My favourite cricket photograph

Walk like an Englishman

Two streets, two photographs that defined Michael Atherton's two tours of the Caribbean as captain

Andrew Miller  |  

Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Disclaimer. This is not actually my favourite cricket photograph. It is, however, a proxy for my favourite cricket photograph: an image that I once knew intimately but which I have not seen for more than quarter of a century. And that in itself is apt, because the era that it depicted has long since vanished too.

The man in the frame of both photos is the same. Mike Atherton's two tours of the Caribbean effectively bookended his five years as England captain from 1993 to 1998, and the snapshot above comes from the second of those trips - a campaign in which his team's crushing defeat in the fourth Test in Guyana, the venue for this candid-camera grab, went a long way towards convincing him to call it quits.

Notwithstanding the soft focus of the child on his bike in the centre of the frame, it's a harsh image - depicting a blurry, stony-faced captain, seemingly lost in thought as he navigates a busy highway in downtown Georgetown. The fence in the foreground adds a forbidding layer of distance to the image too, as if in keeping with the overall direction of travel of English cricket in the late 1990s, as it inched towards the fully professionalised era that the formation of the ECB - in January 1997 - had been designed to usher in.

And nowhere, surely, was cricket's abandonment of its amateur ethos more keenly felt than in the Caribbean. For more than two decades, West Indies defied economics and demographics to produce one of the most awe-inspiring winning machines in all of sporting history. By the mid-1990s, the tears in that team's fabric were visible, but the social contract that bound the disparate nations in its midst remained true, as Atherton's men would discover to their cost in consecutive 3-1 series losses.

But a tour of the Caribbean wasn't simply a matter of taking on the best cricket players in the world. It was a matter of facing down the culture - be it the hooting, hollering fans in the stands with their wit, one-liners and deeply entrenched knowledge, or the terrifying surprises that seemed to spring out of every unassuming corner of the region - has there been a more evocative non-Test cricketer than Nevis' John "The Dentist" Maynard, for instance?

And it was against this backdrop that my favourite cricket photograph was framed. It was an image of a fully kitted-out Atherton, with his back to the camera but with that unmistakable stoop, trudging down St John's High Street in Antigua, en route to a nets session in the early weeks of that 1994 tour. Approaching him on the other side of the pavement is, if I recall correctly, an old lady with her bag of shopping. I'm pretty sure a set of traffic lights completes a picture of bewildering dislocation.

I forget which newspaper it was that printed the image, but it was pinned to my bedroom wall for several years until its sheer dog-earedness got the better of it. And until that day came, it spoke of the compelling accessibility of cricket at this, the highest level that had hitherto existed. It was the sort of scene that any cricketer of any age or ability could imagine himself recreating en route to the local club, but it also formed part of the broader soft-soaping - like the discombobulating tranquillity of the white sands and palm trees - that made a campaign in the Caribbean so beguiling. Within weeks of this image, Atherton would be on his backside in the first Test, in Jamaica, as Courtney Walsh took it upon himself to put England's young leader through his own personal stress test. The man himself would show his mettle, but his team would never be allowed to come close.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket