JON CULLEY, of the splendid Sports Bookshelf site, interviews Michael Atherton, the one-time England cricket captain who was the SJA’s Sports Writer of the Year in 2009, about how he made the transition from dressing room to press box
There was a period recently when the cricket correspondents of all four of England’s heavyweight, formerly broadsheet daily newspapers were former England Test players, with another two occupying similarly prominent positions on the Sundays.
As a high-profile figure in the game, having captained England in a record 54 Tests, Atherton offered the added attraction of celebrity as well as insight and his services were always likely to be coveted by newspaper editors.
In those circumstances, he was only too aware that some might doubt his credentials as a journalist and that only made him more determined to show his writing ability justified the column inches those editors were willing to give him.
“I think it is important as a sportsman going into the press box that you do the job as well as you can,“ he said. “You should take it seriously and write your own stuff. I feel it is fraudulent really to have a ghosted piece under your own name.
“From the first piece I did for the Sunday Telegraph in 1993 I’ve written everything that has appeared under my name apart from one piece, when I resigned as England captain, which my colleague Scyld Berry had to help with.”
After 10 years full time in his new identity, nowadays combining his role as cricket correspondent of The Times with broadcasting for Sky Sports, Atherton has a new book – Glorious Summers and Discontents – bringing together the best of his journalistic work.
“The first thing I would say is that I haven’t missed playing,” said. “When I finished playing I was ready to finish and I was quite comfortable with what I had done. There has never been a sense of wanting to be out there.
“And it is a craft of sorts, writing, so you are replacing one craft with another, trying to do it well and improve, which inevitably you do. The more you do it, the better you get, or you should do.
“It is nice now to be in the background a bit more, to watch and observe. It is always better when you have something to say, of course. As you will know, there are times when you sit down and think ‘what the hell am I going to say today?’
“But when you do have something to say it is good to have that platform to write. If a piece comes out nicely it is slightly more lasting than what you might say as a broadcaster.”
Glorious Summers and Discontents represents not only a decade in cricket but 10 years in Atherton’s development as a writer, which has in the last couple of years earned deserved recognition by the Sports Journalists’ Association, who have honoured him with awards for sports columnist, specialist correspondent and sports writer of the year.
If there has been a progression in his work, he believes that it reflects the difference in tone that comes with time out of the game.
“You can see a change, although not so much a different style,” he said. “When you are still playing you are writing about people you know, people you are playing with, people you are playing against, which gives you a certain insight but a lack of distance.
“When you stop playing, and you don’t know the people so well and you are not playing against them, you have that distance and, essentially, you can write what you like.
“You do develop your own style although I wouldn’t say I was a particularly stylised writer. I guess you find what you like writing about and what works for you.”
What does work for Atherton, happily, is the heavy workload he takes on during Test matches in particular of spending much of his day behind the microphone for Sky and yet still tapping out a thousand words or above for The Times.
“The only reason I took The Times job was that it was the year that The Times were moving to new presses so the deadlines were pushed back apart from Fridays, when it is still a bit tight at seven o’clock.
“With the deadlines as they were – that is, seven o’clock every day – I don’t think it I could have done it. Fridays can be hairy but the executive producer at Sky is very good and just gives me one stint after tea.
“The combination actually works quite well. When you are speaking you order your thoughts in your head, which helps when you come to write. When you are writing it keeps you sharper for broadcasting, because you have been to the pre-match press conferences and that sort of thing. The two help each other.”
“I would not say the writing comes easy but as you get more experienced you start to understand that some days you can start writing earlier than others.
“You get to understand the rhythm of a Test match. There are times when you know there is going to be a declaration and the final hour is going to be crucial, so you have to bide your time. But there are other times, say, when Kevin Pietersen has scored a brilliant hundred by four o’clock and you know that is going to be the main part of the piece.”
Troubled continually by back problems, Atherton was a relatively young 33 when he quit playing and his media career will almost certainly exceed the duration of his playing span, although he is not looking far ahead.
“I’ve never been any good at setting a path down and thinking ‘where do I want to be in 10 years time?’ or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t have any ambitions as such beyond just trying to do the job well every day.
“There are times when you think ‘what is this crap going to look like in the paper tomorrow?’ but I think it was Scyld who said to me once that the bad pieces never turn out quite as bad as you fear and the good ones never quite as good as you hope and that’s probably a fair summation of it all.”
- This is the second of two pieces on Atherton published ahead of next week’s first Test match of the summer by the Sports Bookshelf and republished here with permission. To read the other Atherton feature, click here.
- And to order Atherton’s book, click here
For more book reviews and news from the sports publishing business, click here
UPCOMING SJA DATES
Fri May 20: SJA Cricket Day, Whitgift School, South Croydon. Informal get-together at the Surrey v Essex county game. Click here for more details.
Mon Sep 12: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC. Click here for more details and to book yourself in for the day.
Wed Dec 7: SJA 2011 British Sports Awards – note the date in your diary now.
All details subject to alteration. Keep checking sportsjournalists.co.uk for updates