Throughout his tenure as captain Atherton's timing for the faux pas has been immaculate. With England chasing the series here and with his own batting form close to an all-time low, this latest episode simply provided more rope to those who wish to hang him. Yet whatever your personal thoughts on the man, Atherton is a dedicated leader and yesterday he rallied his troops with panache. And while the captain pulled the right strings, his troops - especially the bowlers - made all the right moves as teamwork triumphed over individual glory.
After the pyrotechnics of Friday evening, when the West Indies added 80 in 20 overs, the pace of play was far more sedate yesterday and suited England better. However, even more important than tethering the scoring rate - which was largely stemmed by Phil Tufnell bowling unchanged from the Pavilion End for the entire morning session - was the priceless wicket of Brian Lara.
When the local pundits first saw this pitch they widely predicted a double century for the West Indies captain. It looked to be a serious possibility, too, until he was tempted into an extravagant drive by a wideish delivery from Dean Headley and laced the ball straight to Mark Butcher at extra cover.
This time, there was no gesticulating from England, just the rampant celebration of a team who had just realised that their greatest obstacle to victory had made a terrible mistake. For the home side, it was a blow from which they never really recovered and none of the other batsmen were able to break the stranglehold created by Tufnell and his colleagues. Bowling into a stiff breeze, and getting some regular turn, it was Tufnell who had managed to strike first, when he had the nightwatchman Ian Bishop caught behind by Jack Russell.
Four years ago, Tufnell did a similar job here. Certain memories linger in the mind, but none would have been lodged as deeply as that harboured by Clayton Lambert since his debut at The Oval in 1991, when he was caught trying to slog Tufnell's first ball out of the ground. That had been an ignominious end, but as hard as Tufnell tried to tease and tempt the left- hander into repeating the indiscretion, the deeper Lambert dug himself in and by lunch he had added just 12 runs to his overnight score. Later, the Guyanese batsman finally reached his maiden Test fifty before edging Andy Caddick low to Russell.
But if pace was accounting for the majority of wickets, it was the effectiveness of spin that surprised many, and Mark Ramprakash, bowling in sunglasses, also gained substantial turn with his off-breaks. With England squandering several half chances off the Middlesex captain - the easiest being Butcher's spill at short-leg when Roland Holder was on five - it became clear that both captains had misread this pitch: Lara with his insertion of England and Atherton in his exclusion of Robert Croft.
Mind you, some would argue that Ramprakash, with only one previous Test wicket at an average of 151, to his name, looked as threatening as any specialist bowler would have done. Wheeling away from the Northern End, he doubled his tally when Holder, clearly under pressure from the turning ball, heaved wildly at the Middlesex captain, and was bowled.
Meanwhile, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, making the most of a near miss on 17 when he popped up a catch towards Butcher at silly point, as well as a bad drop by Russell when on 40, kept the home side's total moving. The spill by Russell was simply the latest in a tour chock full of elementary wicket-keeping errors, and while apologists have pointed out the difficulties of keeping on pitches of erratic bounce, there is nothing wrong with the surface here, a point Russell himself later proved when he stumped Curtly Ambrose easily enough.
Although Chanderpaul can sometimes be unassuming to the point of anonymity, you underestimate him at your peril and it took a poor decision by umpire Eddie Nicholls to make good Russell's miss, after an edge induced by Fraser was shown to have bounced on its way to Alec Stewart at second slip.
There was nothing controversial about the next dismissal, though, and David Williams further confirmed the fluke status of his match-winning 65 in the first Trinidad Test when he scythed Caddick to cover for two.
A few overs later, Hooper had gone too, lbw shuffling across his crease, the latest victim of Fraser's honest line and length. It left the West Indies looking decidedly sickly on 221 for 7, symptoms briefly relieved when Ambrose hit a breezy 26 before falling to Tufnell.
When Courtney Walsh was caught and bowled by Headley, to give the bowler figures of 3 for 64, England had a first-innings lead of 141, a situation in stark contrast to the start of the day when the Atherton incident threatened to mar the stoic fightback engineered by Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe.
The V-sign incident, which happened after Wallace had got the West Indies innings off to a flying start with some insolent hitting late on Friday afternoon, was caught by both still and television cameras. The action was badly misjudged, but it was not overly malicious, and the England captain was later cleared of any impropriety by the match referee, Barry Jarman.
"The picture means nothing to me," said Jarman, a former Australian Test wicket-keeper. "He could be asking for two legs [a batting guard]. So what? I'm only going to get involved if they start punching each other. So far I've had no official complaint from either the umpires or the West Indies."
A similarly pragmatic line was taken by the England team manager, Bob Bennett, who said: "Having spoken to Michael Atherton, I am content that there was no intent on his part to insult or offend. There has been no complaint from the West Indies or the match referee. Therefore we consider the matter closed."
It will be long forgotten, too, should England go on to win here, which is now an outcome that seems far more likely than when the captain first proffered his thoughts on the match via his fingers.Reuse content