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Cricket: Atherton epic puts selectors on alert

County Championship: Former England captain hits a career-best 268 while fellow internationals revive Surrey; Lancashire 556-6 dec Glamorgan 193-6
IT WAS meant to be a gentle comeback, built around some solid performances for Lancashire over their eight remaining Championship matches. But, by turning Wednesday's brilliance into a massive career-best here yesterday, Michael Atherton set in motion a tricky dilemma for the England selectors.

Atherton's unbeaten 268, a nine-hour epic in Stanley Park that eclipsed last winter's 210 in Hobart - for England against an Australian XI - as the highest score of his career, emphasised not only the improved state of his back, but suggested that his form is unlikely to get much better. Jack Simmons, the Lancashire chairman, who has witnessed the former England captain's entire career, said it was as well as he had seen him play for Lancashire. "It was a magnificent innings in defence and attack," he said. "It will give a lot of messages to the right people."

Those people had been given to believe that Atherton, whose problems forced him to miss the World Cup and the opening Test of the New Zealand series, could be written off for the moment, allowing them to look around for a younger alternative when they decide, as seems inevitable, to put Alec Stewart out of his agony. Many more days like these, however, and the timetable for Atherton to be considered for a comeback may have to be altered.

Not that there can be many more days like these. His previous highest score for Lancashire was 199 against Durham in 1992 and when he smashed Darren Thomas square on the off side for the 30th of his 41 boundaries, he passed 200 for only the second time. His strokeplay was at times truly exquisite. "If you are not in the Test side all you can do is score runs for your county and try to give the selectors a nudge," he had said. This was not so much a nudge as a flat-out bowling over.

Fingers remain crossed over his fitness. He has been diagnosed as suffering from osteo-arthritis, as well as his long-standing back problem. "This is a terrific test, bigger perhaps than we would have wanted at this stage," Laurie Brown, the Lancashire physio, said. "We have to be wary because we thought he was OK at the Oval [his only other Championship game this season] and then his back went into spasm again."

Atherton's runs helped Lancashire reach 556 for 6 a quarter of an hour after lunch yesterday before the captain, John Crawley, declared in order to let Muttiah Muralitharan loose.

It did not take him long to weave his magic. The Sri Lankan wrist spinner, with 37 wickets in three Championship matches before yesterday, bowled unchanged for three hours and 20 minutes and had added five more - and taken a catch - as Glamorgan, needing 407 to avoid the follow-on, finished on 193 for 6.