The announcement, which came immediately after the presentations following England's third loss of the series yesterday, was not so much a shock as a confirmation that he had wanted to go at the end of last summer. On that occasion he stepped back from the brink after some urgent persuasion from the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, as well as those closer to him such as the England coach, David Lloyd.
Looking relieved - he has been smiling a lot over the last few days - Atherton claimed that England's collapse in the final session yesterday had little to do with his decision.
Reading from a statement prepared earlier in the day, Atherton revealed the reasons behind his decision to quit. "A combination of our failure to win this series and my own form, which has been well below my previous standards, has led me to believe it is time for someone else to do the job. However, I will remain with the squad for the forthcoming one-day internationals and intend to fight for my place as a batsman."
Adam Hollioake now returns to the one-day job he did in Sharjah, where he led England to victory in the Singer Cup.
Since taking over against Australia in 1993, Atherton's reign has seen a steady but slow improvement in England's performances. Unfortunately, the old inconsistency that has riven England sides for the last 15 years could not be eradicated and his record of 13 wins from 52 matches will not be regarded as a golden period.
Despite his dourness, Atherton has always been a committed and caring captain, albeit one prone to safety first. "Having captained the side for four and a half years, I have given the job my full commitment," he said. "It has been an intensely challenging and always enjoyable period and I would like to thank all the selectors and coaches, and, most importantly, the players for their contributions and efforts."
Insisting the captaincy had not been a burden, Atherton said he wanted to concentrate on his batting and regain his form.
Lloyd, the England coach, led the tributes to the departing captain. "It's been a privilege to work with Mike," he said. "He's been a rock within the team. He has always been 100 per cent caring for the team. I've nothing but admiration for the way he has handled an incredibly demanding job with real courage and determination.
"Mike's got an incredible appetite for handling everything thrown at him, and everyone should realise he is a hell of a special bloke. He's made an enormous contribution to English cricket, and we should all be thankful for that."
Lloyd's words were echoed by the chairman of selectors, David Graveney. "While things have not always gone according to plan, his contribution both as a player and as a captain has been massive. The ultimate judgment of a leader is the respect his fellow players have for him. That respect for Mike among the players has been total.
"Now that the pressures and responsibilities of captaincy have been removed from his shoulders, I and everyone else with the best interests of England cricket at heart will be hoping he can rediscover the form that has made him one of our best batsmen over the past five years. I would also like to place on record the fact that, contrary to some recent reports, Mike and I have always enjoyed a harmonious working relationship."
Graveney knows the task to replace Atherton will be arduous. "I will be returning to England tonight and will be meeting with my fellow selectors, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, at the earliest possible opportunity to have preliminary discussions about our future plans," he said.
Lord MacLaurin, who has been one of the main reasons why Atherton stayed on as captain, was quick to bestow his praise. "He has a proud record of captaining his country more than anyone else," he said.
Hollioake, who assumes temporary control of an unsteady England ship, joined in with the well-wishers. "I would like to add my tribute to Mike as a captain and a player and I look forward to his input over the coming weeks," he said.
A decision on who will replace Atherton as Test captain is unlikely to be made for several weeks. Nasser Hussain was made even-money favourite last night by William Hill, who make Alec Stewart 2-1 second favourite, with Mark Ramprakash at 7-2 and Adam Hollioake 7-1.