Heads must learn to boldly atherton

28th February 1997 at 00:00
There are only three categories of people. There are the irritatingly superior types who watched England's cricketers brilliantly overcome New Zealand on Sky Television, there are the salt of the earth types who stayed up listening on the radio and there are those who make up the rest of the population who will never understand.

Mike Atherton was batting when I went to bed, batting when I woke up and - after a day of work and an evening in - I turned on the radio to find that he was batting still.

I have an ambition that one day I will write a crime thriller called Atherton Bats with a plot as contorted as one of Raymond Chandler's in which all the action takes place during a Mike Atherton innings. It could be a very long book. He has his flaws as a captain. The cares of the world sometimes seem to hang heavily on his shoulders but he has a determined, patient, iron will that takes the breath away. He has turned stubbornness into an art form.

Atherton had a terrible tour of Zimbabwe. His team underperformed. He mismanaged his relations with the media and his own batting fell apart. His will, however, never broke.

When the team arrived in New Zealand, Mike Atherton virtually took up residence in the cricket nets which he shared with a bowling machine. He spent hour after hour after hour there. His team mates couldn't believe that anyone could practice for so long. He knew that one or two flaws had crept into his batting technique and that only through practice could he rectify them.

As Ruud Gullit, the Chelsea manager, said: "What makes the difference in top level sport these days is attention to detail." Games are won and lost in fractions of seconds. Atherton knew that only by correcting the detail in his technique could he restore his batting fortunes and only by doing that could he rebuild confidence in his captaincy. The result of his obsession is that England won a series, at last. Whereas a month ago, the press was baying for his blood, now they are writing about his "finest hour" and his irreplaceable leadership skills.

I predict that Mike Atherton is about to become the latest in a long line of metaphors. "Atherton" will become a new concept in the management handbooks. In future, organisations will not re-engineer or re-culture, they will atherton. This new verb has a number of connotations and will certainly not translate easily into French. By the way, the word is pronounced as if someone with a lisp said "ascertain".

Its first meaning is to do with detail. A group or organisation under public criticism may choose to atherton, which would involve looking for the minor flaw which causes major criticism. British Rail train enquiries, for example, are very well informed but this has no value at all since their staff don't pick up the phone.

In these circumstances, no amount of strategy, privatisation, restructuring or public relations consultancy can match simply ensuring that next time the phone rings, someone actually answers it.

The second connotation is to do with persistence. It is a contradiction in terms as well as a split infinitive "to briefly atherton". If you want to atherton, you have to do it for ages . . . and ages . . . work at the same detail I keep talking about the same thing I check all the same outcomes. Above all, to atherton, you have to carry on doing whatever it is when it is becoming unpopular, despised and widely criticised. Keeping your head when all around you are losing theirs captures part of the idea.

A third connotation of this new piece of vocabulary has to do with earning the grudging but complete respect of those who work with you or for you. Even in his darkest days, it seems that Atherton's team mates respect him. Unlike ministers or even shadow ministers, Atherton's men never brief against him. They stick with him. More surprisingly still, his opponents, even Australians, respect him too. Any manager who aspires to atherton will have to earn a similar respect.

There are headteachers of whom the staff say "he's absolutely obsessive about litter in the playground and he drives us all mad but ... god knows where we'd be without him". Or they say "she checks every single comment on every single report ... no one likes her much but at the end of the day we'd go to the ends of the earth for her (well almost)". These are heads who atherton.

Fourthly - and finally - the word "atherton" implies an iron will that defies belief: only people with those unimagined wells of strength that only appear at times of crisis can "atherton". These people provide a strength on which others can depend. They lead above all by example.

We shall see whether this new verb catches on or not in the years ahead. If it does, I think it may be most at home in the world of education.

If teachers are to gain respect, the details of pedagogy matter most; if headteachers are to continue the improvement of schools to new heights, many of them will need to atherton; if an incoming government is to eschew distractions and consistently prioritise standards, it will need to atherton; and, of course, if England are to beat Australia at cricket this summer, Atherton himself will need to atherton. The honour that awaits him if it does is much greater than being BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He may find that his name has become part of education jargon.

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