at it for a while since I retired in 2002 [2001]. So, I've been doing it for almost as long, if not longer, than I played.

I've been lucky with the people that I've worked with at Sky in England, we continue to, you know, cover the game well and have the resources to do it and they allow us to come to places like Pakistan and do these documentaries whether it's on Imran or the return of cricket here.

It is not just about the cricket. They allow us to tell the stories around the cricket, which is great.

I love doing all that and then I'm looking on the writing side of it. I write for The Times, which is great newspaper in England. 

I have been lucky with the people that I work with. I enjoy the job. I enjoy watching cricket, talking to cricketers and telling stories about cricket.

 You have to enjoy, you have to love the game because there's a lot of it. And, if you don't, it's going to get pretty dull, so you have got to love it and I still do.

 

Q. Is it easy to sit behind the keyboard and criticize teams and their players?

 Michael Atherton: It is not easy and I do not feel it is my job to criticize.

 I think it is your job to speak honestly and truthfully. You still need to empathize with the players, remember how tough and difficult the game is.

 Occasionally, you do have to criticize and there is no way around it. But, I think if you're fair and the players know that you have no axe to grind and that you're being fair-minded then I think that's fine.

 

Q. How do you keep yourself positive when your team is not performing up to the expectations?

Michael Atherton: Well, I don't really regard myself as having a team. I mean, I'm English obviously and I want England to win.

But, essentially when I've got the microphone in my hand, I regard myself as a neutral commentator because even in England if you are commentating on England, you'll know that there are many fans watching who'll be supporting Pakistan and there will be many fans watching who will be Indian or whatever nationality it is.

So, I think it is important to maintain a bit of neutrality that's maybe an old-fashioned view. I still think it's quite important to do that as a broadcaster. So I never use the word “we” and always speak neutrally as a commentator.

 

Q. How do you rate and treat traditional media versus the new media and what is your preference?

Michael Atherton: It is all rolled into one now in the sense we still commentate on the game as we always have.

I will still write a thousand words on a game as I always have but obviously we are aware now that social media is very important. I have a Twitter account and a following, but I am not avidly on Twitter all the time.

I try and stay a little removed from it. But you know around cricket and the coverage we will do short clips. We do two or three minute pieces. We're aware that this generation wants shorter clips on social media, and that's how the game is followed.

So you have to be aware of all kinds of media and you have to try and be adept to bringing it all together and doing both sides of it.

 

Q. It seems like it is becoming very important that at one hand you're writing a thousand words for your newspaper, but then you also have to write within 240 characters for Twitter. When we see your social media posts, they are very measured and, of course, that is not the case when we look across to the other accounts. Why is that?

Michael Atherton: I just made a conscious decision. Before you get involved on social media, you have to think and say to yourself, what you are trying to get out of it.

I try to stay fairly rational on there because it's not always a rational place. Of course, other people use it differently and they will use it to create controversy and drive followers to them or try and get as many clicks as possible.

But, it's just not how I do it and I've kind of made that decision and I'm going to stick with it for a while.

I am not saying it's the right thing to do and I'm not telling other people how to do it. I'm comfortable and happy with the route I have chosen for myself.

 

Q. Are you happy with how the game is being covered digitally?

Michael Atherton: Yeah! I think the game is covered fantastically well now.

I worked on the recent World Cup which I thought was fabulous both the way the game was covered in its traditional sense and then the three or four minute clips that the broadcaster would put out which had a huge following.

I think the coverage of the World Cup this summer was fabulous. I mean it was a great game to complete that tournament and that always helps when the cricket is so good. But I think the coverage of it now is fantastic.

 

Q. Do you feel sorry for the players when they are subject to harsh criticism on the social media and do you think that the players should respond or should not respond in that situation?

Michael Atherton: I think it is harder for players now than I played.

There was no social media when I played. Of course, you still had criticism from commentators and journalists and maybe the tabloid media was a bit stronger in England then than it is now.

The social media interest didn't exist then and I think it is tougher for young players now as it is very hard to get away from social media.

The players are encouraged to be on social media for all kinds of reasons: for personal sponsorships and general availability.

But that level of vitriol and criticism is quite tough to deal with particularly if you are young.

I was thinking of some of the young England cricketers. I saw some of the Under 19s this winter in South Africa, who got dumped out of the tournament at an early stage and took a fair bit of criticism on social media. At 19, that is quite hard to deal with, but it is a fact of life.

It is one of those things that you have to find a way of dealing with. You can either say to yourself, ‘Well, I am not going to engage with it by not reading the papers’. But, in the end, usually these things get to you somehow.

People will make you aware of what is been said or what is been written. It is tricky and difficult. You just have to find a way of coping.

 

Q. Do you think that social media has taken away the privacy of the players?

Michael Atherton: That is how life has gone a bit.

People are much more open than perhaps they were in my generation. Today, in fact, there is an eight-part Amazon Prime documentary series on the Australia cricket team where the cameras have been in the dressing room. They have been in every team meeting and I think the filmmakers had 2,600 hours of footage there and that's just outside of the cricket.

People are much more open than they were and with that come advantages: you get to see people as they really are and you get a great deal of authenticity about it.

But that lack of privacy can be tricky and difficult. Players need to feel that they have somewhere in a cricket ground where they can let off steam, without the cameras prying.

I would be wary about cameras in the dressing room all the time if I was playing.

 

Q. What is your advice to the current and future generations of cricket correspondents?

 Michael Atherton: Love the game. Enjoy the game. Tell good stories.

 I still think it is about good storytelling. I know statistics and technique and all those kind of things are important and are very much at the heart of the modern landscape. But I think telling good stories is still at the heart of what journalists, broadcasters, documentary-makers and commentators, whatever tell good stories about a great game.