It is more than two years and five well-shod opponents since England last won a Test series, but victory in the second Cornhill Test against New Zealand, which opens today at Lord's, will put them two up with one to play.
New Zealand may, at present, be the cricketing equivalent of an arthritic old granny, but England's captain is keen to ensure his team show no sympathy. 'I'd like to hope we can get a hard streak in our cricket and show a bit of ruthlessness,' he said after nets at Lord's yesterday.
'In the past two or three years we have not won the first match in a series or been ahead. It is always our backs against the wall and no one gives us a sniff. Now we have got someone down we need to give them a good kick. Winning and playing well becomes a habit.'
Two appropriately credentialled cricketers stand by this morning to help Atherton deliver the kicking. With the pitch likely to be slow, Devon Malcolm has already been dispatched to play for Derbyshire at Cardiff today and either Paul Taylor or Richard Stemp will replace him.
Having spent the winter working for Dr Martens, Taylor, whose only Test appearance was in Calcutta 17 months ago, looks just the man, while the uncapped Stemp, judging by his tea-pot display at Bradford on Monday, is not averse to dishing it out either.
That incident - Stemp was warned by the umpire David Constant for abusive behaviour during Yorkshire's match with Somerset - will have no bearing on selection. The decisive factor will be which type of cackhander, Taylor's seam or Stemp's spin, will be more suited to a pitch that is expected to show brief early life for the former and, much later, slow turn for the latter.
Malcolm, meanwhile felt he had become the first victim of England's new ruthlessness, claiming his brief appearance just made him look foolish. 'It seems odd to bring me here then send me away early,' he said. 'I'm very upset, but I can't go out there shouting that I want to play. Why did they pick me in the first place?'
The official reason was in case the pitch proved to have any pace in it, unofficially it was a chance to have a look at his bowling after a poor performance in the first Test - put down to feeling tense by Malcolm.
Geoff Arnold, England's bowling coach, said Malcolm's effort could not be faulted. 'I could not hesitate in recommending him for the Test team on his net bowling,' he said 'but what he does when he has the ball in his hand in the middle you can't tell.'
The last team England beat in a series, 23 matches ago, was New Zealand and the tourists will make at least two, possibly three, changes as they attempt to prevent an embarrassing double.
Chris Pringle, having recovered from injury, will replace Heath Davis as opening bowler, thus allowing the wicketkeeper Adam Parore to leave his Peter Shilton goalkeeping gloves in the kitbag. Mark Greatbatch or Blair Pocock will come in for the opening bat Blair Hartland, and Gavin Larsen's place as third seamer is under threat from the left-armer Michael Owens, who only joined the tour when Simon Doull went home last month.
The most risky selection is that of Greatbatch, who is expected to win selection over Pocock in spite of the latter's century against Gloucestershire at the weekend. Having begun as a great blocker and scoring hundreds to save Tests against England (on his debut six years ago) and Australia (batting 11 hours for an unbeaten 146), Greatbatch became known as Greatbash during the World Cup when, as an opening batsman, his preferred scoring shot was the six.
His form has been less impressive since, with his success in that competition leaving him unsure whether to be a blocker or basher. In seven Tests over the winter he failed to pass 50. Although there were signs of a return to form at Bristol, Greatbatch, like his team, is in need of help. Atherton intends neither of them get it.
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