Michael Atherton scarcely needed to adjust his feet before the ball was pinging against the cover boundary fence. How, an Australian journalist had asked him, could he begin to persuade his team that Steve Waugh's titans can be scaled down all the way to the point of defeat here at Trent Bridge over the next five days?
Atherton's eyes narrowed, just perceptibly, like Clint Eastwood's when somebody is about to make his day. He shot back, "We know they can be beaten. They were beaten in their last series, against India."
A matter of record, of course, but it is entirely typical of Atherton that he should pick out a fact as another man might reach for a gun. Nobody needs to tell him that the ammunition is running desperately low, but if England are down to their last chances of rescuing this Ashes series, if they are pretty near to their last bullet, the stand-in captain has never shown a tendency to yield to the inevitable.
It is just as well. The demand on Atherton as captain was almost always that he should be the man disputing the concept of defeat. Sydney, Melbourne, Port of Spain, Antigua, Johannesburg, even Auckland, have all required him to outline the requirements of withstanding a siege. His return to the job, however brief his tenure, in one way must be like re-immersing his hand in a vat of boiling oil.
He once said with great feeling: "I do not see myself as a celebrity, or a politician, and while it is a great honour to be captain of England it is not something I want to do beyond the point where it kills all my enjoyment of the thing I love most in life, which is to play cricket."
It was hard to forget that sentiment at Trent Bridge yesterday. A ground which has often represented a safe harbour in Atherton's career – he has scored five centuries on Nottingham's classic flat wickets – now represents a trial as severe as any ever faced by this proud and obdurate cricketer.
He chastised another journalist for focusing on results rather than the processes by which they are reached. Yes, defeat was indeed hard on England at Lord's, the dropped catches were unacceptable, but Atherton insisted there were points of promise, when the match and, who knows the whole series, might have shifted course, at least to some degree.
Atherton, his only humour sardonic in the sunshine flooding through the pavilion window, said that there had been some intense catching practice, which he pointed out was a vital business but not rocket science. "Of course we can win," he said. "It's never going to be easy against these Australians. We know they are a good side. But heads are not down, as they were not going into Lord's. In many ways I was very pleased with the team's approach to that game."
It is just Atherton's luck, of course, that he should be required to stand on the bridge again as the ship of English cricket is swept back towards the rocks. Last summer at The Oval when the West Indians, admittedly atrophied West Indians, were finally beaten, he wore an expression that carried as much relief as exhilaration. England, under the forceful leadership of Nasser Hussain, had turned a corner – or so it seemed. The reality is that once again Atherton is required to lead into the field an England team who are widely seen as sacrifice to the gods of cricket. Of course Atherton – and no doubt Steve Waugh – would dispute that status for the current Australians, but not even the defiance of the Englishman can diminish wider fears that the tourists are indeed building again for an outpouring of fresh brilliance.
Waugh suggested that "big runs" may well be coming from Ricky Ponting, currently fretting over his relative failure to justify predictions that he would be the man of the summer, and Matthew Hayden, who is moving with some menace towards a return of the best of his form. and this is not to mention Waugh himself, his brother Mark, Damien Martyn and the cyclonic Adam Gilchrist. There are potential echoes here, surely, of the rampant form of a Brian Lara moving towards his peak a few years ago in the Caribbean. One recalls Atherton reflecting on Lara's performance in the Guyana Test, shortly before England were ransacked, for 48, in Port of Spain. "He was like a river in flood," Atherton recalled, shaking his head. "Whatever you did with field placings, he just flowed on."
Will the Waughs and Ponting and Co inflict such an ordeal over the next few days?
Waugh, as always, is wary of hubris. Yesterday he dodged inevitable questions about the spate of comparisons with the great teams of the past, contenting himself with the ambition that when this series is over, his team will have left their "mark" – and persuaded cricket fans to return to watch the game with deeper, greater expectations. Waugh, no less, is sending the carefully coded message that his team are intent on changing the game, pushing back its horizons.
Despite the hiccup in India, only the churlish would dispute the validity of such an ambition. Waugh's team of 2001 may not be Bradman's team of '48 – was Muhammad Ali another Joe Louis, or a different branch of the same exalted form – but they are a team who play with passion and colour and a relentless determination to win. As a small army of autograph hunters waited for them to finish their early morning, optional work-out at Trent Bridge – Shane Warne cheerfully admitted that he had chosen to come early to the field rather than report for a 10am session in the gym – you could see the force of the men Atherton is required to stop.
Atherton, not being a churl, recognises the extent of his challenge. But that doesn't mean, he reminded everyone at Trent Bridge, that you have to turn it in. It is something he probably says as he sleeps. Wherever he happens to be doing it.