Atherton's tenacity rewarded

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The Independent Online

reports from Trent Bridge India 521 England 322-1

One of the vital ingredients of any cricket match, is a pitch that allows a meaningful contest to develop between bat and ball. In the third Test at Trent Bridge that has not been allowed to happen and instead of a match, spectators have witnessed a spectacle that has amounted to little more than a run bonanza for batsman.

With just two wickets falling on the first day, and only a single dismissal on Saturday, this pitch has clearly been built to last, although the burning question must be, to whose specifications? Remember, it was on this ground last year that the gripping and finely poised series against the West Indies suddenly went lame.

On that occasion, following the debacle at Edgbaston where England were beaten in less than three days, the groundsman Ron Alsopp, in his last season at Trent Bridge, was clearly acting under orders. On the instruction of Raymond Illingworth, England wanted a slow pitch that would turn; which is exactly what they got, albeit one in the end that proved too slow to force a result.

This pitch is similar, though no doubt because the opposition is India, the turn has been noticeably absent. That said, it is the first truly flat pitch of the series; the others at Edgbaston and Lord's became progressively less spicy. But if the surface for the first Test at Edgbaston with its cracks and tufts of grass was overloaded in favour of the seam bowler, the batsman here, have in cricketing parlance, been able to "fill their boots".

Michael Atherton in particular has been able to use the wicket's benevolence to bat himself through and perhaps finally out of his present slump. His expected reappointment as England captain yesterday will have been the sweet topping to a highly satisfactory weekend, and he will no doubt be looking to convert his overnight score of 142 into his first double- century today. He has needed luck, as the down at heel sometimes do, and he was twice reprieved, on 0 and 34, by third slip.

When distilled, the art of good batting is down to little more than matching the appropriate stroke to the merit of the ball sent down, and Atherton applied himself to that end like a bookworm confronted by a newly discovered edition of a famous work.

Occasionally, he got himself in a pickle, top-edging that odd paddled hook shot of his, and being drawn into playing the odd flat-footed drive. But mainly he clung on, his bat, his bad back and his resolve visibly stiffening by the hour.

Defusing and making safe a total as large as India's can only be done in stages, and England's batsmen did this by restricting their timescales, looking no further than the end of each session to focus their concentration.

The overall target, of course, was the follow-on, which was saved on the last ball of the day. This means that should India ever get England out, they will have to risk a second defeat - by setting the home side a gettable target - to try and level the series.

India were still well on top when they got the one and only breakthrough of the day. Alec Stewart had not looked in particular trouble, and although enough good balls were bowled to sink a side had each brought a dismissal, his was a beast which cut back sharply. In fact, like the dozen or so other beauties India bowled, it did too much and Stewart was entitled to feel more than a little aggrieved that the umpire Kandiah Francis felt it had found the inside edge.

The dismissal brought Nasser Hussain to the crease and the Essex vice-captain immediately set off in a blaze of boundaries that bristled with energy and purpose. That first Test century at Edgbaston has given Hussain the sense of belonging most players need in order to relax at Test level, and he never once allowed the match situation to cow him into anything as dreary as mere occupation.

Unlike many of England's batsmen of the last few years, he set out to dominate the bowling, going for his strokes from the outset. He was particularly severe on anything off line from the spinners when his placement was sheer perfection. Only an obvious edge to the keeper off Sachin Tendulkar soured an otherwise splendid innings.

It is the second hundred of his Test career and he now has the distinction of scoring a century on the best and the worst pitches of this series. But whereas the one at Edgbaston took 193 balls and contained 15 fours, his latest one not only took less balls (165) but had three fewer boundaries as well.

To their credit, India toiled hard. Having lost their captain to a painful blow to his foot at silly point sustained just before lunch, they kept their heads high for longer than many teams. Part of that will have been down to the zest Tendulkar injected into them immediately after lunch.

He gambled for sure, and was a bit more reckless than Azharuddin, a not uncommon trait in a confident 23-year-old. He knew India had to take quick wickets and tried everything achieve that, including overbowling his star performer Javagal Srinath.

Unwittingly, by over- attacking, he handed England the momentum they needed. With the follow- on saved England are now the only likely winners of this match. Atherton said as much on Saturday evening, but they will need to score another 400 runs in three and a half sessions for that to remain possible.

The pitch is good, but India's bowling, despite the poor showing of their spinners, will surely prevent it.