Cricket: The Test of his life

Andrew Longmore finds a break from the treadmill has rekindled the famous Atherton resolve; Caribbean will be the final proving ground for England's captain after four years of intensive labours
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Michael Atherton has been reading The Fight by Norman Mailer, as appropriate a text as any for a tour of the Caribbean. The England Test captain has shipped some punishment during his four years in the job, done his share of ducking and weaving, been floored once by the evidence of some dirt and a television camera and again last summer by the vagaries of form, yet has emerged unbowed to create another line of history. When England depart on Saturday for 10 days of preparation in Antigua before their first match in Jamaica on 16 January, he will become the first England captain to take a touring side back to the West Indies. The concern for Atherton is that nothing much has changed in the interim. An uncomfortable amount of his time has been spent on the ropes.

Four years ago, a side not regarded by the West Indians as a patch on its predecessors won the first three Tests before suffering a remarkable reversal of fortune in Barbados where an unlikely England victory was inspired by Alec Stewart's batting and the bowling of Angus Fraser. But it will be of little satisfaction to a man of Atherton's pragmatic, unheroic, nature that the guerrilla strike rather than the concerted campaign has been the overwhelming feature of his record tenure of the captaincy. England winning a Test match is still as much of a shock as it was when he took over in such adverse circumstances in the summer of 1993. Victory in the final Test of that Ashes series, warmly welcomed as a sign of changing fortunes, heralded only further disappointments, punctuated by similarly desperate face-savers. Devon Malcolm's Test against South Africa in 1994, Barbados in 1995 and then again last summer at The Oval in the Test which in effect saved Atherton from resignation.

No one has been more perplexed, irritated and, finally, depressed by England's lack of progress than Atherton himself. Atherton is not easily given to fits of emotion, at either end of the spectrum. So the protracted media circus of the "will he, won't he" decision at the end of the season is regarded now with near embarrassment. He is not one for the fuss, yet for a week he held the nation in thrall for the nod or the shake of his Just William forelock. "No second thoughts," he said two months on, adding enigmatically. "Never second guess yourself, that's the first rule of captaincy."

During his time away, Atherton has straightened out more than just his technique. Hours with Graham Gooch in the nets have corrected faults in the position of his feet and his body in readiness for a renewed bout of sparring with Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose. His mind too, so cluttered by the disappointments between Edgbaston and The Oval, by his own inability to lead from the front, has been spring-cleaned. All doubts hoovered, the cobwebs of confusion dusted away. The figure which appeared before the media at The Oval - not Lord's symbolically - last month talked practically about the connection between captaincy and confidence. Most of all, he talked about respect, the bond which ties a captain to his team.

"I thought bad form might affect my captaincy," he said. "I'd really not had a bad run of form with the bat when I was captain until Zimbabwe and I thought decisions would become more difficult. But I didn't find that. I found I was able to maintain an equilibrium in how I behaved even when I wasn't getting a stackful of runs. I think that helps. I think if your players see that you're the same person when you're getting nought as when you're getting 100 they can accept the decisions, the bollockings, the praise, whatever, far easier.

"Captaincy is essentially about respect and you need to maintain respect as a player. You need to have respect as a captain with the tactical decisions you take and as a human being in your relationships with the players. If you've got respect in those three areas, you're well on the way to doing a good job." In those frantic days in September, Atherton needed, above all, to be persuaded that respect for him within the dressing-room remained undiminished. The most significant phone call came not from David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, nor from his long-time friend David Lloyd, the England coach, but from Alec Stewart, a potential successor, begging him to stay on. Starved of runs, his usual currency of respect, that was the confirmation Atherton needed to hear.

If Atherton has succeeded in divorcing his form as player and captain, he has also managed to distil the private from the public person. The public Atherton is buttoned down to the point of boredom. His most astonishing feat as captain has nothing to do with rearguard actions in Johannesburg or visionary tactics at The Oval, but in establishing an inverse proportion between the coordinates of fame and understanding. The more we see of Atherton, the less we know. The tabloids have long since given up the hunt for skeletons. Atherton press conferences have all the excitement of a Buddhist chant. Or, his critics might say, of an Atherton innings. Yet when the Sun printed pictures of his backside, then rung up to arrange dinner with the sports editor, Atherton surprisingly accepted the offer.

We feed off snippets of information: Atherton always the last man out of the dressing-room at night, Atherton the dry wit, the nervous driver, the voracious reader, the earthy northern soul in search of a decent pint, the lover of chess and the master of Balderdash, a cerebral word game. It is not much. The old "when in Rome" retort to Ian Healy's chuntering on one Australian tour is still as good an example of Atherton's quiet humour as any. But you do not have to look further than the field. Atherton's inner self spills out all over the crease: intense, competitive, self- contained, passionate in a Boycottian way. Poor form as much as poor results prompted his confusion last summer. His back, a source of more pain than he would care to admit, hurt like hell at times; making no runs hurt more.

Whether the success of Adam Hollioake, the PR darling, will force Atherton to relax his public image or harden the cussed side of his nature remains to be seen. For the moment, refreshed, cleansed, Atherton is resolutely optimistic about the series ahead. This time on justification rather than whim. For once his opposite number, whoever is chosen, will be under greater pressure. Disgrace at a continent's distance in Pakistan is bad enough; defeat at home by England a cause for revolution. And while only fools would underestimate a side staffed by Walsh, Ambrose and Brian Lara, political turmoil has already weakened brittle temperaments. The West Indian top order is erratic, the fast bowling reliant on a pair of thirtysomethings, the spinners are raw. Critics - many and vociferous - fear terminal decline rather than transition.

The First Test, on a relaid pitch in Jamaica, will be critical. Defeat would restore the West Indians to favour and condemn England to another long slog through turquoise waters. Atherton has around him the men he wants, many of them with experience of the Caribbean: Thorpe, Hussain, Tufnell, Caddick, Stewart, Ramprakash, Russell and, above all, Fraser, his true soulmate. "Players who can handle any situation temperamentally," he says. Fingers will be crossed for the fitness of Darren Gough, the one bowler the Australians genuinely feared. The real first rule of captaincy, as Atherton would acknowledge, is to be lucky. After all these years, Atherton deserves to be on the vertical side of the knockout punch.