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Atherton's exit

IT is sad in a way that Michael Atherton resigned as skipper. He embodied the fighter in the English team and given the talent he had at his command a 25 percent win record isn't all that bad. Thirteen wins in 52 Tests against 19 losses doesn't look very impressive, but then remember that Mike Gatting won just two out of 23 and lost five. But then had Atherton stuck on, the selectors would probably asked him to go.

Defeat by the West Indies has been the undoing of more than one Test captain; 13 years and a bit ago, Kim Hughes fled a press conference in tears after having announced his resignation. Hughes had just presided over a sixth consecutive loss to Clive Lloyd's team, three in the Caribbean and three in Australia. That run, incidentally, was part of the 11-Test winning streak by Lloyd, the other five being the first whitewash of David Gower's team in 1984.

Atherton has had plenty of lows before this and it appeared he would quit last year after his second loss in an Ashes series. The selectors had made provision for Alec Stewart to be skipper in the Caribbean; only at the last moment did Atherton say that he would be willing to lead the team.

His reign as captain began with a thrashing by Australia in 1993, after Graham Gooch had given up the reins. But he led England to victory in the final Test of that series, giving rise to optimism that the subsequent tour of Australia would be different. Misplaced optimism, it would seem, as England lost the series 3-1.

After that, Atherton ran into controversy when leading the team against South Africa; at Lord's in July 1994 he was noticed rubbing dirt into the ball. He was fined 2,000 pounds but refused to bow to pressure and resign. Ironically, the finest moment of his captaincy also came against South Africa, when he scored an unbeaten 185 in the second Test at Johannesburg in 1995, helping to save the match.

But ultimately, despite his courage and ability -- his Test batting record as captain is better than that which he had as a player -- the question of winning had to come up. He has only led the team to victory in series against New Zealand (at home and away), against India (at home) and managed drawn series with the West Indies and South Africa, both at home. A drawn series with Zimbabwe in that country certainly did not do much for his reputation.

The loss to the West Indies, who have been seen as a team of no-hopers for some time -- the recent hammering by Pakistan has not helped their reputation any -- must have been especially bitter for this series was seen by many as the best chance for England to win in the Caribbean, and erase many bad memories that have built up since Colin Cowdrey's team won the rubber against Gary Sobers's outfit in 1968. It was not to be; one Brian Charles Lara had slightly different ideas and the West Indies picked themselves up well enough to give the old enemy a pasting. Atherton, himself, seemed mesmerised by Curtly Ambrose; the lanky Antiguan has now taken his wicket 16 times in three series and six times out of 11 this year.

At least if Atherton had done something with the bat, it may have been bearable. But 199 runs in 11 innings isn't a lot, not by any standards. He had planned to step down whether the final Test was lost or not and for a while it looked as though he could avoid going out on a losing note. But Courtney Walsh had the final say and Atherton's reign as captain ended as it had begun -- in defeat. Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart and Adam Hollioake are the three top contenders for the captaincy.