Atherton adds to Headingley roll of honour

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It was the perfect start for England. Devon Malcolm's first ball was fast, it bounced awkwardly and found the edge of Carl Hooper's bat. Yet, strangely, it was also the worst thing which could have happened to Malcolm and his partner, Darren Gough.

They at once became over-excited. Instead of bowling with normal hostility, pitching the ball on and around the off stump, they charged in wildly, bowling much too short and wide, and were dissected by two splendid stroke- makers.

It was ideal for Brian Lara, whose sense of challenge was sharply defined by Hooper's dismissal. He began to hook, cut and carve as only he can and he found a most willing and able accomplice in Sherwin Campbell.

Runs came at a torrential rate. At lunch, after nine overs, the horse had well and truly bolted as far as England were concerned and the West Indies were 61 for 1. Malcolm had bowled two overs for 24 runs and should have been ashamed of himself. It was all in sharp contrast to Michael Atherton's inspiring example on the first day.

Atherton has for a long time been a good Test cricketer; this year his batting has become tinged with greatness. A good player has suddenly become one who can take control and command against all-comers. He did it at Lord's in the one-day international with 127, and 10 days later at Headingley he has done it in a Test match.

It is all to do with the growth of his inner belief and therefore self- confidence. He has trodden the stage for long enough to know what he has in him to achieve. On Thursday he became the latest in a fascinating line of batsmen who have revealed their natures in Test matches at Headingley .

Graham Gooch did this is excelsis in his innings of 154 not out against the West Indies four years ago. In Gooch's view this was his best Test innings. His 116 at Barbados in 1981, after Ken Barrington had died on the second morning, was not far behind.

Ian Botham's 149 not out against Australia at Heading- ley in 1981 was a different, more brutal dominance. It was an incredible innings, primaeval almost and very much in keeping with the character of the man. I can still see the Australian team's bus driver shuffling off in disbelief to the betting tent to lay those extraordinary bets of Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh. They got 500-1 against England and won.

In 1977, the year of Geoffrey Boycott's return from self-imposed Test exile, his 191 against Australia was his pre-determined hundredth hundred, the first time this landmark has been reached in a Test match. It was dominant in the manner that Boycott liked to dominate the art of batting - with obsessive dedication and no humour or decoration.

John Edrich, workaday, left-handed and resolute, made 310 against New Zealand at Headingley in 1965. Cyril Washbrook, aged 41, elegant, arrogant and aggressive, shirtsleeves buttoned to his wrists and a selector to boot, made 98 against Australia in 1956 and five years earlier Peter May, in his first Test, scored a classical and unforgettable 138 against South Africa.

And before that came the mind-boggling and yet diminutive colossus, Don Bradman. He amassed 334 in 1930, 309 of them on the first day; 304 in 1934; 134 and 16 in 1938; and finally in 1948, 33 and 173 not out when Australia scored 404 for 3 to win on the last day. For Bradman, there should be a stronger word than dominate.

In 1929, Neville Cardus wrote that South Africa's H G Owen Smith's 129, with a hundred before lunch on the last day, was a super Olympian innings of boyish charm even if he only saw the first 27 runs of it the night before and wrote his piece for the following day's newspaper from the solemnity of London's National Liberal Club, having left Headingley the night before when it looked all over. Like Botham, Owen Smith made a magnificent something out of nothing at all.

Who is to say that the Falstaffian, semi-piratical Lionel Tennyson's 63 and 36 made one-handed in 1921 against the fearsome pace of Australia's Gregory and McDonald - he had split his left hand fielding - was not the most remarkable of all the innings that have graced Headingley? It was certainly the bravest.

These are the diverse characters and artists who, with their own inimitable brushwork, have painted themselves in such memorable colours so far at Headingley. Atherton is no Bradman, no Botham nor Boycott either but, as he has shown this summer, he is indisputably himself with an increasingly impressive individual stamp to leave on the game. Where it will place him in the eventual pecking order is still much too early to tell.