The South African pace attack would be an important factor, Atherton said when the England team arrived on the first official tour for 30 years.
"Pace is obviously their strong suit, but we have a very settled top five and our batsmen are not shy as they've proved in the past," he said. "We have also got some pace of our own and if need be we can fight fire with fire."
The England manager, Ray Illingworth, predicted a very close series and hoped England could repeat their form of the drawn six-Test summer series against the West Indies. England play five Tests and seven one-day internationals on the 14-week tour.
"The spectators would have their money's worth if the series finished 3-2 and obviously I hope that we will be on the right side of that equation," Illingworth said. "We realise it's an important tour and that we have responsibilities aside from the cricket."
Illingworth said that England would be happy to be involved in South Africa's cricketing development programme "but at the end of the day we are here to play good cricket and to win''. This is England's first tour since M J K Smith's team won a three-Test series 1-0 in 1964/65.
The only player to be asked for his autograph was, predictably enough, the South African-born batsman, Robin Smith. It was all very different - and thankfully so - from five years ago when Mike Gatting led a rebel England team into Johannesburg. On that occasion, the players were not welcomed by most people in a country still ruled by apartheid. In 1990, Gatting and his team were surrounded by "minders".
Heavy rain may scupper the squad's chances of training outdoors at the Wanderers ground in Johannesburg today. Indoor nets at Rand Afrikaans University will be used if the weather does not improve.
The tour begins with a friendly one-day match against Nicky Oppenheimer's XI at Halfway House next Tuesday.