After the last World Cup Graham Gooch fingered him as England's top batsman, and no one was arguing: he scored 285 runs (averaging 57), engineered a penultimate- ball victory over South Africa with a slick-wristed 75, and brought England within sniffing distance of Pakistan in the final with his 62. More recently, Atherton has agreed that he is the best one-day player in England, the man who most neatly marries purposefulness and composure. Sometimes, to be sure, he bats like someone with a plane to catch, but there are times too when his canny judgement of the run rate seems both precise and nerveless.
So a good part of England's destiny in the coming weeks will be in his hands. He is the one who will come in down the order to force the pace at the end of the innings, the one whose job it is to tease the bowlers and annoy the fielders, the one who has to wring scores out of the tail and balance the run rate. Sometimes he will be called on to steady the ship after a poor start, but he is also the one who has to turn a good start into a winning score.
At a time when all the talk is of "bits and pieces" players - batters who can turn their arm over, and bowlers who can hold their own with the bat - he is a rare beast: a tip-and-run specialist with a record that many top Test players can only envy. In 50 one-day internationals he has scored around 1,400 runs at an average of 40, figures that are all the more impressive for having been acquired mainly in the nerve haunted closing overs of the run chase.
Yet his Test career (as he is bored of hearing) has been brief and inglorious: 15 innings, 219 runs, and a measly average of 15.64. For a man whose name suggests someone born to the role (his parents called him Neil Harvey Fairbrother, after the fabled Australian left-hander) the gap is embarrassing. Over the years he has played down its significance, and his supporters - most notably Lancashire's David Lloyd - have repeatedly insisted that he has just been unlucky. But in South Africa, confronted once again with the charge that he was strictly a heigh-ho player, fit only for cartoon one-day escapades, he came close to admitting defeat.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there's got to be something in the perception of me as purely a one-day player. If I could put my finger on what the difference was I'd do something about it. When people ask me I just don't know. But the figures are there." Luck plays a cruel and emphatic part in cricket, more than in other sports, and it is possible that,given more opportunities and a couple of breaks, Fairbrother might have cracked the five-day habit by now. "Test cricket is a strange environment at first," he said once. "You aren't playing with people you know, and if you don't succeed immediately you feel the pressure of the world on your shoulders."
Fairbrother is certainly capable of batting for a long time - his triple century at the Oval a few years ago was hardly the work of a man whose attention span is only 15 overs. But the way he scores his runs - jagging the ball fine on the offside and squirting it off his pads - is pretty risky when there are five slips and a short leg. He is alarmingly (or refreshingly, depending on your point of view) happy to hit the ball in the air, and he thrives on the conditions that prevail in the second half of a one-day innings - old ball, tired bowlers, and the field all over the place.
But there is no doubting his dexterity. In a one-day match against the West Indies last May - appropriately enough the 1,000th one-day international - he scored 61 off 52 balls with as perfectly judged an innings as anyone could hope to see. It was hard to see why batting so positive and clever should not succeed in any form of cricket. Almost alone among England's batsmen (Graham Thorpe being the other contemporary example), he seemed to know how to score six an over without slogging. But he was not considered for the Test side, nor for the tour to South Africa until the one-day circus at the end. If he does succeed in Pakistan or India, it probably will not help him get into the team next summer.
So far as the coming weeks are concerned, this might not matter. England's one-day side has just emerged, rubbing its eyes in dismay, from a six- defeat walloping in South Africa. But it need not take much to put them back on the right track. A few inside edges to fine leg, lots of scampered leg byes, and the odd snick over the wicketkeeper's head will do just fine. And for Fairbrother, the World Cup is not a brief merry-go-round in a larger international career, but the biggest stage there is.
There's no talk here of a man jaded by too much touring and too many five-star hotels. These days are his to seize. Coaches are convinced that one-day cricket is a different game, so the better he performs, the more often he turns ones into twos and improvises little crooked dabs all over the place, the more the purists will shake their heads and say that he can't be trusted in Tests. The poor man cannot win.Reuse content