Of all sports, cricket has long carried the heaviest behavioural baggage. For once, though, the drama outweighed the morality play, as Donald, arguably the world's fastest bowler, tried to dislodge Atherton, one of the game's great unflappables.
England's cricketers have not had much to crow about recently, but the series win over South Africa at the end of last summer has been one of them. On the verge of conceding a insurmountable deficit at Old Trafford, they clung onto a draw before winning the final two Tests and the series.
The first of those victories, Trent Bridge was a ding-dong affair that neither side could be said to have won or lost until lunch on the final day. Atherton's offering, a defiant unbeaten 98, was a priceless knock, though one sullied for old-school etiquettists by his refusal to walk on 28, when a short ball from Donald after tea on the fourth day took his glove on its way to the wicketkeeper. But if television confirmed the contact, Steve Dunne, the umpire did not, and Atherton, despite the South African's appeals, was given not out.
But there in a way lies the rub. Without the controversy, the spectating public would have been denied the most thrilling 40 minutes of the sporting year as Donald, incensed by the injustice, literally tried to remove Atherton, by any means necessary.
Perhaps an "element of needle" is always required for sport to forget itself and spill over into the visceral tussles of real life. That is certainly what appeared to happen to Donald, who, close to being spent following his exertions earlier in the day, somehow managed to summon another burst of energy and so escalate the fray.
Although clearly furious - he had already barked something in Afrikaans at Atherton - he did not let his fury get the better of him. Instead, he somehow focused it on the undemonstrative man taking strike 22 yards away, peppering him repeatedly with short balls from around the wicket, an angle that, for right-handers at least, increases the level of intimidation. It was the fast-bowling equivalent of sticking pins into a voodoo doll, except that Atherton was marginally more mobile and therefore able to influence his destiny.
In such situations, terms such as technique and temperament are irrelevant. The battle was being fought on molecular level and it was really a question of whose adrenalin would give out first. As it happened a hook shot for three broke the spell and Donald took his sweater.
At the time, it seemed that there were no winners and losers just two survivors. Ten days later at Headingley, when England won the series, the true toll of that ferocious 40 minutes came to light. And it cost South Africa dear.Reuse content