Cricket: When the wait finally ended: An extraordinary thing happened at The Oval last week. England won a Test match - and under a captain for whom it was only his second time in charge. Report by Glenn Moore

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The Independent Online
SO JUST what did Michael Atherton say to his troops at The Oval on Monday morning before England went out and won their first Test for more than a year?

Was it Atherton the Manchester United fan delivering an Ally McLeod-style up-and-at-'em speech (replacing the ill-fated Scottish manager's 'remember Bannockburn' line with references to Australia's prime minister, Paul Keating)? Or was it Atherton the Cambridge scholar quoting Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt: 'Once more into the breach dear friends . . . stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood . . . on, on you noble English . . . God for Athers, England and Lord Ted?'

Apparently not. He just said, 'If we have a good day we can win this.' It did the trick, and Atherton became the first England captain since Bob Willis, eight skippers and 11 years ago, to taste victory within his first two Tests. Born to lead, or born lucky?

To a great extent Atherton the captain is cloned from Atherton the batsman. Quiet and thoughtful, calm and determined. But while his batting has rarely been described as relaxed or authoritative his captaincy possesses both qualities.

'Relaxed' is a word that crops up repeatedly among the men who played at The Oval last week; so too is the awareness that, while Atherton is neither aloof nor arrogant - quite the opposite; he fully involves his team in policy-making - he is very much his own man when it comes to making decisions. Behind the mask of youth there is a streak of steel and an inner confidence.

'He's not a captain who will say, 'I'll do this and that's it,' ' said Nasser Hussain, one of Atherton's men last week. 'He takes advice from everyone. He'll ask Goochie, or me, or someone else. He listens, and then he makes his own mind up. He is very calm, he doesn't get flustered - even when we were getting hammered at Edgbaston. And that aura rubs off on you.'

Those close to the team have remarked on how much more relaxed the dressing-room atmosphere was at The Oval. Atherton has now been nicknamed 'Iron Mike'. One official pointed out that the players 'take the mickey out of Atherton in a way they would not have done with Graham Gooch'.

Hussain likened the mood at The Oval, with its accent on youth and enthusiasm, to that in Kingston, Jamaica, nearly four years ago when he was in Gooch's remodelled side which stunned the West Indies. It is a feeling the selectors will do well to consider when they decide whether

to include an old hand like Allan Lamb or David Gower in the Caribbean tour party.

The present side have, like their captain, a strong sense of purpose. 'There were a lot of people with something to prove,' said Mark Ramprakash, another of England's men at The Oval. They arrive at the ground slighter later under Atherton than Gooch - although they still practice keenly. The regime is, however, a little less regimented and, interestingly, Gooch is thriving on it. He was not only seen wearing his West Ham shirt in The Oval dressing-room - an indulgence he did not permit himself as captain - but also a smile. After the initial shock, he even flourished in the junior pro position of short leg.

That move, coming after placing Gooch at fine leg at Edgbaston, underlined that Atherton does not feel inhibited by the presence of his predecessor. There were sound cricketing reasons for it, and they were Atherton's only consideration.

It is still early days, but Atherton may also possess a vital quality that seemed to desert Gooch at key moments - luck. Atherton saw his side finally get the benefit of those close - or poor - umpiring decisions that had gone Australia's way all summer. He also faced a weary Australian side that, the Ashes won, were as keen to lay their hands on a boarding card as a bat or ball.

Under Gooch England suffered injuries to Gooch and Angus Fraser at key times in the Caribbean and to both again, along with Lamb, in Australia. Most of the team were ill at some stage in India and, this year, Alan Igglesden and Martin McCague joined David Lawrence on the casualty list.

The various replacements rarely filled the gap for Gooch, but when Atherton lost Martin Bicknell and Graham Thorpe for this Test, in came Fraser and Ramprakash to play key roles.

But you still have to win it, and a 161-run win cannot be down to luck alone. Crucially, both Fraser and Ramprakash, and the other two players new to the series, Steve Watkin and Devon Malcolm, came from counties enjoying successful seasons. The maxim about winning and losing becoming a habit is no less true for the repetition, and the performances of the three bowlers in particular were vital.

