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Cricket: Atherton emerges into the light

Stephen Brenkley hears that a run of ducks was never a swansong
IT HAD been 18 months and 12 matches since he had last scored a Test hundred. The days of darkness and failure had begun to outnumber the ones of lightness and triumph. There must have been times when, despite his enviably stubborn temperament, he wondered where the next break was coming from.

By his own admission, the last fortnight had been an especially long one. Michael Atherton reflected on this in Port Elizabeth last night with the benefit of his 13th Test hundred behind him.

"There had been one match between Test matches but it was fairly insignificant," he said. "It's different from Tests and it's all a mental battle. I was waiting to get involved again."

Presumably, it must have crossed his mind that one ball early on could do him in again. He had recorded four ducks in a row in overseas Test matches. That must have crossed his mind too. That alone was a measure of Atherton's innings of 108 yesterday, spanning 254 balls and six hours, 20 minutes.

"They always make you work hard for your runs. We got a good start yesterday but they reined in their bowlers today and made you come to terms with the pitch." It was one for patience and Atherton has that in spades. He was grimly composed at the crease but it was there that he was stuck when Nantie Hayward delivered him the ball which got him out.

"If I was at fault it was in being a bit stuck. He's a skiddy bowler and it just caught the inside edge. Things like this can happen but I was annoyed because I was trying to stick in and get on."

It had been the usual fray out there and some ruderies were probably aimed at him yesterday morning when the South Africans were understandably becoming irritated. "I don't want to expand on that. I don't tell tales out of school," he said, and then laughed.

Atherton firmly rebuffed suggestions that the weak back which had caused him so many problems last winter in Australia and early in the summer in England might have persuaded him to quit. He had, he pointed out, played a long sequence of Test matches. "I'm surely allowed one brief period of injury," the opener said.

He also added that he thought it was not beyond England's capabilities to win the match. "Obviously we're second favourites but I've seen Test matches won from worse positions. We've got a spinner, the pitch is wearing."

Not that Hansie Cronje was wearing this. He was aware that his South African team were in the better position and, with England having to bat fourth, he would not mind it if the pitch wore some more.

Cronje heaped measured praise on Hayward, a young, extremely rapid bowler, but also insisted in a timely mind-game that England had had the better of the conditions.

Of Atherton he said: "He's a fighter. He played and missed a few times but sometimes you need a bit of luck and afterwards he played pretty well. He's got a good record against us and that helps."

Hansie was fairly grudging about this, but for good reason. He knows Atherton has scored three hundreds against South Africa and would not want him to get another one this series.

So, where did Atherton figure in the ranks of opposing batsmen? "I don't like rating individual players and I'm certainly not saying anything while the series is going on," he countered. Yesterday, Atherton was right up there.