Since having major surgery in 1991 Atherton has been aware that his bad back could end his career at any time, and despite the fact that X-rays have revealed no serious deterioration, there must still be a chance that he will fail to complete the winter's tours to Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
Atherton already takes pain-killers on a daily basis (ostensibly for his back, but possibly to numb the pain generated by watching England routinely performing like total duffers).
The glum demeanour, for which he has been criticised out here, may be entirely down to physical discomfort. He does, however, plan to play in the four-day match against Matabeleland starting on Tuesday.
Meantime, his team-mates responded to their humiliating defeat by Mashonaland with a night on the town, but if letting your hair down seems a strange way to behave after letting your country down, it was, in fact, a long overdue palliative.
The players were in serious danger of establishing their own Trappist monastery (the Order of St Michael of Atherton) and that vital ingredient to any tour - team spirit - was in danger of evaporating under the all- work-and-no-play ethos.
In any event, as long as the players restricted themselves to only as many drinks as they had scored runs recently, there was never any danger of anyone turning up with a hangover for yesterday's net practice. There have been no official team orders to be tucked up with a good book before the nine o'clock news, but the heavy accent on training and fitness levels introduced by the coach, David Lloyd, had left many - particularly the younger players - fearful that anything more potent than a ginger beer would result in a criminal record.
Important though it is to improve fitness levels, the dangers of becoming obsessive have been clearly illustrated by past regimes, and cricketers - especially on tour - respond best to being allowed a little latitude within their own individual character traits.
It is possibly no coin- cidence that England's last Ashes victory over Australia, on the 1986-87 tour, saw three of the senior players - Ian Botham, Allan Lamb and David Gower - being allowed extra tolerance when it came to net practice. Botham's idea of batting in the nets was either to slog the ball out of the ground or to try and pick off a passing journalist. Gower's apparent aversion to nets might even have been a medical condition - nettus allergicus - and it seemed logical to let them practise, within reason, when they wanted.
The most common sight on a Zimbabwean cricket ground so far on this tour is the England fitness coach, Dean Riddle, clutching a chart and blowing a whistle while players hare up and down performing what are apparently known as beep tests. The figures he writes down are doubtless highly instructive, but so are the figures on the scoreboard, which seems to be permanently stuck on 29 for four.
England may be paying the penalty for spending the two months before leaving home concentrating on honing muscles rather than skills. It is all very well being able to run 22 yards in three seconds, but it is not much use when your off stump is lying flat to the ground.
At the moment it is a touching act of faith if an England batsman bothers to put on the sunscreen when he leaves the dressing-room, and the way that two of Zimbabwe's leading Test players, Dave Houghton and Alistair Campbell, scored their runs for Mashonaland does not make you feel over-optimistic about the bowling either. Darren Gough, despite a blistered foot, has performed pretty well, as has Alan Mullally, but Chris Silverwood has made a nervous start, and to describe Andrew Caddick's bowling as ordinary would be un- warranted flattery.
Caddick's other problem is that when a batsman gets after him, he has the body language of a failed souffle.
Atherton has already conceded that the shadow Test side performed like a shadow of any side you could care to mention, and he talked after the game about ``exploring options'' for next week's four-day match. One of these is Ronnie Irani at number seven, probably at the expense of Caddick.