Never can 15 months of international cricket have so crystallised the fraught public existence of an England captain or the wild inconsistency of his team. Humiliation in Zimbabwe, recovery in New Zealand, elation to begin with against Australia, depression and derision to follow, jubilation again to finish at the Oval. The will-he-won't-he-stay-in-the-job saga was followed by ironic success for England in Sharjah without him. Then came Jamaica and that dramatic hour before Trinidad twice in the most exhausting back-to-back Test matches of his time. And all through these past months there has been the thread of Hamlet's self-inquisition, to be captain or not to be captain, and the relentless media probing that accompanies the question. Talk about life in the goldfish bowl.
It was not known at the time but after the Trent Bridge Test, the fifth against Australia last summer, which England lost, Atherton had had enough and resigned. This was not the move of a martyr but the conclusion of an unselfish leader whose team had failed to regain the Ashes and who decided that, after four largely unsuccessful years in the most personally demanding role in British sport, it was time for someone else to have a go.
Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the England Cricket Board, told him he was making a mistake. ``I thought it was wrong and uncharacteristic for Michael to buckle under media pressure,'' said MacLaurin. ``His being hounded out benefits no one, not the game, not the team and certainly not the man. It was a case of resisting emotional issues and letting the dust settle. Anyway, it was bad timing with only one Test of the summer left and such an assortment of cricket to come in the winter. We needed a show of solidarity and I was very keen for him to see it through.''
Atherton told MacLaurin that he felt he had done all he could for the team and had nothing left to give. MacLaurin urged him to think again and call him back. Atherton did and, surprisingly in the light of his comment that he was a stubborn Lancastrian who would not change his mind, he agreed to continue.
Then, after the Oval Test which England won so thrillingly, Atherton again considered his future. On the journey back to London for the press conference he told David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, that he was unavailable to captain the side in the Caribbean. Graveney rang David Lloyd, the England coach and a close friend of Atherton, who urged him that their work together was only half done.
The call which swayed it, though, was from Alec Stewart, his certain successor if he resigned. ``I thought it was fine for him to stand down if he felt his batting form was affected by the captaincy but not if he bowed to pressure from outside. Really, that shouldn't get to him or to any of us. I felt we could win here and with his experience and toughness I thought our best chance was with him as captain,'' Stewart said this week.
There is a relevance and poignancy to Stewart's advice that gave it further conviction. During Graham Gooch's tour to India in 1992/93, Atherton was cruelly excluded from any of the selectors' plans until the final Test in Bombay. In one of those silly run-out cock-ups, he and Stewart found themselves stranded at the same end with no one doubting that Atherton was out of his ground and should have gone. Instead he turned away from his batting partner and wandered back into the crease. The umpire wrongly gave Stewart out.
THERE was never a whisper from Stewart, and never has been through the various rumours that he was about to replace Atherton as captain. Indeed, their support for each other is a feature of the team and another convincing reason for them to open the batting.
On the two occasions they have found some momentum at the crease during this tour, England won once and should have won the other. They put on 91 in the second innings of the first Test in Trinidad and then in the second, chasing a record 225 to win in the last innings, they put on 129 for the first wicket which set up the memorable victory.
Defeat in that first Test at Port of Spain drained Atherton. ``It was a key game, what with them having lost their three previous Tests in Pakistan, and losing again would have torn them apart. We were all desperately upset to lose,'' he said. ``It was around 36 degrees most days and every session was as tense as the last. We were knackered and it was immediately obvious that we needed two days of rest to clear our minds.''
In the team meeting 72 hours later Atherton stressed that for the first three days of the previous game England had been the better side, had deserved to win and eight times out of 10 would have done so. Just about everything planned had worked, he added. The only mistake had been relaxing on the last day and expecting to win. The West Indies wicketkeeper, David Williams, played probably the freak innings of his life in support of Carl Hooper's masterly unbeaten 94 and England had umpiring decisions go against them.
But the ``expecting to win'' was the interesting thing. Before the tour Atherton had said that in 1994 England had come to the West Indies more in hope than expectation. This time his team were in expectation not hope, he said, and anybody around them, sensing their inner belief and for once genuine, not laddish, outward confidence, could understand this. Dean Headley, on the evening before the first Test, said: ``If we don't win this series we will have only ourselves to blame.''
