Cricket: A baptism of imponderables for Atherton: England's new captain performs his first official duty tomorrow when the selectors choose a side for the fifth Test at Edgbaston

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The Independent Online
THIS is the second consecutive home series in which England have conceded the Ashes to Australia with two matches left to play. If Michael Atherton, whose last remnants of a private life ended this week with his appointment as England captain, thinks back to a similar pivotal moment in 1989, he will recall that he was promptly earmarked as one answer to a brighter future by being awarded his first Test cap.

He will also recall that he made a second-ball duck, and that England's new broom approach (thanks partly to the fact that Mike Gatting had issued South African Airlines tickets to a large chunk of the available talent) led to their record defeat against Australia, an innings and 180 runs.

However, this is hardly the time for negative thoughts, and given that it is not in Atherton's nature to play the wet-behind-the-ears new boy, and leave it all to Ted Dexter and Keith Fletcher, his first serious duty begins tomorrow when he and his co-selectors sit down to choose a side - not just for the fifth Test at Edgbaston, but with half an eye on this winter's tour to the Caribbean.

Even allowing that the West Indies is no place for prams and rattles, and that in every nursery there has to be a few nannies, the accent should largely be - if not specifically on youth - away from the old lag mentality.

However, two more good hidings would enhance neither morale nor Atherton's prospects of being renamed for the winter, which is why the one thing older than the port to be ordered at the selectorial dinner (unavailable for the West Indies or not) will be the previous captain, Graham Gooch.

If Atherton comes over all glassy- eyed during selection, it might have less to do with being deep in thought, as in a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming reverie. Five months ago, Atherton was standing in the slips in a match at Vishakhapatnam, wondering whether Philip Tufnell and Devon Malcolm were closer to the England captaincy than he was.

Frozen out of the one-day side, and barely admitted to the inner sanctum of the tour's think tank, Atherton took his orders first from Alec Stewart, who captained the side when Gooch took the match off, then from John Emburey, who took over when Stewart damaged a finger, and finally from Neil Fairbrother, who stood in when Emburey's plumbing succumbed to the customary complaint in India.

Since then, of course, Gooch has gone, Stewart has been bypassed as too closely linked to the old regime, while Gatting, quite apart from being out of the side, had a closet fairly rattling with skeletons. Atherton, alone, had still to be judged, and in some ways emerged by default. The man with the clean driving licence, but only because he doesn't own a car.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of selection for Edgbaston is whether Atherton, having been anxious to point out that he and his closest rival for the captaincy are actually good mates, will do what Stewart would consider a favour, and ask Alec to pop along to Edgbaston without his wicketkeeping gloves.

This would not find favour with Fletcher, who regards Stewart's wicketkeeping as essential to the balance of the side, but as Atherton - given that the manager had to be weaned off Gatting for the job - has already seen off one Fletcher recommendation, he might do so again.

Stewart, despite making 78 in the second innings at Headingley, has not made a success of his dual role in 14 Test matches, and Atherton could now reinstate him as a specialist batsman only - preferably at No 3, where Stewart has both the technique and range of shot to prosper.

If so, Jack Russell might find himself back in favour, but with the West Indies next on the agenda, neither would it be a surprise if Atherton shares Fletcher's view that the Jack in question should be the Jack of all trades.

One thing is blindingly obvious, and which does not require Atherton to even approach the heights of cerebral inspiration. If Stewart does keep wicket, then he should bat no higher than No 5, and not, as he was fatuously required to do at Leeds, get himself padded up - after keeping wicket for 1,161 balls of Australia's innings - three balls into England's.

Atherton will also have his views on whether he and Gooch should resume their opening partnership, and if a place can then be found for Mark Lathwell in the middle order, to which he may be better suited.

The bowling problems the new captain inherits have been further exacerbated by injury to Martin McCague, and if Atherton's engaging smile is still in place by the end of the summer, it will be an achievement in itself.

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