Former England captain Michael Atherton made the second appearance of his career in Eastbourne last week when he guest lectured at the University of Brighton.
The former England cricket captain turned writer and broadcaster, delivered his lecture in the packed main theatre to students and the public.
Atherton’s first visit to Eastbourne was back at the start of his cricket career when he top-scored for the England Schools under-19 side in a match held at the Saffrons.
And 23 years later, Atherton, now 40-years-of age, produced another cultured knock as he intelligently batted away questions from sport journalism lecturer and host for the evening Rob Steen and also from the audience during an engaging 90 minutes.
In contrast to his style at the crease, Atherton was rarely guarded or defensive and remained on the front foot throughout.
He tackled a host of subjects including his career, favourite sports writing, social media, depression in cricket, the number of South Africans in the current England set-up, a chaotic fixture schedule that incorporates three formats of international cricket, the Olympics and, more humorously for the audience, the fact that England cricketer Kevin Pietersen can be a ‘bit of an arse.’ and Olympic organiser Lord Sebastian Coe was ‘a bit too slick.’
“I was more of an Ovett fan to be honest.” Atherton added.
Of course it was all said in good humour and with a wry smile but you certainly felt he and Pietersen would have had a few interesting conversations had Pietersen been playing during Atherton’s tenure.
The Cambridge history graduate made his debut for England in 1989 and took over the captaincy after Graham Gooch resigned following another defeat to Australia.
He made 115 Test appearances and amassed 7,728 runs for his country and captained the side on more occasions than any other player.
England enjoyed sporadic success during that period and were beaten regularly by the Australians, West Indies and the Pakistanis who were the forces of world cricket in that era.
The structure of English game was different and it was a time long before central contracts and huge money from TV broadcasting rights helped turn England into the number- one side they are today.
In the Atherton years the England team budget could be around £300,000 now it’s upwards of £30 million.
The right-handed opener was renowned for his ultra-focused and defensive style of play and his finest performances came when his 185 not out in 643 minutes salvaged an unlikely a draw against South Africa. An innings that included an intense onslaught from feared pace bowler Allan Donald in front of 40,000 hostile South Africans at the Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg 1998.
Atherton said, “You don’t think about it at the time. I owed the team one as I won the toss in that Test and made the wrong decision.”
The Lancastrian made his last appearance for England in 2001 against Australia and said he was happy to move on from his life as a cricketer -partly due to a ‘knackered back.’ - not helped by all those hours bending over at the crease - but mainly because he felt he achieved all he could from the game.
Next came a common dilemma for many retired ex-professionals, what the hell do I do now?
He was inspired to pursue a career in the media after meeting a newspaper editor in South America. Atherton said he was fascinated with the role newspapers and the media can play in countries where a free press cannot be taken for granted.
He began his journalism career with the Sunday Telegraph before he replaced the late Christopher Martin Jenkins as The Times cricket corespondent in 2008. He also makes up part of the cricket commentary team for Sky TV.
His autobiography, Opening Up was produced in 2002 and as ‘someone who likes a flutter’ he wrote a book on gambling called A Story of Triumph and Disaster.
He was awarded Sport Journalist of the Year at the British Press awards in 2010.
It was described as a unanimous decision and perhaps for Atherton, not that he would admit it, gave a polite two-fingered vindication to reporters who bemoan the invasion of ex-sport pros into their profession.
Atherton has witnessed the media from both sides. During his playing days he had a sometimes strained relationship with the press.
He defended this and claimed he, more often than not, made himself available for interview but admitted the media’s desperate need for a quote was, and still is, a source of irritation. “It’s strange, newspapers will send a reporter to India and if Pietersen scores a century all they will want is a small quote.”
Social media has also exploded during his time in the press box and admits journalists are forced to spin many plates at once with the need for Twitter updates, Live Coverage, web coverage and the print edition.
Atherton, a reluctant tweeter, added, “You have to wonder if you can watch the event. When you look around most have their heads down on the smartphone or in the laptop.”
It was hard not to be engaged by the evening and Atherton provided an insight into the sometimes bizarre relationship between professional sport, the media and corporate finance.
The lecture came after a tremendous year of sport in Great Britain. His personal favourites were the European Golf team’s Ryder Cup triumph in America and Mo Farah’s double Olympic Gold at London 2012.
The achievements at the Games were clearly remarkable and, as a sporting spectacle, a huge triumph for the country.
However he remained undecided if the billions used to host the event was the wisest use of the country’s money - Perhaps he would have enjoyed the Olympics more had Steve Ovett organised them!
Atherton did however finish the evening with reason for optimism and believes England will retain the Ashes in 2013 in Australia.
“Our best players such as Cook and Anderson are at the peak of their careers.
“If I was a betting man, and I am, I would fancy England.”