Cricket: West Indies Tour: Partnership built on mutual respect: Richard Williams sees a young commander keep pace with the world's finest fast bowler

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The Independent Online
ELEVEN months ago, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart were standing at the same end of the pitch in the Wankhede Stadium, Bombay, each waiting for the other to be given run out. Some of us persuaded ourselves that the future of the England captaincy hung on the umpire's decision. It was the low point of England's most humiliating year.

Months later, after the larger issue had been settled, Atherton and Stewart were at pains to deny the significance of the incident. And yesterday the captain and his deputy supported and encouraged each other through an opening partnership which confirmed England's return to reasonable health under the new regime.

Yesterday's special mini- drama came in the opening over. Once Atherton had won the toss and decided to bat, the confrontation between the young England captain and Curtly Ambrose, the hardened spearpoint of the present West Indies attack, was immediately invested with a meaning beyond that of a mere six balls out of several thousand to be bowled between now and the end of the tour.

Under a bright blue sky and with a packed George Headley Stand behind him, big Curtly rolled in for an over that had the potential to spoil England's promising start to their Caribbean tour. Atherton hunkered down under his blue helmet and waited for the music to begin.

The first ball, short of a length outside the off stump, he could safely leave. The second, a beauty, drew him half-forward as it beat his outside edge. He played the third confidently, softening his grip to drop it down off his hip just wide of short leg. The fourth, outside the off stump, he could ignore again. The fifth bit into the mocha-brown clay just short of a length and snorted past his helmet on the way to Junior Murray's gloves. The sixth, sliding away from the off stump, required no response.

And so the first ordeal was over. Now Atherton and Stewart were able to get their heads down and occupy the crease with a patience that was enough to take them through to the middle of the afternoon session, at which point both lost their wickets to Kenneth Benjamin, perhaps the least highly regarded of West Indies' four fast men. When the younger of the Benjamins struck again an hour after tea, claiming the two left- handers, Thorpe and Russell, in a single over, that - rather than Ambrose's opening blast - was the moment at which Atherton must have realised the seriousness of his task over the coming weeks.

He has begun well, his own self-possession setting the tone for a vastly more relaxed and affable touring party than the one which returned from India and Sri Lanka last March under Graham Gooch's demoralised leadership. Commonsense, diligence and a refusal to bow to superior odds will mark his captaincy as much as they do his batting.

Behind his attractively open demeanour, too, he is showing a useful ability to keep his own counsel in the face of practised inquisitors. Had he already decided, someone asked at Friday's press conference, which of the two spinners he was going to pick for the Test? 'Yes,' he replied, with an air of absolute certainty. Would he tell us? 'No,' he said, with a broad grin. Now we know what he was really thinking, and the ability to disguise his intentions without a hint of deceit is one of the qualities that should stand him in equally good stead on the field of play.

Since he revealed his fondness for the works of Milan Kundera and Joseph Heller last year, Atherton's reading habits have become the object of continuing interest. So it may not be without significance that Isabel Allende's House of Spirits is currently at the top of the pile. A good choice: he and his team are likely to need both magic and realism before this tour is through.