Sport in '98: Captain courageous Atherton has the experience and talent to prove his critics wrong

Whatever else happens, 1998 will settle the arguments over Michael Atherton's position in the pecking order of England captains. He can be acknowledged already as one of the most stubborn and thickskinned; the coming months will determine whether he is remembered for more.

By common consent, the West Indies are in disarray, to such an extent that England can look upon the tour that opens their year as their best chance since Colin Cowdrey's tourists won 1-0 in 1968 of coming back from the Caribbean victorious, as the persuasive voices who talked Atherton down from the brink of resignation last August will have pointed out.

Significantly, Atherton goes with a team that truly can be called his own. Nine of those travelling were with him on his first venture to the West Indies four years ago, when he declared that he would pick young players and back them all the way. That policy has been blown off course a few times in the interim but here is a belated opportunity for those in whom he showed faith then - Hussain, Ramprakash, Caddick and Tufnell principal among them - to prove his judgment correct. Should they succeed, so will have Atherton.

Naturally, the outcome of the five-Test series will colour the mood of next summer, when England play South Africa in five Tests and Sri Lanka in one. In some ways, unless the signals prove to have been misleading, the South Africans represent a more potent challenge than the West Indies to the theory that England are on an upward curve. If Atherton comes home triumphant in April, his reputation could be in ruins again by August and Allan Donald, rather than Brian Lara, might be the man who decides his place in history. Alternatively, Donald may teach Adam Hollioake that a hard road lies ahead.

For Atherton, much depends on whether they can replace the injured Darren Gough adequately, and whether his supporting cast can overcome the one area of experience in which they are lacking: that of beating decent opposition. But my hunch is that he made the right decision to stay on.

Prediction: Vindication rather than vilification for Atherton; and at home a Nottinghamshire revival.

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