Cricket: Atherton relishes West Indies test

In August Michael Atherton was contemplating stepping down as the England captain after four years in charge. Three months later he is anticipating the winter in the West Indies with enthusiasm, as David Llewellyn heard.

A lot has happened to Michael Atherton in the four years since he last led an England tour to the Caribbean. The dirt-in-the-pocket affair, a fine for dissent, the odd victorious rubber, a few more series defeats, a personal debate over whether he should step down from the job at the end of the Ashes summer, and the subsequent loss of the one- day captaincy.

Adam Hollioake has the honour of leading an England side in the Champions' Cup in Sharjah, but yesterday, as Atherton contemplated a tough tour to the West Indies, he was as relaxed as he has ever been and intimating that he would like to lead England in the one-day series in the Caribbean as well.

"The captaincy is not a decision that is in my hands," Atherton said. "But last season I led us to a 3-0 series win over Australia. I accept I am not part of the one-day squad. It's up to me to get back in it. But I did score a hundred in the second Texaco Trophy match against Australia at The Oval last summer." A gentle reminder that he can bat a bit in the shorter game.

But it is the Test series which matters and, his own technique aside, Atherton is a far more confident leader of his men than he was in the winter of 1994. Then he had two matches as captain under his belt, a win and a defeat against Australia.

"Looking back I was very green," admitted the England opener, who has now been in charge for a total of 46 of his 73 Tests. "That is not to say I think I did a bad job, but I have learned masses of things since then and I will be a lot better prepared to handle whatever comes around this time."

Atherton had to take five days out immediately after the final Test against Australia before making up his mind, but he said: "I am pleased with my decision. Four years ago when I was first appointed I was very enthusiastic. I'm still enthusiastic about the job but not as naive."

Now he can contemplate taking on the West Indies with greater equanimity. The Caribbean collective may be in apparent disarray and struggling in Pakistan, but Atherton does not assume they are any the weaker. "Pakistan is a tough place to tour," he warned. I think the West Indies will be a different side at home.

"In general the England team plays good cricket in the West Indies and this time I know what I'm in for as captain and opening batsman." In recent history, targeting a key figure in a touring side is a standard tactic in the Caribbean.

"I've enjoyed playing against the West Indies in the last two series." And no wonder, in that time he has taken three centuries and as many fifties off the world's most feared attack. "It's a challenge playing them. You have to concentrate and play well to score runs. As an opening batsman it's the biggest challenge there is."

That 1994 series heralded a wonderful run of form for Atherton. He is clearly looking for something similar this time around, and the captaincy no longer represents a burden. England expects.

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