Alternatively, the reason for his omission, now that Graham Gooch has returned home, from the England team for the day/night international against Sri Lanka today is simply that England have decided to maintain the principle first adopted when the touring squad was picked - that one-day cricket is as important as Test matches.
Apart from county treasurers and coloured clothing manufacturers few at home will agree with this premise which began to look even more suspect once England started losing one-day games. However, it remains a tour maxim and thus John Emburey replaces Gooch rather than Atherton, the probable Test opener.
This gives England six bowlers, plus Graeme Hick. It would seem one too many and while the adoption of Australian fielding rules - only two men outside the circle for the first 15 overs - hardly helps Atherton's case for opening, a place might have been found for a batsman who, when he last played the tip-and-run stuff against the 1991 West Indies, averaged 80-plus as England won all three matches.
Phil Tufnell is also confined to nets before the Test beginning on Saturday, and while Emburey is a sound choice against a team packed with left-handers, the five seamers dispatched around Gwalior by Navjot Sidhu and Mohammad Azharuddin last week are lucky to be in harness again.
Only Paul Jarvis survived the course then and England hope the rest will more thoroughbred than carthorse against a Sri Lankan batting line-up quite capable of repeating the Indian performance.
Richard Blakey, whose confidence away from home is on a par with his beloved Leeds United, is spared further embarrassment, which means the captain Alec Stewart will start directing his new reign from behind the stumps.
When Clive Rice left Transvaal for Natal last year it was put about that it would take five men to replace him, to which Eddie Barlow, the Transvaal coach, replied: 'I guess that's Rice the batsman, Rice the bowler, Rice the fielder, Rice the captain and Rice the Holy Ghost.'
Stewart's England portfolio is not yet that extensive, but it appears to be asking a lot to expect him to captain, open and keep wicket in a Test, so one role will be handed on to Atherton or Blakey, with the Lancashire candidate likely to gain the vote this time.
Fletcher, the England team manager, said: 'Michael (Atherton) had a net on Sunday and hopefully he and Tuffers will net every day between now until the Test. Atherton is very much in consideration for a Test place.'
Sri Lanka have taken the radical step of bringing in Ashley de Silva, a specialist wicketkeeper - a species last seen in England colours in Manchester last July when Jack Russell kept against Pakistan - with the odd-job man, Hashan Tillekeratne reverting to his main trade of batsman.
The rest of the side will be familiar to any insomniac equipped with satellite television last March as they all played in the World Cup (seven of England's runners- up play); most of them at Ballarat a year and a day ago when Stewart hit 59 in 36 balls as England strolled home by 106 runs.
It will not be as easy today. Australia and New Zealand have been beaten in one-day series here this season. The Sri Lankan bowling is limited, but Roshan Mahanama, Aravinda de Silva and the captain Arjuna Ranatunga are all capable of big scores.
SRI LANKA: A Ranatunga (capt), R S Mahanama, U C Hathurusinghe, A P Gurusinha, P A de Silva, H P Tillakaratne, S T Jayasuriya, A M de Silva (wkt), R S Kalpage, C P H Ramanayake, A G D Wickremasinghe.
ENGLAND: A J Stewart (capt/wkt), R A Smith, G A Hick, N H Fairbrother, M W Gatting, C C Lewis, D A Reeve, J E Emburey, P A J DeFreitas, P W Jarvis, D E Malcolm.Reuse content