When he took over from Graham Gooch in 1993, it was no secret that his predecessor would have preferred the job to have gone to Alec Stewart, whom Gooch thought was more in his own mould. He need not have worried. Atherton was by nature a safety-first and unadventurous captain who had learned from Gooch's example. He may have started with a slight inferiority complex because of Gooch's stated preference, but he has done more than just hang on to the job, he is now captaining England for the 50th time.
His record has not been good. He has won only 13 of those matches, lending weight to the belief that a captain is only as good as the sum total of his side. Atherton owes his longevity perhaps more to the lack of a successor than to his own skill .
Cricketers almost invariably play the game according to the dictates of their own character. Captains are similarly formed and Atherton's way is a true reflection of an essentially introverted and rather diffident character. A man who carefully weighs the options before coming down on the side of caution.
Atherton is an oddity among long-serving England captains in that he refused to do his apprenticeship in county cricket. He was captain of his country before he had the chance to captain Lancashire and when it came along he let it be known that he did not want it. This was a mistake, for he has had to learn the job while captaining his country. For a long time, he gave the impression of being frightened of shadows and the results England achieved hardly gave him confidence. At best, he would captain a good side efficiently: he would do the obvious things.
But he has never had a good England side to captain. It is with a poor side that an outstanding captain, a Mike Brearley or a Ray Illingworth, has the chance to make decisions that will lead to victory. This calls for a special flair which Atherton does not have.
He has improved over the years, but dynamism is not a word one would associate with his captaincy any more than with his batting. Authoritative, yes, because he has grown as England's captain and is now thoroughly comfortable and at ease with the job. He inspires loyalty, if not heroic deeds.
When you see England in the field, you know who the captain is, which in his early days you did not. But you would be wrong to expect tactics which would have you turning to your neighbour and saying: "I'd never have thought of that."
I got to know Atherton a bit in Reims last October on a champagne adventure in aid of his benefit. He is a good chap to have a drink with, thoughtful and interesting, but not a belly-laugh a minute and not perhaps a natural instinctive leader.
But his increased confidence was reflected in what may prove to have been a disastrous decision here - to play both spinners, Robert Croft and Philip Tufnell. A year or two ago he would certainly have exercised the veto.
Atherton has become his own man and he will let no one down. He has overtaken Peter May as the longest-serving England captain. May had a very good side and a splendid record, winning 20 of his 44 Test matches in charge between 1955 and 1960. Atherton would most likely have captained that side more than adequately, but the interesting question is how would May have captained Atherton's?