close-up; Michael Atherton; Prime time for English heroes

Derek Pringle talks to a captain rising in stature and self-belief as the challenge of a momentous Test match looms
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FOR a bachelor whose favoured habitat is the boisterous, sweaty confines of a dressing-room, Michael Atherton must be glad that he has no sense of smell. Throw in a beer or two and the England captain claims he is rarely happier. Throw in a series win against the West Indies, however, the first for over a quarter of a century, and even he admits those earthy little pleasures might be usurped.

"It would be a massive thing, a huge feather in our cap," Atherton said, looking forward to Thursday's deciding Test at the Oval. "They are still the team to beat despite losing to Australia and it would mean everything to me."

The match represents largely uncharted territory for England, but there is such a powerful whiff of cordite in the air that even the least acute nose can sense the death or glory possibilities of this grand finale to the summer. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm going into the game with the attitude that whatever the result, there is only glory to be had from now on," said the England captain, "although I'll be doing my utmost to make sure everyone believes we can win it."

Apart from breaking a 25-year-old West Indian stranglehold, a series triumph would also bring much personal satisfaction to the Lancashire infantryman turned leader. Since Ray Illingworth's appointment as chairman of selectors15 months ago, Atherton's tenure has been fraught with incident and uncertainty, which can hardly have given him the confidence and security to guarantee the upward growth needed and to cope with the most difficult job in English sport.

There were, he admitted, teething problems between him and Illingworth, but the only real antagonism that exists is caused by Atherton's unwillingness to get close to a razor when on England duty. "He was certainly less than happy over some of my statements in Australia," Atherton said, "but the differences were overblown. As far as selection and the type of cricket we want England to play, Raymond and I think along similar lines. I'm much happier now I've more or less got the personnel I want, which I didn't have in Australia."

Did Atherton think he'd improved as a captain after two years in the difficult role? "You'd have to ask other people, really," he said. "I'm very self-analytical and self- critical, and after each day's play, and certainly after every Test match, I just sit down and think, was I right to have taken the options I did? You know, I've always been a great believer in following your gut feelings and when I haven't, I've nearly always regretted it.

"The only times I've been really disappointed with my captaincy was in Australia during the Melbourne and Sydney Tests, where I let the pressure get to me. But, more disconcertingly, I allowed it to show to the rest of the team. It can be difficult at times, but like anything, the more you do it, the more you come across situations you've seen before, the quicker you react to make something, or even prevent something, from happening. So just by virtue of experience, I believe I'm improving."

At the age of 27, Atherton is nearing the peak of his powers as a player and, form and a chronic back injury allowing, has another six or seven years of Test cricket in him. Despite the pips on his shoulder, he is not a natural leader. In truth, he is much happier in the role of team man, although earlier in his career, a hierarchical Lancashire dressing- room thought the then Cambridge undergraduate a touch ambitious and his studious occupation of the crease was seen by some as scheming and selfish.

He even had the letters FEC daubed on his cricket "coffin" in boot whitener, and though one popular interpretation of this was that it stood for Future England Captain, the normally prescience-free zone of county dressing- rooms meant it was far more likely to be a less complimentary phrase, with two expletives surrounding the word Educated.

Popularity has never been a preoccupation with Atherton; he has never sought to please people by being anybody other than himself, an ordinary Mancunian lad with a sharp, enquiring mind and a penchant for ale and sporting gossip. It is a combination that confuses people who don't know him and he rarely makes an immediate impression on those he can't relax with and he admits to having a terse relationship with the tabloid press.

Two incidents have helped nurture a new cynical streak, in his normally forgiving and easy-going nature. Firstly, the soil-in-the-pocket controversy against South Africa at Lord's last year, which resulted in a hysterical witch-hunt, and secondly the recent publishing of photographs of his naked posterior in a daily tabloid, taken when in the supposedly safe haven of his favourite dressing-room at Old Trafford. It was an intrusion he sought legal advice over.

"I've put the South African business behind me, although I expect snide comments will keep resurfacing. Over here we tend to get on our high horse a bit more, as the role of England captain seems to be viewed in a more rounded sense, almost as an establishment figure and therefore someone who should be setting a broader example. Elsewhere, captains just seem to be judged on what they do on the field. I never had a problem with the amount of coverage after the soil-in-pocket affair, just with certain interpretations of it."

The all-consuming nature of the job has been the making of him as a batsman, and he is the foundation upon which so many England totals rely. Never one to sit back and let his technique idle away, he is constantly seeking advice from others and fine-tuning his batting and captaincy skills.

The longer he does the job, the more determined he finds himself trying to make a success of it. "There are moments when it is extremely hard work, and there are moments when it is particularly enjoyable. In fact the experience it brings is like no other. The emotions from the highs and lows are what I'm in the game for and I wouldn't swap it for anything."

Atherton's first task on Thursday, with the destiny of the series in England's hands, will be to calm his players and focus their energy. "Already people are saying that Brian Lara's form will take it away from us," he said. "But I'll just stress the times we've got him out cheaply and remind everyone how much the West Indies rely on his runs and the enormous pressure on him as a result.

"I haven't played in too many winning series, but if we did clinch this one, it might start a winning curve for younger cricketers like Dominic Cork and Darren Gough. Angus Fraser and I never had the opportunity in our early Tests. It would be important just to break English cricket's losing habit."

Atherton's long-distance Guyanese girlfriend flew into Britain yesterday, perhaps sensing the mother of all parties. "There is a great opportunity for this team to become heroes for more than just one week," the captain said. "But even if we lose, there won't be any disgrace. After all we'll only be doing what every other team has done for the last 25 years."

Life and times

Born: Failsworth, Manchester 23 March 1968.

Playing career: Captain England Under-19s. Captain Cambridge University, Blues 1987-89. County debut for Lancashire 1987. Test debut 1989. England captain 1993.

Milestones: In 1987, became youngest player to score 1,000 first-class runs in debut season since Paul Parker in 1976. Youngest Lancastrian to score Test century v New Zealand at Trent Bridge in 1990, aged 22. Only second Lancastrian to score century in Test at Old Trafford v India in 1990. One of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year 1990.

Highest Test score: 151 v New Zealand 1990. Highest first-class score: 199 v Durham at Gateshead. Best Bowling: 6-78 v Notts at Trent Bridge 1990. Most first-class runs in season: 1,924 in 1990.

Career low point: The Third Test at Trinidad in 1994, a game England should have won but lost after being dismissed for 46 in the second innings.

Career high point: Bouncing back to win the Barbados Test.