Atherton was neither the worst nor the best of captains. His percentage of wins - 13 in 52 Tests - was better than those of Tony Greig, Ian Botham, David Gower and Mike Gatting, worse than Bob Willis, Mike Denness and Graham Gooch. He is the longest-serving England captain. Yet his legacy can be measured only in negatives. His finest innings, 10 and a half hours worth in Johannesburg in the winter of 1995, was dedicated to a draw.
For all the spineless capitulation of the last day in Antigua, his side was harder to beat than the bedraggled lot Graham Gooch left behind two Ashes summers ago. And, on paper, the batting looks strong. Er, that's it. After four and a half years, what more do we know about the man? When he woke up back in the ranks for the first time since the beginning of August 1993, how did he feel? Relief? Anger? Delight? Despair? Even those close to him would only be guessing. No one has managed to keep himself so private while performing such a public duty. He enjoyed captaining his country, he said, but we had to take his word for it. A smile from Atherton was a collector's item, though friends talk of him as an amiable drinking companion off duty.
He never quite cast off the impression that captaincy was an unacceptable intrusion on his privacy, a duty rather than an honour. His dedication was not in doubt nor his popularity in the dressing room. The irony is that as his captaincy improved, his batting deteriorated. Few could have bettered his tactical astuteness on the third afternoon of the final Test at The Oval last summer. A masterclass in balancing attack and defence, in applying just the right torque to the nut. The rarity, as Atherton would wrily point out, was that two England bowlers, Phil Tufnell and Andy Caddick, combined to exert the sort of pressure which has been lacking for critical periods in the Caribbean. Tufnell's decision to bowl over the wicket into the rough on leg stump in the first of the two Trinidad Tests smacked of Atherton's defensive tendency. It lost England the match and seemed to affect Tufnell's delicate morale for the rest of the series.
Atherton leaves a more professional, coherent set-up than he inherited and a more consistent selectorial policy. It might be in such minutiae that Atherton's contribution to English cricket will be recorded. He had his favourites - John Crawley, for instance - and stuck with them rightly or wrongly, sometimes to the detriment of the team. That can be the only explanation for Mark Ramprakash's damaging omission for the first three Tests against the West Indies. With the backing of the English Cricket Board, the gap between player and administrator has been narrowed and a selectorial team of David Graveney, Gatting and Gooch more reflective of modern thinking.
His successors are now lining up in the shooting gallery: Alec Stewart, trusted lieutenant for so long, Nasser Hussain, the vice-captain and logical successor, or more radical choices like Mark Ramprakash, Adam Hollioake and Matthew Maynard, captain of the county champions. Hollioake has seemingly withdrawn from the line, presumably on the same grounds as last summer when the idea was mooted. He did not think then that it would be right for a rookie to captain such battle-hardened vets as Stewart or Atherton. But, after the dourness of the Atherton era, there is a strong case for a real change of style.
"I'd bite the bullet now and make Adam captain," David Gilbert, his former coach at Surrey, said. "What's the point in having a caretaker for 12 months. What England need is someone to bind them together so tightly they would be prepared to die for the team, someone who is a captain first and foremost. There's a precedent for that in Mike Brearley. What have you got to lose?"
It is a tribute to Hollioake's strength of character that the Australian believes proving himself as a Test cricketer would not necessarily hinder his captaincy. "People are queueing up to say he's not a Test player, but I reckon he would get a Test century within the time Ramprakash had, 22 Tests or whatever it was. He would fit in quite comfortable at number six and, believe me, on the field he always seems a couple of steps ahead of the game. He anticipates situations very well. Even if there was an obvious candidate, which I don't think there is, I would be rooting for him."
Hollioake led England to win the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah at the start of the winter; a similarly swashbuckling display in the five one- day internationals in the West Indies at the end would certainly strengthen his candidacy, whatever his thinking at present. The choice would be tough on Stewart, who has been passed over once and would let no one down in the role. Stewart could be penalised for his own all-round excellence. Captaining, keeping wicket and opening the batting would surely be too much even for a competitor of his intensity. The captaincy of Surrey did not seem to hold great attractions for him.
Whether Stewart is enrolled as caretaker or not - and, 10 days before his 35th birthday, the future looks more grey than orange - the obvious choice lies between Ramprakash and Hussain. Each has their patron on the selection committee: Gooch for Hussain, Gatting for Ramprakash, county captains more than aware of the growing pains and ultimate maturity of the one-time enfants terribles. Hussain's experience comes from captaining the A team, a job he performed with real flair. Ramprakash has just half a season at Middlesex behind him and has only recently freed himself from the Test cocoon. Hussain would be Atherton's preference, for what it's worth. It was he who acted as confidant when Atherton first proposed resignation after the Trent Bridge Test last summer.
It has taken four and a half years for the job of captaining an average side burdened with above average expectations to wear him down, which is a tribute to Atherton's toughness. His successor will not find the task magically transformed, not until an Ambrose or a Warne emerges from the system anyway, and back-to-back series with South Africa and Australia allow little time for acclimatisation. Atherton can join the growing band of ex-captains on the sidelines. It is not his problem anymore. If only there had been a few more V for victories. And a few more smiles.