Atherton's wicket is a crucial blow. At his best he is one of the finest defensive batsmen in world cricket - a quality England will surely need - and the Zimbabweans' joy at his departure was all too evident.
Like his ailing team-mate Graham Thorpe, Atherton, whose 10 innings on this tour have yielded just 152 runs, is going looking for the ball instead of allowing it to come to him. Yesterday's dismissal, an edge to first slip, was a perfect example. Although the ball from Heath Streak left him gently in the air his bat was well in front of his front pad, which remained fixed on the line of off-stump.
The long walk back would have given Atherton ample time to reflect that England had let another opportunity to pressure their inexperienced opponents go begging. Captaining a team when one's own form is at an all-time low is never easy, as Graham Gooch found out on an ill-fated tour of India three years ago, when he totalled 47 runs in two Tests.
Yesterday Atherton was guilty of allowing Zimbabwe to eke out more tail- end runs than they ought through some careless bowling changes after tea. This could prove to be a crucial period as Zimbabwe added 56 for their last three wickets. Their task was made easier than it should have been when Craig White sent down three overs for 16 runs, including the most expensive of the match, from which Paul Strang, carved 10 precious runs.
Earlier in the day such fluctuations had seemed unlikely after heavy overnight rain, which had saturated an outfield whose water table was already brim full from a bountiful rainy season. Mopping up was a lengthy business involving rolling some half-decomposed grass cuttings into the problem areas on the edge of the square, and play did not begin until after lunch.
By then a hot sun was busy raising the humidity as the dampness evaporated from the lush outfield grass, helping to provide the clammy conditions which so often persuade a cricket ball to swing.
Not all of England's pace bowlers prospered, though Darren Gough obtained movement both ways. Ample good fortune, as well as some particularly inept umpiring, also came to England's aid in their bid to stay in this match.
With just 17 runs added to their overnight total, Gough had the dangerous David Houghton caught down the leg side by Alec Stewart as the batsman fine-glanced a slower ball. Had Houghton not walked, it might have proved to be the first of several contentious dismissals whose feebleness mirrored the overall low standards of this match.
Apart from two poor lbws, one of the afternoon's more bizarre decisions came when the umpire KT Francis called dead ball as Alec Stewart and his slip fielders - presumably on some sign from the bowler - moved closer to the batsman as Gough ran in to bowl. Although not as politically volatile as the infamous events that took place in Pakistan nine years ago, the incident involved the same the principles behind the row that broke out between Mike Gatting and Shakoor Rana in Faisalabad.
That incident probably hastened the introduction of neutral umpires like Francis, who was presumably invoking Law 42.6 - "the umpire may call dead ball if in his opinion the striker has been incommoded by any noise or action while he is receiving the ball".
If he got that one just about right, his adjudication as Andy Waller padded away Tufnell was noticeably flawed, as the ball would have comfortably missed off-stump. His aberration matched that a few overs earlier of his partner Russell Tiffin, who gave Andy Flower out to one from Gough that would have gone on to miss leg stump.
But if England benefited from such generous interpretations, there was no denying Gough his next scalp as Guy Whittall's middle stump was ripped out of the ground as the batsman played all around an in-swinging half- volley.
At 138 for 6, England were right back in the hunt, despite the continued presence of Grant Flower, now ensconced like some slow-setting human glue. Flower has played long drawn-out knocks before, once taking 11 hours to score an unbeaten 201 on this ground against Pakistan. But after tea Flower, who had spent the previous hour grinding out 10 runs, suddenly lashed out, lofting Gough for four, and Tufnell for a meaty six over long-on. The transformation did not last and his six-hour stay was ended when John Crawley held a fine catch at short midwicket.
It gave Gough his 50th Test wicket in 14 Tests, a feat that Robert Croft may well emulate after mopping up the tail, to add another three wickets to his burgeoning tally. The pair are at present room-mates and as long as they do not have to bat before today is out, England may yet leave Zimbabwe unscathed.
Nick Knight, page 22
Second Test scoreboard
Zimbabwe won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 156 (Crawley 47; Whittall 4-18, Streak 4-43)
ZIMBABWE - First Innings
G W Flower c Crawley b Gough 73
(354 min, 255 balls, 5 fours, 1 six; Fine diving catch off clip to midwicket)
D L Houghton c Stewart b Gough 29
152 min, 124 balls, 1 four; Caught behind attempting leg-glance)
A Flower lbw b Gough 6
(48 min, 24 balls; Hit on boot in front of leg stump by yorker)
A C Waller lbw b Tufnell 4
(18 min, 18 balls; Leg before offering no shot)
G J Whittall b Gough 1
(6 min, 9 balls ; Beaten playing across line)
P A Strang not out 47
(106 min, 82 balls, 4 fours)
H H Streak c Crawley b Croft 7
(44 min, 34 balls; bat-pad to short leg)
E A Brandes c Gough b Croft 9
(15 min, 16 balls, 1 six; Hit skier to deep midwicket)
H K Olonga c Hussain b Croft 0
(9 min, 6 balls; Diving catch at wide slip off bat-pad)
Extras (lb8,w1,nb6) 15
Total (428 mins, 105 overs) 215
Fall: 1-5 (Dekker) 2-46 (Campbell) 3-110 (Houghton) 4-131 (A Flower) 5-136 (Waller) 6-138 (Whittall) 7-159 (G Flower) 8-197 (Streak) 9-211 (Brandes) 10-215 (Olonga).
Bowling: Mullally 23-7-32-1 (w1)(7-2-14-1 5-1-8-0 9-3-8-0 2-1-2-0); Gough 26-10-40-4 (nb3) (5-2-6-0 6-3-7-0 11-4-17-3 4-1-10-1); Croft 15-2-39-3 (3-0-11-0 5-0-12-0 1-1-0- 6-1-16-3); White 16-4-41-1 (7-1-13-1 6-2-12-0 3-1-16-0); Tufnell 25-3- 55-1 (nb4) (1 0-3-16-0 8-0-22-1 7-0-17-0).
Progress: Third day: Start delayed until 12.40pm. 100: 216 mins, 54.4 overs. 150: 334 mins, 81.5 overs. Tea 155-6 (G Flower 69, Strang 8) 85 overs. 200: 411 mins, 101.1 overs. Innings closed 4.54pm. Flower's 50: 254mins, 186 balls, 4 fours.
ENGLAND - Second Innings
N V Knight not out 6
(27 min, 15 balls, 1 four)
*M A Atherton c Campbell b Streak 1
(10 min, 3 balls; Flat-footed edge to full-length outswinger)
A J Stewart not out 10
(15 min, 12 balls, 1 four)
Total (1 wkt, 27 mins, 5 overs) 17
Fall: 1-7 (Atherton).
Bowling: Streak 3-0-16-1; Brandes 2-1-1-0 (one spell each).
Progress: Third day: bad light stopped play at 5.32pm.
Umpires: K T Francis and R B Tiffin
TV Replay Umpire: I D Robinson
Match Referee: Hanumant SinghReuse content