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Back in favour

Cricket is a funny game. Not even a month ago, Mike Atherton was being roasted by every newspaper in town. Even the mildest suggestion that he should lead England against the old enemy this summer would have been met with derisive laughter. It wasn't exactly wise at that stage to be known as a supporter of the Lancastrian.

All this has changed after the Test series against New Zealand ended today. Atherton turned in a sterling performance to walk away with the man of the match award. England won a series abroad after five years. And the skipper is now sure of keeping his job for the Ashes tilt. Indeed, it would be a brave man who would dare suggest otherwise.

Atherton's place at the helm wasn't certain even after England won the second Test. Had they won this one too without his contribution being what it was, then there may have been some debate before he was retained. But after carrying his bat for 94 in the first innings and getting 118 in the second assay, the chapter is closed. He will be there to match wits with Taylor and try to regain the Ashes which the Australians have held since 1989.

This was only the second time that England have scored over 300 in their second innings to win a Test. It last happened in 1928-29; Sir Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe were members of the team that achieved it against Australia. This made today's victory even more memorable for a man who, in truth, has had to take more than his fair share of brickbats simply because he has not had enough good players in the team. His own batting has not suffered; his Test average has risen from the 30s to the 40s.

This does not mean that Atherton's trials are over. A series against Australia is the most trying one of all for an England captain; going into the series as a beaten team -- as would have happened had England lost the series to New Zealand -- would mean getting more of the media bashing that has gone before. Taking on Australia after a victory is equally difficult because there would be some expectations.

There have been some performances which give some reason for cheer. Caddick, Croft and Gough are some of the success stories. The same goes for the skipper, Hussain and Thorpe. After Zimbabwe, anything would have been reason to cheer about but England did manage to raise their game a notch and overcome a team which, though not exactly the most talented around, has gained a reputation of fighting to the end.

For New Zealand, it must have come as a disappointment. They had given a good account of themselves in the West Indies and also in Sharjah and Pakistan. There was a feeling that an outfit which had the same mental outlook as South Africa was slowly developing but now Steve Rixon will have to go back to the drawing board and plan things all over again.

The Lankans are next in line to visit New Zealand, in what has become some kind of assembly line cricket. The series against England has had its share of off-the-field incidents -- Cairns reportedly getting in at 4am and Tufnell allegedly smoking marijuana in a club and being asked to leave -- but while Lanka are there, the focus will be on Muralitharan and Dharmasena when they bowl. Despite the fact that their board has denied it, there is a strong feeling that the ICC has reservations about these two bowlers' actions. The cricketing world will be watching with interest.