Atherton appointed for Ashes series

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Michael Atherton has been re-appointed as England cricket captain for the summer's Tests and one-day matches against Australia. Barring injury, he will now break Peter May's 41 Test record as captain, set 36 years ago, when he leads England in the second Test at Lord's.

The announcement was made by Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the England Cricket Board, at Cornhill's Player of the Year awards luncheon, an accolade deservedly won by Surrey's Alec Stewart, once Atherton's main rival for the captaincy.

The appointment for the whole of the summer is certain to boost the confidence of both captain and team. It was a point reinforced by Atherton when he said: "Australia will start this summer's series as favourites, but psychologically we will be expecting to do well.

"I think my appointment shows the right amount of confidence and stability. That's the message that will be given to the Australians.''

Winning is the only known antidote to sporting uncertainty and Atherton, his captaincy under severe pressure after England's dismal performances in Zimbabwe, managed to regain approval of his leadership qualities after his team's back to back Test wins against New Zealand, during the second half of the winter.

To those certain that heads must roll, the timing may appear to have been fortuitous, but when needed, great survivors like Atherton have always been able to lurch across tightropes without falling.

The two victories certainly persuaded David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, and his two cohorts, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, who made their recommendation to Lord MacLaurin, several weeks ago.

MacLaurin still retains the chairman's power of veto, a mechanism that did for Gatting in 1989, when he was appointed and then removed as captain within the space of two days.

Happily for Atherton, the outgoing chairman of Tesco is clearly an Atherton fan, and despite the alarm he professed after seeing England at their most churlish during the Zimbabwe leg of last winter's tour, kept the lethal veto in its holster.

However, being a successful and dynamic businessman, MacLaurin has also sought to rectify the matter of England's xenophobia - sooner rather than later - by putting in place a series of initiatives.

The first of these begins today with a two-day course on management development and team understanding run by Will Carling at a secret location in the Midlands.

"Our Test players are a top priority," MacLaurin said. "Their preparation to that end is our responsibility. They are under the spotlight for 24 hours a day and we need to help them cope with the pressures and strains. From now on nothing but the best is good enough for our players. But I want a big return for or investment and I wasn't joking when I said I want them to die for England.''

For his part Atherton respects and likes MacLaurin and has often stated that he feels he and David Lloyd are now getting the unconditional backing from the management he feels was not always there in the past.

As captain, Atherton has only been half as successful as Peter May, winning just 10 out of 40 Tests to May's 20. Comparisons across eras, however odious, are inevitable in a country hooked on nostalgia.

In any case, May did manage to win one of the three Ashes series he skippered. If Atherton can do the same this summer his record-breaking run as captain will at last burst free from its straitjacket of mediocrity.