Last Wednesday, grinning from ear to ear after captaining England to a comprehensive 61- run victory over the West Indies in Bridgetown, he not only played a one-day international, but won the man of the match as well. Not even a peek through the Hubble telescope could have seen such future star billing. And after the disasters of India, neither could anyone else.
While a single one-day victory does not quite warrant a ticker-tape parade these days, it will certainly have buoyed spirits and dispelled any lurking doubts after the early games against substandard opposition. However, as an indicator for predicting the outcome of the Test matches, limited-over games are about as reliable as Keith Fletcher's memory - at a function recently, the manager kept calling Sir Clyde Walcott, Everton. 'Well,' said Fletcher, 'I knew it was one of them famous Ws.'
Atherton is well aware that West Indies have been in disarray in one-day games before, and knows they will not be as unfocused during the Tests. Nevertheless, the game in Bridgetown was his first one-dayer in charge since taking over the England job from Graham Gooch, and it threw up interesting points about his style and capacity for leadership.
First, Atherton confessed to having allowed Fletcher to talk him into batting first after winning the toss. Hindsight showed the decision to be spot on, though at 202 England were at least 25 runs light of a really competitive total.
While some may criticise the captain for an inability to read the pitch, Atherton was candid enough to give credit to Fletcher, and admitted drawing on the latter's experience. Honesty was a policy stressed by Atherton when he took over last summer, and this gesture showed the bond between them.
With injuries narrowing selection, he showed a healthy disregard for stereotype, going for Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm (neither of whom are regular one-day choices for their counties) instead of Ian Salisbury (who plays every game).
He also plumped to bat Graham Thorpe at No 3. This was a mistake, especially as Alec Stewart was first man out. Run scoring in one-day cricket usually works best when you rotate the strike between a nudger and a whacker and Thorpe and Atherton were two of a kind. This aside, Atherton played his own innings to perfection, particularly when it became apparent that the softer the ball got, the harder it was to time.
Even though England won by 61 runs, the pressure was on England's bowlers and fielders during the early overs and Atherton juggled his attack thoughtfully. Instead of bowling Tufnell the moment the field could be spread (after 15 overs) as one- day orthodoxy suggests, Atherton saw that the swinging ball was proving difficult to get away. Instead he kept Chris Lewis and Alan Igglesden - his best bowlers on the day - going in tandem, to keep the pressure on a West Indies line-up that batted key players - such as Phil Simmons - out of order.
He was also decisive in removing Malcolm from the attack, after the paceman had bowled just one over of his second spell. It was not likely that Andy Cummins's assault on Malcolm's over would endanger England's grip on the game at that stage, but with the Test match in mind, Atherton did not want his strike bowler low on confidence because of a battering at the hands of a tail-
ender. Even games in the bag can present conundrums and his handling of Malcolm was a case of damage limitation.
Good doses of fortune were certainly England's on the day, but a competent and professional performance brought them a deserved victory. Body language was positive throughout, and Atherton, as he had done earlier with the bat, again led by example. Many people think this is an aspect of sport that is over- hyped, but the higher the level of competition, the more psychological the game becomes and the narrower the means by which advantages are gained.
Unlike Gooch, he never presented a weary demeanour (mind you he has only been in the job a few months) and he was quick to let the umpires know that he was a figure of authority too. There is a fine line between legitimate query and pointless whinge and he will have to be careful not to overstep the mark.
After Cummins had bowled him an unintentional beamer, he was right to enquire why the ball was not declared illegal. But his questioning of the umpire when a marginal wide was called against Igglesden was unnecessary and tactless considering the state of the game.
Off the field, he enjoys being one of the boys and although he is not deliberately aloof, his outlook and character stand him apart - like the determined scholar who lets his hair down with the lads once exams are out of the way. For the moment, though, the sternest examination has only just begun.
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