Watkin - yet to lose in three Tests for England - said: 'I felt a lot more relaxed than when I played before (in 1991). Whether that was because I am two years older and wiser or just felt more confident I don't know. Last time I wondered if I should really be there.'

While Watkin played alongside Atherton in 1991 - which, he said, was a help - several of the team go back much further. Hussain and Ramprakash, along with Martin Bicknell, were all in the under-19 teams he led on tour in Sri Lanka in 1987 and Australia in 1988.

'I have known him for 10 years,' Hussain said, 'I am used to playing under him.' Ramprakash added: 'He knows me, knows my game. He did not have any special word with me before batting but knows me well enough to do so if required.'

Because of his late summons Ramprakash missed the England build-up. The team met up on the Tuesday, had a light training session, and then, in the evening, a barbecue at their Chelsea Harbour hotel which was also attended by Ted Dexter.

This was an extended version of the regular short, but compulsory, get-to-know-you drinks party. It was brought in by the England manager, Keith Fletcher, after the third Test when it became apparent that some of the incomers barely knew their team-mates. It was not quite as bad as the time when Australia's Bruce Reid was picked before he had met Allan Border (who was told to look out for a 'tall, skinny guy'). Mark Lathwell, for instance, had never been to Headingley before the fourth Test.

Wednesday is the main practice session with, in the evening, the team dinner followed by a meeting which, under Atherton, tends to have more input from the younger players than before. This is not to say that Gooch was autocratic, just that his seniority in terms of age and stature would naturally be inhibiting on more junior players. 'It does help having a captain more my age,' admitted one. 'My relationship with Mike is unchanged, he is still a genuine nice guy,' said another.

Thursday saw Graham Thorpe's injury and Ramprakash's call-up. Before each day's play Atherton was brief and to the point. He is not one for the big team talk. 'He just has a quick chat after the warm-up on the lines of 'We had a good/bad day yesterday, now this is what we

want to achieve today and so on',' Ramprakashsaid, adding: 'There is no magic formula.'

So far Atherton tends to work on the principle that Test players don't need telling how to bat or bowl, that they should just continue playing the way they did to get in the team. But how Atherton deals with telling a specialist that he is doing the wrong things will be a good test of his man-management.

So will his control of dissent - he has strong views on discipline but in the excitement of Monday came close to overstepping the mark himself - and his relationship with the manager, especially after last winter when he was to some extent frozen out by him. It was noticeable that only Atherton attended the post- match Oval press conference.

By Sunday, England were in with a chance. Then came the rain. 'We had been confident from the second day onwards,' Watkin said, 'so the rain was disappointing. We sat in the dressing-room checking the Teletext every few minutes (Watkin's Glamorgan side were involved in a vital Sunday League match) but in the end it was almost to our advantage. On the last day I felt very relaxed. In county cricket you would back yourself to bowl out a side on the last day and I could not see why it should be any different. They were never going to get 390-odd so it was easier to bowl knowing I didn't have to worry about runs.

'I knew we had to strike quickly, though. I felt if we did not get a wicket by lunch it would be easy for them. Everything Mike did came off. His bowling changes worked and so did his fielding changes - at one stage he moved me in 15 yards and Merv Hughes hit it straight to me. On another occasion I couldn't quite hold on.'

The rest is rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. But it must be remembered that while victory was a relief, England still lost the series

4-1. As Hussain, with an awareness of the challenges ahead, said: 'The bowlers bowled well and we had the rub of the green. It is only one game and you can't get carried away, but he has made a great start.'

Ahead lie the West Indies. Atherton, with his sense of perspective, ability to assimilate different cultures, discipline and amiability, is the ideal man to lead such an overseas tour. But while posed with ill- timing and grace, the question asked of Atherton at his first winner's press conference - 'Are you up to it in the Windies?' - remains pertinent. His leadership should be - we will find out in the New Year if that is also the case with his batting, his team and his luck.