Of course, whether or not Atherton goes on to break May's all-time record of 41 Tests as captain, depends largely, if not entirely, on the outcome of this match. Win here and the series at least is safe. Lose and he will have to bear the consequences of precipitating English cricket into crisis.
Atherton, however, an admirably cussed fellow when the occasion suits, is having none of it, publicly refuting the symbolic magnitude of today's occasion. "Every Test match is important nowadays, none particularly more than others," he said at yesterday's press conference. "At the end of the day, it's a cricket match to be enjoyed and hopefully played well and we'll be doing our utmost to win."
As a rule, England tend to play their best and most inspired cricket when coming from behind - though it is usually when they are too far behind for it to have any bearing on a series. Just once, however, you would think they could get in a pre-emptive strike, particularly against the likes of Zimbabwe, a team whose patina of keenness is matched only by a tinge of greenness, at this level.
Damp behind the ears they may be, but Zimbabwe are really revved up for this encounter, claiming they would rather beat England than anyone else. A situation Atherton, only half-joking, reckons is because of "Our imperial past, which everyone wants to kick us in the teeth for."
Empire, no doubt inspired the Churchillian speeches that David Lloyd uses as motivational aids, which presumably work for some. Yet, if ever there was a right time for the England captain to invoke the bulldog equivalent of Imran Khan's famous "fight like cornered tigers" speech, it is now. Incredibly, on that occasion Pakistan, who were on the verge of being eliminated from the 1992 World Cup, were transformed. And three inspired performances later, the trophy was theirs.
Unfortunately, England rarely play their cricket like that, which is why Zimbabwe may have the beating of them through a mental stalemate, with England's largely percentage players being out-percentaged by an organised team on pitches too slow for percentage play. That is a situation certain individuals like Stewart, Knight, Hussain and Gough must now attempt to rise above and conquer.
Unlike Zimbabwe, England did not know their 11 last night. As they are picking only from 12, and the pitch looks brown and flat, they intend playing both spinners. The final bowling place being contested by Andy Caddick and Chris Silverwood.
According to Atherton, both have bowled well: surely something of a snap judgement, considering Silverwood's deeds have been restricted to a couple of one-day games; while Caddick, when returning for second and third spells, has more resembled a camel loping into one of the hot dry harmattans that blow off the Kalahari than an opening bowler with mayhem on his mind.
If Silverwood does make his Test debut, the 21-year-old Yorkshireman will be the youngest Englishman to do so since Somerset's Mark Lathwell in 1993. His subsequent fall from contention either serves as an appropriate example of poor selectorial judgement, or highlights the paucity of our first-class system. Perhaps it is both.
Interestingly, Zimbabwe claim to want to field first should they win the toss, a tactic, they believe, will give their bowlers the best opportunity to be fresh for two innings. You cannot enforce the follow-on if you bat second and these days Test cricket (except when the Wimbledon final is on) has done away with rest days.
Unless it is complete kidology, or there are gremlins lodged secretly within the pitch, it sounds daft and it could play into England's hands, should the pitch wear with England having posted a first-innings total of 400.
It would be just what Atherton's team needs, if only to detract from the management's fuzzy logic over bringing cover for Ronnie Irani. He has had his injured back injected and has been given a 10-day period to prove his bowling fitness in time for the second Test on 26 December, a match that Craig White, who flies in as Irani's cover on 23 December, may also be available for.
The options are stark and, with only 12 men to select from, England may sub-consciously be giving themselves an excuse. If so, they are in serious danger of playing below their potential, and allowing Zimbabwe the recognition they crave.
So far this has been a curious and shambolic trip. England, have supposedly never been fitter, but all the aqua training they did in the Algarve's swimming pools has done them little good in a land-locked country. If it were not for the seriousness of possibile defeat by the least experienced team in world cricket, England's tour might well have taken on the aspect of a Joe Orton farce: chaos at the start, an uncertain middle, and a potentially apocalyptic ending.
England (from): N V Knight, M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart (wkt), N Hussain, G B Thorpe, J P Crawley, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R Caddick, P C R Tufnell, A D Mullally, C E W Silverwood.
Zimbabwe: G W Flower, S V Carlisle, A D R Campbell (capt), D L Houghton, A Flower (wkt), A C Waller, G J Whittall, P A Strang, H H Streak, E A Brandes, H K Olonga.
Umpires: I Robinson (Zim) and R S Dunne (NZ).
West Indies win at last, page 21
ENGLAND'S RECENT RECORD IN FIRST TESTS
In the last 10 years England have never come back to win a series after losing the First Test. However, they have gone on to win the series when victors in the opening Test.
First Test (Brisbane): England 456 & 77-3; Australia 248 & 282
England won by seven wickets
England won series 2-1
First Test (Lahore): England 175 & 130; Pakistan 392
Pakistan won by an innings and 87 runs
England lost series 1-0
NEW ZEALAND 1987-88
First Test (Christchurch): England 319 & 152; New Zealand 168 & 130-4
WEST INDIES 1989-90
First Test (Kingston, Jamaica): West Indies 164 & 240; England 364 & 41-1
England won by nine wickets
England lost series 2-1
First Test (Brisbane): England 194 & 114; Australia 152 & 157-0
England lost by ten wickets
England lost series 3-0
NEW ZEALAND 1991-92
First Test (Christchurch): England 580; New Zealand 312 & 264
England won by an innings and four runs
England won series 2-0
First Test (Calcutta): India 371 & 82-2; England 163 & 286
India won by eight wickets
England lost series 3-0
SRI LANKA 1992-93
Only Test (Colombo): England 380 & 228; Sri Lanka 469 & 142-5
Sri Lanka won by five wickets
WEST INDIES 1993-94
First Test (Kingston, Jamaica): England 234 & 267; West Indies 407 & 95-2
West Indies won by eight wickets
England lost series 3-1
First Test (Brisbane): Australia 426 & 248-8 dec; England 167 & 323
Australia won by 184 runs
England lost series 3-1
SOUTH AFRICA 1995-96
First Test (Verwoerdburg): England 381-9; South Africa did not bat
England lost series 1-0Reuse content