Well, they did not win the first time in Trinidad and they were, ultimately, to blame, but the point was that unlike previous England tours abroad, which folded in front of Atherton's bemused eyes, the famous old fat lady was a long way from the end of her song. After an unpromising first day in the second Trinidad match, which the West Indies finished at 271 for three, England inched back, niggling away at the weaknesses and keeping the strengths - Lara, Chanderpaul, Ambrose and Walsh - in check. ``To win, to come back as we did, showed great character,'' said Atherton, ``which is why we should not be written off now after losing in Guyana.''
``Mike is an incredibly strong person,'' said Graveney, ``and is the main ingredient of the numerous fightbacks he has led. To open the batting at Test level and deal with all the hassles and public examination that go with being captain is tough. It got to Mark Taylor's play and look at the team he has got to get him out of jail. Athers has achieved great loyalty in the ranks and the candidates put forward to replace him - Stewart and Hussain - are his greatest supporters. I'm not surprised his teams keep coming back. That resilience is the reason he is chosen as captain.''
On this tour Atherton has appeared relaxed. Uncommonly, on Test match mornings and at press conferences, he has smiled. In Guyana, on the first morning of the fourth Test, he casually asked Paul Allott about the pitch and therefore what his team should be. Imagine that issue still on a captain's mind an hour before play! He conducted his press conference at the end of the match through a realistic eye and in a pleasant manner.
His regret in Guyana was losing the toss; the dismay was the important catches which went to ground, particularly Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who was on nine when he was dropped at slip and went on to make a hundred.
``I don't believe that our bowling is the problem people say it is - we've looked like knocking the West Indies over twice in all three Tests - and I don't believe that Alec can open the batting and keep wicket in this heat,'' said Atherton. ``I do know we must catch our catches and score more consistently in the first innings.''
Which is where the captain's batting becomes an issue. He has had a rum time since his great defensive innings, the 185 in South Africa two years ago. Since then he has made just two hundreds and since the match-winner in Christchurch, New Zealand, a year ago last February, he has made only two fifties.
He has worked hard this winter with Gooch and occasionally, the second innings of the second Trinidad Test for example, he has looked organised in his footwork and smooth in his strokes. Overall, though, he seems slower than usual, stuck in the crease and late with his hands in adjusting to the speed and movement of the new ball. He says he worked at basic things with Gooch and most specifically at being sideways on to the bowler. I believe his stance is a little too closed, too side-on exaggerated, which is a reason why he is not driving down the ground or through mid-on as often as he did.
``I feel in good form,'' he said. ``I am honest with my own game and admit I was in trouble last winter but I am in good shape now and I'll score plenty of runs. Poor pitches and good bowlers have got me out this tour, nothing more. I am not worried.''
He has not, he adds, planned anything special to counter the 14 similar ways that Curtly Ambrose has got him out in Test cricket. He is kidding himself about his form - were he not captain he may not be playing.
And so to the Achilles' heel of the man, or is it that this weakness is his strength: his extreme, unrelenting stubborness? Once, when we were in a selection meeting on England's A tour to Zimbabwe in 1990, Atherton, who was vice-captain, disagreed with a point of principle so picked up a newspaper and read it. That was rude. A week later in a team meeting he said that he was the best catcher in the team, so should field at backward point, the key position, in the one-day matches. That was cocky. In the first over of the first game he flew to his right and held a stunning catch. It was sensational money-where-your-mouth-is stuff, and typical.
He has never liked the press and has been obstinate in his refusal to charm them. He has a contempt which he does not disguise for certain types of newspapers and journalism so if they judge him by his dealings with them he has got no chance. He will not compromise himself and if it costs him his job then so be it.
He talks of his time at Cambridge University as ``my life at college,'' which characterises the unexplained self-deprecation that is his style. He is wary of the public school type but is fond of John Barclay, the effervescent Etonian who managed England's last two tours. He has captained England more times than any man, more than the Oxbridge set of May, Cowdrey, Dexter or Brearley and yet you feel his heart is with the Huttons, Greigs and Bothams, who led from the shop floor.
