In the grandstand there were far more than cursory glances being raised to the numerous television screens bringing live action of the West Indies' capitulation to Mark Taylor's men, the gory details of which seemed to capture the imagination far more deeply than another sublime innings from Alec Stewart.
But then that is the price that bantamweights like England and New Zealand must pay for having bowling attacks incapable of fashioning drama from unforgiving pitches. It is, however, a small mercy for which Atherton, unbeaten on 48 when bad light halted play 11 overs early, would not have been ungrateful.
Bowling sides out has been a problem for England ever since Ian Botham lost his outswinger 15 years ago. Since then, a puzzling inconsistency has been just about the only consistent feature of an attack which seems to reveal its talent only when all is lost. Mind you, this is an accusation that can also be levelled at New Zealand, particularly following the departure of Richard Hadlee.
So far, though, England have comfortably been the poorer here, squandering the opportunity to make use of the pitch when it was at its most extravagant on the first day. Since then, it has been reluctant to help anyone but the batsman. And they, confronted by some fairly facile bowling from both sides, have put runs on the board.
For New Zealand those came mainly from the tall, languid Fleming, an unhurried player of sweetly timed strokes - except when the ball is launched at his Adam's apple. Then, like all tall batsmen, he gets tangled up by the indecision over whether to duck or to play, a weakness which may explain why it has taken such a highly regarded player 23 Tests to register his first century. It was only with well-directed bouncers, mainly from Yorkshire's two "bang it in and smash" bowlers, Gough and White, that England managed to trouble him at all. Otherwise, his was an ambled journey to the magic milestone.
"Getting there was a relief, as it has been a while coming," he said afterwards. "I'm just pleased that the whole picture finally came together."
For his team, however, that picture had been but a sketch when Gough, winding down at mid-off, dropped Chris Cairns just before the close on the first day. Cairns, who was on five at the time and who was again missed on 20 by a flailing Alan Mullally off his own bowling, needed no further encouragement. Taking centre stage, he took heavy toll of England's bowling, scoring a quickfire 67, and sharing a telling 118-run sixth-wicket partnership with Fleming, the last man out.
It was Cairns too, his uninhibited flair to the fore, who got the second day going for New Zealand. While Fleming was content to have a long look at some slightly improved bowling, Cairns launched into his strokes with the gusto of a boy devouring a toffee apple, clobbering Philip Tufnell for two sixes before he perished trying to atomise a slower ball from Craig White.
Surprisingly, given that England had not looked like taking a wicket up to that point, Cairns's departure sparked something of a collapse and England took the next four wickets for 57 runs. Three of those went to Gough, who after removing Lee Germon and Dipak Patel in successive balls, had the agony of seeing his hat-trick ball squirted waist high through the vacant fourth slip area by Simon Doull.
Doull, this time with a shiny red Kookaburra in his hand, then made the early breakthrough for New Zealand, when he caught Nick Knight on the crease with one that swung back into him. For a professional cricketer, Knight misses too many meat and drink deliveries around his leg stump and he needs to rethink his footwork, which at the moment is neither balanced nor decisive.
Alec Stewart has no such problems and the left pinky he dislocated diving to stop a wild ball from Gough on the first morning does not seem to be troubling him either. Having first watched as his skipper gained in confidence and range of stroke, Stewart added his own flamboyant signature to the day's run-scoring with a series of withering shots. "I thought the captain played well, and is back in top nick," he said afterwards. "People have probably come to see him fail but he's worked hard. After the first few balls he was moving his feet like he does when he's playing well and he looks back in top nick."
However while the technically repatriated Atherton was careful not to take any liberties, Stewart clobbered anything off line, and a few that were not. None of the bowlers could contain him as he raced to his half- century in only 57 balls.
It was a scoring rate that would have been considered rapid in any form of cricket and, without trying to detract from the fine fettle Stewart has been in since Bulawayo, one that serves merely to underline the paucity of the bowling from both teams.
Scoreboard from Auckland
Second day: England won toss
NEW ZEALAND - First innings
(Overnight: 233 for 5)
S P Fleming c and b Cork 129
(368 min, 254 balls, 18 fours, 1 six; drove low full-toss back to bowler)
C L Cairns c Stewart b White 67
(140 min, 113 balls, 7 fours, 2 sixes; edged drive at slower ball)
*+L K Germon c Stewart b Gough 14
(40 mins, 26 balls, 1 four, 1 six ; gloved attempted hook to keeper)
D N Patel lbw b Gough 0
(2 min, 1 ball; hit on foot by yorker)
S B Doull c Knight b Gough 5
(16 min, 10 balls, 1 four; edged shortish ball to second slip)
D K Morrison not out 6
(17 min, 15 balls)
Extras (b5, lb12, w2, nb17) 36
Total (560 min, 131.5 overs) 390
Fall: 1-85 (Young), 2-114 (Parore), 3-193 (Pocock), 4-210 (Astle), 5- 215 (Vaughan), 6-333 (Cairns), 7-362 (Germon), 8-362 (Patel), 9-380 (Doull), 10-390 (Fleming).
Bowling: Cork 32.5-8-96-3 (nb4) (5-0-17-0, 4-1-11-0, 7-3-11-1, 12-4-43- 1, 4.5-0-14-1), Mullally 27-11-55-1 (nb4, w1) (4-3-2-0, 7-2-19-1, 3-0- 7-0, 9-4-15-0, 4-2-12-0), Gough 32-5-91-4 (nb6) (4-0-10-0, 8-1-19-0, 8- 2-22-1, 5-0-18-0, 7-2-22-3), Tufnell 25-5-80-0 (3-1-5-0, 5-1-13-0, 12- 3-28-0, 5-0-34-0), White 15-3-51-2 (nb4) (4-1-17-0, 2-0-12-0, 5-2-10-1 4-0-12-1).
Progress: 250: 404 min, 97.5 overs. 300: 453 min, 108.3 overs. Lunch: 338-6 (Fleming 105, Germon 2) 118 overs. 350: 512 min, 122 overs. Innings closed 2.17pm.
Fleming's 100: 275 min, 199 balls, 15 fours, 1 six. Cairns' 50: 115 min, 88 balls, 6 fours, 1 six.
England - First innings
N V Knight lbw b Doull 5
(31 min, 28 balls, 1 four; misjudged inswinger)
*M A Atherton not out 48
(142 min, 112 balls, 8 fours)
+A J Stewart not out 67
(110 min, 78 balls, 10 fours, 1 six)
Extras (lb2, nb1) 3
Total (1 wkt, 142 min, 36 overs) 123
Fall: 1-18 (Knight).
Bowling: Morrison 8-2-27-0 (nb2) (4-1-10-0, 4-1-17-0), Doull 12-4-36- 1 (8-4-15-1, 4-0-21-0), Cairns 6-0-36-0, Astle 4-1-8-0, Vaughan 6-1-14- 0 (one spell each).
Progress: Tea: 39-1 (Atherton 18, Stewart 13) 11 overs. 50: 60 min, 15.2 overs. 100: 116 min, 29.2 overs. Bad light stopped play at 5.11pm. Play abandoned at 5.50pm.
Stewart's 50: 78 min, 57 balls, 7 fours, 1 six.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and R S Dunne. TV Replays: D B Cowie. Referee: P J P BurgeReuse content