England in Sri Lanka – 24th November 2018

Michael Atherton is one of the best people on the cricket ‘circuit’. What you see and hear is not, actually, all you get if you are fortunate enough to share a work space with him. The dry wit and mirth which characterise his commentary, and the insight which makes his newspaper copy so different, is all there in ‘real’ life – but the dimension which the public may miss is his willingness to ask for different perspectives and learn.

He was sitting quietly in the commentary box between stints, intermittently typing on his (literally) laptop and watching proceedings when England’s batsmen signaled furiously for the 12th and 13th men to run on with drinks for the second time in the space of 30 minutes. Obviously, it was stinking hot and the humidity was gasping.

“Surely it’s part of the challenge of Test cricket to bat in these conditions,” he asked. “The playing conditions stipulate that there will be drinks breaks every hour. So you know that as a batsman, and you accept the conditions. Don’t you?”

Athers looked up to see that he had been talking to the man employed to make tea and keep the commentary box clean. It made no difference: “What do you think?” asked Athers.

Jonny Bairstow was. Of course, the story of the day. His century was followed by a guttural roar heard around the entire ground. The England fans loved it. Standing ovation, even from those comfortably melting into their beanbags in front of the giant main scoreboard.

Bairstow is clearly a complex character and confirmed it with a peculiar and sad interview after the days play in which he spoke of the ‘difficulties’ of coming back into the team following his self-induced injury in the ODI series and the ‘harsh and personal’ things which had been said and written about him. Nobody else was able to identify when and where these things had been said or written. It was strange.

Still, it was a day on which, hopefully, he will be able to reflect with great pride for many years to come. Yet again, he was presented with a new challenge and rose to it, as he has done to all the others. The next, and perhaps most important one, will be the realisation that the rest of the world isn’t, actually, ganging up on him.


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