Bob Bennett, manager of this tour and until recently his chairman at Lancashire, said: ``He can be abrupt but differences of opinion are instantly forgotten. I agree that his failure to appreciate the opposite view suggests a lack of flexibility but I believe that his stubborness is a strength and has seen him through a very difficult time for English cricket.''
IT WAS a difficult time indeed just over a year ago when the team were mauled in the media for their indifference on and off the field in Zimbabwe. I was there and whatever they say, whatever insular defence mechanism springs into action, they let English cricket down.
``I don't agree,'' said Atherton, ``it's as simple as that. I'm a sociable person and have loved every minute of every tour I've been on. We made friends in Zimbabwe, whatever people suggest. The press have got to write something, they never just say you played badly. In India in 92/93 it was because we dressed badly and didn't shave. In Zimbabwe it was because we didn't go out on the piss.''
Over to Ian MacLaurin: ``If Michael says that it is a shame. It's crass to put up a wall and hide behind it. If 15 cricketers fester in a room the siege mentality thing develops. Peter Chingoka, the president of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, said to me: 'Ian, we were so looking forward to hosting the England team, frankly now I would be delighted to see them go tomorrow'. That's awful but it's all of our faults, not only the captain or The Management. It's Tim Lamb, it's me, it's everyone. We're Team England and should all take the rap.''
MacLaurin likes Atherton and says he has many of the qualities he looks for in business. ``I admire his thorough preparation and his determination to make something of his team. He had a torrid time with Ray Illingworth and it set England back, but he came through that and has handled the huge pressure of being public property pretty well. I believe he could be more flexible, could open up a bit and take account of the wider perspective, and whatever his opinion I am afraid that the little things such as shaving for public appearances do matter, to spectators and specifically these days to sponsors.
``Before meeting him I thought England needed a new captain but the first time we had dinner together I was prepared to think again. I asked him who had talked to him about the brief for the job and its responsibilities and who had guided him through it, and he said no one.
``It's ridiculous we appoint a 25-year-old as captain of England and there is no back-up for him. It is vital to get the infrastructure right and to plan for the future. I think we are doing that now and if Michael does stand down after the tour then we must ensure that it happens with dignity and that he is properly appreciated.''
If he did go it would be at a time when the tactical element of his captaincy is approaching its best. He may still not grab the main chance as sharply as, say, a Mike Brearley or an Ian Chappell, but he makes few mistakes now, is actually less cautious than he was and reads pitches and his players better than ever. Through the learning years he sought advice from Chappell more readily than from any former captain. He likes the whole Channel Nine commentary ethic, no flannel, just get stuck in and tell it as you see it.
SO WHAT is it with Atherton? Does he warrant acclaim as English cricket's most appointed general or is it simply that he is the man in power and in our faces so frequently that discussion of his merits is inevitable? Probably he is cut out to be a captain but not to be a public figure. He has done a tough job with dignity and purpose but, perversely, he may finish with his contribution to the stability of the team largely unknown.
Graveney points out that: ``Some people are happy in the public domain, Michael defends his privacy vehemently, which is why he retreats to the Lake District when the glare of publicity is at its most powerful - after his appointment as captain, for example, or after the ball-tampering affair against South Africa. He is a good captain and an outstanding player and will relish concentrating on his batting when one day he stands down as captain. He may not be the all-consuming person the media want but in a working relationship with me, for example, he is excellent.''
The last word is for Bennett, who has known him man and boy. ``He could have portrayed his own warmth of character better because inside he is a genuine, kind person who has been reluctant to let the outside world know or begin to understand him. He is as honest as they come you know, and fiercely loyal.''
For sure, he is that and more. To be England's captain of cricket is, in its way, to be as exposed to public opinion as a prime minister or a member of the Royal Family. The unavoidable intrusion into your life leaves scars. The next three days here in Barbados will almost certainly decide whether Atherton relinquishes his title and escapes the intrusion. In his own words, taken from his biography of last year: ``I am a sportsman, not a statesman.'' And were that an epitaph to his five years in charge, it would do nicely.