England are 2-1 down in the series with two games to play and he averages 13 from seven innings, so the emergency is genuine, but as usual his obituary is being written prematurely. The potential direness of his situation, the prospect of a better pitch and his intense desire not to throw away all the hard work put into the planning of this tour all give him a genuine chance of turning the tide once again.
First, there is a three-day match against Barbados to be played, starting today at the Kensington Oval, but with characteristic refusal to be deflected from his chosen path Atherton himself is not likely to take part. The captin had always intended to take a break here in advance of the back-to-back Tests in Barbados and Antigua but a decision on whether or not he would was delayed until last night after a practice at the Wanderers club.
Like the square at Kensington the Wanderers has a long association with the former West Indies fast bowler 'Prof' Edwards and though Barbados, like Guyana, is unusually parched at present his expertise should ensure a truer, bouncier pitch for the matches at Kensington and decent facilities for practising for those missing the three-day game. Angus Fraser, Dean Headley, one of the spinners and John Crawley are the other men expected to miss this last first-class match before the two Tests and five one-day internationals in the last two phases of the tour.
If recent history repeats itself England will lose to Barbados and then win the Test match. If, on the other hand, the team of 1998, with all their modern methods and managerial support, are to prove themselves capable of greater consistency and ultimate success they should at least prove themselves superior to an island team with six West Indian Test and two A team players.
Four years ago, before the Barbados Test in early April, England had already lost the series and looked a disorganised and dispirited collection of individuals when they were beaten by a West Indies Board XI in Grenada in the game immedately preceding the fourth Test. Alec Stewart, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick were the only batsmen to pass 50 in the game. Atherton missed it and scored 85, 15 and 135 in the last three Test innings of the series.
Perhaps significantly, Stewart, Ramprakash and Hick, who will join the team in Antigua for the one-day matches, all adopted a slightly more open stance as a counter to the tendency of West Indies fast bowlers, not least Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, to move the ball back into the right-handers. When the ball keeps low that gives freedom for a last-minute adjustment which Atherton's back and across method does not.
Kensington Oval is not yet ready for the invading hordes next week. The renovated and enlarged Mitchie Hewitt Stand, built with a Government loan, still needs last-minute work.
The Barbados Government, knowing the crucial importance of tourism to the most disciplined and sophisticated of the Caribbean's cricketing countries, is said to be unhappy that the BCA refused their offer of a US $10 million loan to build a stand twice the size of the new one, which would have accommodated the big crowds who increasingly want to watch Barbados Test matches.
The Government have offered to pay broadcasting fees for the televising of the Test in Barbados next week, but the West Indies Cricket Board's marketing chief, Chris Dehring, said yesterday that the green light would be given only if all seats for all five days were definitely sold in advance.