Cricket: 645 minutes, 492 balls, 185 runs

Atherton's innings of his life saves England
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The Independent Online
South Africa 332 and 346-9 dec England 200 and 351-5 Match drawn

Before this tour is out, Jack Russell is planning to take his paints and easel out to the old colonial garrison at Rorke's Drift, but as far as he and Michael Atherton are now concerned, they have already been there and picked up their VCs.

This was behind-the-sandbag heroism on an epic scale, and it was just about possible to close your eyes yesterday and imagine Ivor Emmanuel in his tattered tunic, belting out a chorus of "Men of Harlech".

When Ted Dexter was the CO, he liked his men buttoned to the neck and clean-shaven, but if Atherton was grimy and bestubbled last night, he could justifiably claim that his cheeks were baby-faced before he started batting.

Ten and three-quarter hours he held out after walking in to bat in an apparently hopeless cause on Monday morning, although even then it would not have been enough without Russell's four and a half hour support at the other end. All too often Atherton has led from the front, and then looked around to find no one behind him. But not this time.

Heaven only knows what a batsman thinks about for nearly 11 hours, but you got the impression that it was neither his girlfriend's impending arrival, nor what he was going to have for dinner. Atherton's face was so screwed up in concentration it looked like a road map, and it was one of the finest rearguard innings that can ever have been played.

You would have given Lucifer's cat more of a chance than England yesterday morning, setting off as they did from 167 for 4, with the remaining six hours on the clock of far greater relevance than scoring another 312 runs. However, while 14,000 people turned up at the start anticipating celebrating victory in this second Test sometime before lighting the lunchtime barbeques, most of them had trudged home long before South Africa finally threw in the towel.

England, scarcely surprisingly, needed a certain amount of luck to survive, and by no means the least important factor was that the pitch - despite its movable cracks - did not misbehave anything like as badly as expected after that first morning cock-up over the toss.

Robin Smith had barely played himself back in yesterday morning when he survived a huge appeal for a catch behind off Allan Donald, Atherton gave a sharp chance to short leg off Donald on 99, and Russell had been in less than half an hour for 5 when Meyrick Pringle spilled a routine return catch.

Russell then proceeded to drive the South Africans half-way up the wall with that uniquely ugly method of his. While Atherton played the game properly, with a bat apparently the width of a barn door, Russell did not give a hoot whether he used his equipment or not, and there were times when he appeared to be playing almost exclusively with the cheeks of his bottom.

Much more of Russell in this series, and the South Africans will be less in need of a physio than a psychiatrist. Peering square-eyed behind sunglasses and a visor, Russell sand-crabbed across the crease, brought out the shovel shot whether he intended to play the ball or not, and, as Atherton said, played every delivery as though his life depended on it.

The fact that scoring runs was not uppermost in their minds was pretty obvious from the statistics. Atherton failed to score off 385 of the 492 balls he faced, as did Russell from 221 of his 235. Even Trevor Bailey might have considered 104 balls for eight runs between lunch and tea a bit of a grind, and had Russell gone on to make a century at the rate he was going, he would have taken 16 and a half hours to get there.

It was perhaps ironic that in the midst of all this trench warfare, the only wicket to fall all day was to a full-blooded slash to third man by Smith. However, it is not easy to stop playing shots altogether even when you cannot realistically win, and some of Atherton's strokeplay was delightful to watch.

The opposition may not have thought so, judging from one or two pieces of dialogue going on out there, and neither did South Africa do themselves much credit by ignoring Atherton when he had been felled - mishooking - by Pringle, and had to call for a replacement helmet.

There is something in Atherton's make-up, though, which makes him all the more focused when the cricket is not too chivalrous. You could persuade a mule to budge more quickly when he is feeling bloody- minded, and purely by example is helping England get rid of the one basic flaw that has characterised their Test cricket in recent years. If you cannot win, don't lose.

Atherton was honest enough to admit that England had played "poorly" for four days, and would have to "sharpen up their act" if they were actually going to win matches rather than save them. "Putting South Africa in was the wrong decision," he said, "and I felt I probably owed the lads an innings after that."

His chairman, however, was so delighted with him that last night Atherton might have achieved something even more improbable than batting 10 and three-quarter hours, and had Raymond buy him a drink. Illingworth said: "It's not easy for a Yorkie to say this about a Lancastrian, but it was one of the great innings of all time. This is a big up for us, and it's got to be a big down for South Africa."

South Africa, needless to say, did not quite see it that way. Hansie Cronje, their captain, described Atherton's innings as a "good knock", which was a bit like saying that Mozart knocked out the odd catchy tune, and said that his team were "not disappointed" at the outcome.

Atherton, though, is a man who looks at the enemy's expression rather than his dictionary, and Cronje's declaration of buoyancy did not quite square with a pair of eyes that looked as though they had spent several days on a fishmonger's slab.

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