England's new 25-year-old captain will have to make Fred Karno resemble the Duke of Wellington not to have his appointment extended to this winter's tour to the West Indies, but the selectors have still left themselves a get-out clause in the small print, however much they dressed it up yesterday.
Ted Dexter, the chairman of the England committee, said: 'We fully expect to confirm Michael for the West Indies, but we won't break with tradition and the captain (for the Caribbean) will be chosen in early September along with the rest of the team.'
This leaves the two candidates who came closest to beating Atherton to the position, Alec Stewart and Mike Gatting, with a faint glimmer of winning, so to speak, on the second ballot. Realistically though - not least for the embarrassment it would cause even for selectors as thick-skinned as England's - Atherton can consider himself a sitting tenant until the start of next summer.
Moreover, England's team is in such disarray that Dexter's comment that he expected 'Mike to come through (the last two Tests) with flying colours', probably demands no more than him presiding over a draw and a defeat, or even two defeats as long as England offer something other than their customary impersonation of an Australian doormat.
Atherton's appointment was dressed up with the bullish rhetoric that traditionally gets trotted out on these occasions. Dexter said: 'Mike has a good captaincy pedigree and has captained sides all his life.' Not quite true, as he is not captain of Lancashire. 'He has a good reputation as a captain (not quite true either, it is more of a mixed one) and we (the committee) have been very impressed by the way he goes about it.' Still not quite true as Keith Fletcher, the team manager, was a Gatting man, and the fact that the discussion (involving six names) lasted two and a half hours does not suggest an immediate outbreak of nodding heads.
Fletcher, though, was eventually won over to Atherton (no actual vote was taken) and there was only one dissenting member on the five-man panel of Dexter, Fletcher, A C Smith, the Test and County Cricket Board's chief executive, Ossie Wheatley, the cricket chairman, and Micky Stewart, director of coaching.
This, in fact, was Stewart, whose largely admirable willingness to stand up and be counted, and go into bat for his boy, was somewhat in contrast with his irritation that this information had been tactlessly revealed by Dexter, who later apologised. 'Was the Atherton appointment unanimous?' Dexter was asked. 'Yes,' he said, 'except for dad.' Dad, Micky that is, had apparently declared his family interest, 'voted' for Alec, and then withdrew from the discussion. 'He was as loyal to his boy as we would have expected,' Dexter said.
Dexter confirmed that apart from Atherton, Stewart and Gatting, the other three candidates were Hugh Morris, of Glamorgan, Martyn Moxon, of Yorkshire, and Kim Barnett, of Derbyshire. Atherton was the only candidate who is not captain of his county, but not only is this not necessarily a handicap, the England committee have probably come up with the right choice.
All six, Dexter said, had the 'agreed criterion of mental toughness, especially with the West Indies in mind, but it was in the areas of tactical awareness and a fresh approach that Michael eventually emerged as the choice.' Atherton is an intelligent man, as 10 O levels, three A levels and a Cambridge University degree would suggest, but as far as tactical awareness goes, the selectors must have worked more on minus marks for Gatting and Stewart than plus points for Atherton.
Stewart, incidentally, telephoned Atherton to offer his congratulations before yesterday's press conference in a London hotel. 'It was a nice gesture,' Atherton said, and then, referring to the perceived rivalry between the two, added: 'People blow up this personality bit out of all proportion. Differences between me and Alec don't exist.' Stewart, who was named as Atherton's deputy for the next two Tests, confirmed this. 'The two of us get on very well,' he said.
Atherton, much more inclined to issue responsibility to the individual player than the other contenders, also has a much quieter and more relaxed approach, but any thoughts that he might be in charge - if he survives the summer - of a snorkel and flippers/ banana daquiri trip to the Caribbean were quickly dispensed with by the new skipper.
'I am my own man and have my own ideas,' he said, 'but a lot of nonsense has been talked about the work ethic and training schedules and we won't shy aware from working hard. I am a hard-working professional.' 'Did you have to think long before accepting?,' he was asked. Atherton, who was about to begin a three-day break in the Lake District before being flown to London for the official unveiling, said: 'No.'
Atherton's initial business will be discussing the broad outlines of the job with Dexter and Fletcher, who said yesterday that he had 'every confidence that Mike will do a good job', and tomorrow evening Atherton will sit down with them to select a team for the fifth Test starting at Edgbaston next Thursday. As expected, Atherton's first physical act as captain will be to write down Graham Gooch on his piece of paper - 'He's still the best batsman in England' - although the Gower lobby should be advised not to place too much ice in the champagne bucket.
Atherton's England career has been something of a mixture since he was chosen for his debut (at precisely the moment England lost the Ashes in 1989) and made a second-ball duck coming in at No 3. He later established himself with Gooch in one of Test cricket's most statistically successful opening partnerships, latterly sacrificed to accommodate Mark Lathwell, but has always been peeved by his regular omissions from the one-day team.
Atherton was also ludicrously omitted from the second Test against India last winter (he missed the first through illness), did not feature in this summer's Texaco Trophy series, and was thought to be in danger of losing his Test place after the opening match of the Ashes series against Australia. 'It is a reminder that you should never take success for granted, not get overwhelmed by failure,' he said. 'Things can change so quickly in this game.' Indeed they can, although not so quickly that Atherton should be expected to turn England from poodle to bulldog overnight.
Lancashire's view of Atherton, page 38
ATHERTON FACTS AND FIGURES
Age: 25 (born Manchester, March 23 1968)
Weight: 12st 7lb
Educated: Manchester Grammar School (10 O levels, three A levels)
Downing College, Cambridge (BA Hons)
Early career highlights: Captained young England to Sri Lanka (1987) and Australia (1988)
Cambridge University: 1987-89 (captain 1988-89)
Combined Universities: (Benson and Hedges Cup) 1987-89 (captain 1988-89)
Lancashire: debut 1987
County cap: 1989
Young Cricketer of the Year: 1990. Also named one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year in the same year
Captaincy record before England debut: As captain of Cambridge University: 17 matches, 9 drawn, 8 lost
As captain of Combined Universities: 1989 quarter-finals of Benson and Hedges after beating Surrey and Worcestershire
England debut: v Australia 1989 (Trent Bridge)
Runs: 1,735 at average of 34.70. Three Test hundreds
Tours: Australia 1990-91.
India and Sri Lanka 1992-93.
Vice-captain of England A tour to Zimbabwe 1990
Highest score: 199 (Lancashire v Durham, Gateshead, 1992)
Highest score (Test): 151 (v New Zealand, Trent Bridge, 1990)
Best Bowling: 6 for 78 (Lancashire v Nottinghamshire, Trent Bridge, 1990)
Other: In 1987 was first player to score 1,000 first-class runs in debut season since Paul Parker in 1976.
In 1990 became youngest Lancastrian to score a Test century
Captained Lancashire last year when Neil Fairbrother was injured, winning 1 out of 9 games, losing 3, drawing 5
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