As he begins his 25th and last Test match in England on Thursday, Border can afford to smile. The team he has moulded over a decade to compete with the best could achieve an unparalleled 5-0 away Ashes success at The Oval.
Border took over in circumstances as unpromising as Atherton has. It was December, 1984, the previous captain, Kim Hughes, had broken down in tears several years before Bob Hawke and Gazza made weeping fashionable, and the West Indies were rubbing Australia into the dust.
Border was enjoying his last taste of life in the ranks, a status he was comfortable with, able to enjoy a beer with the lads and concentrate on his role as the backbone of a fragile batting line-up.
But, when the tears had gone and the captain with them, the Australian selectors had no alternative but to anoint the reluctant Border. With a gallery of legends having traded baggy green cap for Channel Nine jacket and few others sure of their place there was no evading his duty.
Eighty-three Tests later Border relishes the role. 'Captain Cranky' may surface occasionally but there is no deflecting his sense of purpose. He is fiercely loyal to his team, many of whom revere him, and he has developed into a shrewd captain.
'I was a bit reluctant,' Border recalled last week. 'I'd always been one of the boys then, suddenly, I was in charge. There are expectations placed on a captain and it is a lot harder than people think. You tend to ride every ball bowled and get mentally exhausted far quicker. I was initially uncomfortable. The circumstances were a bit unsavoury - a little like the other week - the captain resigns and you are handed the job. I always got a good response from the players but it was not until the 1989 Ashes tour that I got to grips with it. Until then we had minimal success, mainly the World Cup in 1987.'
No one would now dispute that Border is a successful captain, but it is worth noting, as Atherton begins his second Test in charge, that after opening with a 191-run defeat Border did not get his win-loss ratio into credit for six years.
'It took a while,' he said. 'There were a lot of retirements, not just Lillee, Marsh and Chappell but also players like Mallett and Walters. Then there was the rebel tour of South Africa which took a lot of players out. At the time you think, 'Oh hell' but after a period you realise you can't have it all your own way, the good outweighs the bad as long as you work for it.
'England are in a similar position and (Atherton) will do it tough for a while and that will toughen him. Sometimes it is not a bad thing. It all seems doom and gloom for the moment but if you have to really work for your success when it comes it is all the sweeter. (Atherton) is so young it will be hard, but he has all the right attributes. He is a fighting sort, and he has the intelligence to carry it. It is a learning process. He will learn which players he wants around him, what things to do to get the best out of them. He will recognise danger signs during games, before them and on tour.'
While most regard England's visit to the West Indies with foreboding, Border sees it differently. 'It depends how they approach it. They should take a good young bunch away and say to them, 'We want you to go out and try your guts out, but if you lose, it is a development situation'. It is hard, but it is not a bad place to play them. If I could choose a place to play the West Indies it would be over there. The wickets are fairly good - you get even bounce and not too much sideways movement. Take some young players with a bit of 'ticker' and stick by them.'
Border went twice to the West Indies, once as captain, losing both times, and drew one (under Greg Chappell) of five home series. Not defeating them remains his great regret.
Border first came to notice as a gritty, battling player in the late 1970s - the sort who drives you mad but would love to have in your side. He made his Test debut against Mike Brearley's England 15 years ago. He played two Tests, was dropped for one and has not missed a game since. Never as stylish as most left-handers, he is strongest off his hips and square of the wicket although the cover drive is the shot he enjoys most. For many years he was regarded as possibly the best player of spin around (he says he would play Shane Warne by attacking him) and such is his consistency that he averaged more than 50 even during the four years from 1988 when he failed to make a hundred.
The most remarkable thing about Border is his longevity. He has played 144 consecutive Tests - that is two years of his life - and made 18 Test tours. He has never ducked out on grounds of family, form or health, and has been to the sub-continent more times than any outside cricketer.
'I've felt as captain that I can't be seen to be deciding where I want to play,' he says. 'The only one I missed was a non- Test trip to Sharjah. I enjoy playing the game and I don't mind touring. I find the different countries fascinating in their own ways although it has been harder in recent years with family commitments.' This year Border's wife Jane and three children have spent the summer in Essex.
He has played in more Tests, made more runs, catches and hundreds than anyone else but never chased records. 'They will be something to look back on in years to come,' he says. 'I'll enjoy playing as well as I have.' Retirement beckons, but no date is set.
When he does finish Border will work on his golf, perhaps do some public relations work, and seek to stay involved in the game, ideally working with players, not the media.
One player in particular will get attention - his nine-year-old son Dene, although Border is aware of the pitfalls. 'He is keen,' he says. 'I don't yet know how good he'll be. I've encouraged him to try other things, tennis, golf, but he keeps coming back to cricket. It would be hard not to, he comes in the rooms and Merv bowls at him. I've always said, 'Enjoy it, you don't have to play for Australia'because as a young kid he can't understand that he might not, that it is not just a case of turning up. He'll have some problems, other kids giving him a hard time, media attention - it is ridiculous the amount Liam Botham is facing - but he'll be all right.'
Border will also watch sport. Outside of cricket he is just another fan. Ask about his trip to Augusta with Wayne Grady this year - he caddied for him in a par-three tournament before the Masters - and his eyes light up. At home he follows Brisbane's rugby league team and saw the Challenge Final at Wembley this year.
'The highlight will always be the 1989 tour, just as Headingley '81 remains the low point, but this tour has been an unbelievable follow-up. In '89 it was a bit unexpected. We were written off but we had a great bunch of guys and everything went really well. The reaction back home - ticker-tape parades and so on - was enormous.
'That was an established group of players but this year we injected a bit of youth and came up trumps which is very pleasing. We are a bit jaded now but we'll be going for 5-0 at The Oval. That is the thing that is driving us on. From Headingley you could visibly see a let-down. We'd won the Ashes and there was a reaction that showed in the following county games (they lost to Lancashire). But we turn up at Edgbaston, battle through, and we end up winning. All of a sudden it is 4-0 and our chance to create our own little niche.
'We are forever told about the '48 team and I suppose the young fellas must be sick of us telling '89 stories. So that is what we will be desperate for at The Oval. England will be going, 'Bugger you blokes - we've got to stop the rot and get things moving'. So it'll mean a lot to both sides for very different reasons.'
Although suffering some criticism of his ability in recent years - to which he usually replies with a key innings - Border remains immensely popular in Australia, avoiding the 'build them up, knock them down' syndrome that has affected many of their sportsmen.
Neither the golfer Greg Norman nor the tennis player Pat Cash find much favour with the Australian working man, but Border retains a firm, understated place in their affections.
Perhaps it is because he is very much one of them. The fear that he would no longer be one of the boys that afflicted him when being made captain has never been realised. T
Of his Wembley rugby league trip he said: 'I know John Monie, who was coaching Wigan, and I was able to go and look at the dressing-rooms and actually walked on the pitch. It was a bit of a thrill,' he enthused before adding sheepishly, 'it sounds ridiculous . . . '
A friend, no great cricket fan, admires Border because 'he is a sportsman - you can see he does it because he wants to, not for the money'. That, as much as anything, is the secret of Border's longevity, popularity and success. England will be poorer without his visits - but at least we might win the odd game.
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