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Cricket: England relief as Atherton stays captain

There were no puffs of white smoke at Lord's yesterday, after Michael Atherton, the England captain who has led his country more often than any other, decided to continue in charge.

Given leave to consider his position by the England Cricket Board, Atherton's decision to accept the selectors' offer to captain England on their forthcoming winter tour of the West Indies, has ended widespread speculation that following the recent Ashes defeat, he was about to stand down.

The announcement, which came by way of a short statement, was made shortly after 3pm, by David Graveney, the chairman of selectors.

"The ECB confirmed today that the selectors have invited Michael Atherton to captain England in the Tests series in the West Indies and he has accepted that invitation," it said.

Graveney then added the selectors' views saying: "We are delighted that Michael has accepted our invitation to captain England in the Caribbean. We firmly believe he is the best man for the job and we look forward to a successful tour under his leadership.

Anticipating Atherton's dissatisfaction at his own form, the selectors have not appointed him captain for the one-day tournament in Sharjah. Instead, he aims to have a proper rest before having some one-to-one sessions with Graham Gooch.

Atherton, looking bright-eyed after a few days in Devon followed by a few rounds of golf with Ian Botham at Sunningdale - "the only counsel he gave me was how to stop missing four foot putts" - did not dwell on how he came about his decision to remain as captain.

"I said all along that after The Oval, I needed a few days away to clear the mind and think things over. I needed to settle two things in my mind. Firstly, did I have the desire to do the job, and secondly, did I have the backing of the players and selectors. Once I'd ascertained that the answers to those questions were `yes', I was happy to accept."

But if the simple formality lent itself to the press conference, it spoke nothing of the confusion and mental U-turns that Atherton himself has been through over the past few weeks, the darkest moments coming after England meekly relinquished the Ashes at Trent Bridge.

At the end of that match, Atherton drove back to the team's hotel with Nasser Hussain, his vice-captain from England's tour last winter. Despondent and fearing an avalanche of criticism over his team's capitulation in under two sessions, he told Hussain of his intentions to quit.

By the time he had reached The Oval for the final Test, little had changed. Indeed little seem to have changed following England's barnstorming win there.

But if his gut feeling was still to stand down, the victory and support from all manner of people - including a moving dressing-room speech from Hussain as well as several supportive phone calls from Alec Stewart, his two likeliest successors - began to niggle away at his mind. Indeed, it was the complete lack of anyone telling him to give it away, that suddenly made him question the validity of giving up.

"People kept getting in my ear," he later joked, admitting that he would not have had the basis to remain as captain, had England lost that final Test.

"I'd be lying if I said that The Oval did not make a difference," he said. "We need to see more days like that. At our best we know we can beat anyone. Unfortunately, at our worst we're not a pretty sight."

In fact, it was probably the latter that had forced him to lose sight of what the job meant to him in the first place, and why after overwhelming support from the likes of Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, down to the lady with the "Stay Captain Athers" placard, he eventually decided to go against the gut feeling urging him back to a Test career in the ranks.

"It was a big decision," he said, admitting that the new coaching and administrative regime that was installed just over a year ago, had had a lot to do with him staying as captain.

"We've not achieved what we set out to achieve, so it was either a case of walking out on a job half done, or seeing it through."

More probable, however, is the realisation that despite his 46 Tests in charge, he still has not much to show for it (two short series wins against New Zealand and one against India) and that a series victory in the West Indies, would go a long way towards fulfilment.

For many - a poll on showed 48 per cent reckoned he should stay - his decision to see it through is clearly the right one for England, for he remains the best man, as well as an improving one, for the job.

Whether it is the best decision for Michael Atherton, however, remains to be seen. Perhaps he is testing out William Blake's conjecture that "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise". By the Barbados Test, we ought to know.

County cricket, page 25