As Chris Bailey found at Wimbledon, nothing wins the heart of the sporting public like gallant failure and the sight of an agonised Atherton, one short of a century, crawling vainly for the safety of the crease as Ian Healy splattered the stumps stirred the emotions in a way his batting rarely does.
The knowledge that his 99, together with a first-innings 80, secured his Test place, remains of little consolation to Atherton, who last made a century for England in Sydney more than two years ago. 'It would have been nice to get a hundred after batting reasonably well for a long time,' he said. 'More importantly, if we had only been one wicket down overnight we might have saved the game.'
Atherton's career, unlike his temperament, has been marked by a succession of highs and lows, and he is realistically aware that he was one match from going the same way as Graeme Hick and Mike Gatting. 'After one game I was on the verge of being dropped, one good performance later and I am a dead cert to play,' he said.
Not only that, but he is again being tipped as a 'Future England Captain', a sobriquet that was given to him before he had even played for his country, and was at one time so popular that its acronym became known as his nickname to the media, if not his team- mates.
It is rumoured that he once found FEC scrawled on his locker at Old Trafford, but he said: 'No one has ever called me FEC, that was just a media invention.'
'My name has been mentioned for five years as a potential captain,' he said. 'It is now water off a duck's back to me, I just get on with it. Inevitably, with Graham Gooch retiring from the captaincy at the end of the season, people are going to start talking about it again, but I don't take too much notice.'
That was not always the case and there is a feeling that, anxious not to be seen pressing his case, Atherton either deliberately, or subconsciously, sought a low profile when his input would have been useful. When he has taken charge at Lancashire, usually when Neil Fairbrother is off the field or playing one-day internationals, his leadership has been low-key.
His captaincy started at Manchester Grammar School, where his Lancashire team-mates, Gary Yates and Mark Crawley (now at Nottinghamshire), were under him. He went on to captain English schools, England Under-19s - leading a team that featured Chris Lewis, Martin Bicknell, Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash - Cambridge University and the Combined Universities in the year they defeated Surrey and Worcestershire in the Benson and Hedges Cup.
Before the end of the season, he was playing for England against Australia, aged 21. No one younger has played since and Atherton is well-placed to judge the wisdom of the current clamour for youth.
'It was a very different situation when I made my debut,' he said. 'The Ashes had been lost and there had been a big defection to South Africa. They had no choice but to turn to different players. Personally it was too early for me. Knowing what I know about batting now, compared to what I knew then, I realise it was definitely too early.'
Atherton immediately demonstrated his phlegmatic nature, though not on the pitch where it was not the best of starts. Batting at No 3, he was dismissed second ball for nought with England still in the first over of their reply to Australia's 606 for 6 declared. However, his response demonstrated a positive demeanour. As he said shortly afterwards: 'It bothered other people more than me, I had not suddenly become a bad player with one duck.' He was top scorer in the second innings with 47 but struggled in the final Test and was sent to Africa with the A team, instead of going on the West Indies tour which signalled the start of Gooch's present reign.
Back in England, the pair opened for the first time against New Zealand and began one of England best opening partnerships. One of the drawbacks of bringing in Lathwell is that England are likely to break up the only part of the team that works.
Atherton brings out the best in Gooch, who bats to his strengths, taking on the bowlers. It is hard to see a partnership between Atherton and Stewart working so well: the memorable run-out between them in Bombay - described by Atherton as a simple 'cock-up' - summing up for many the latent tensions on the Indian tour. It is ironic that the third potential captain on tour, Mike Gatting, should have been the other party in Atherton's latest run-out drama.
An England side under Atherton would be more conscious than most of the standards of behaviour expected of an England team. He has firm views on how the game should be played, and mid-wicket exchanges with bowlers tend to be one-sided, as Merv Hughes can testify.
In a different era Atherton would already be captain. Now, in a more meritocratic society, his background is almost a hindrance. Although his accent is more Stretford than Fenner's, he had to overcome prejudice from some senior players when making his way at Lancashire and, in contrast to many past teams, he was the only University-educated player on tour in the winter.
It was a frustrating trip for Atherton. Ill for the first Test, foolishly left out of the second, he was restricted by the emphasis on one-day cricket to four innings, all in Tests, in the last six weeks. By the end Atherton, a player who thrives on regular batting, looked ill at ease at the crease.
However, he remained philosophical and began this season with two centuries in his first four innings. He hit another on Thursday and followed up with 105 on Sunday in Lancashire's fancy-dress rehearsal for next week's Benson and Hedges Cup final against Derbyshire.
A Lord's repeat might banish the memory of the Test 99 and also answer the charge that he cannot play one-day cricket. 'The Lancashire boys know I can play it,' Atherton said. 'I have done well in one-day cricket in the past.'
Indeed. The last time he played one- day cricket for England, two years ago, he was man of the series against the West Indies. With limited-overs cricket very much a part of the international game, it may be that his next Lord's innings proves as important to his captaincy ambitions as the last.
First, though, comes tomorrow's Test, and both he and England will be looking to finish it on their feet.
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