Cricket: Atherton finds his old fluency

First Test: Former England captain calmly exploits a lack of guile and inspiration in the South Africa's seam attack to score century
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England 249-1 v South Africa

TEST cricket can be a harsh mistress and when Hansie Cronje won the toss on a damp pitch under leaden skies, he must have thought he was in clover. Instead, six hours later, the initial sense of well-being had become a bed of nails, as Michael Atherton, scoring his 12th Test century, took England to a commanding position.

Playing in his first match after stepping down from the captaincy, Atherton ended the day unbeaten on 103, his first century at this level since the 118 he scored in the second innings at Christchurch 15 months ago.

"It was never a day when you ever really felt in," Atherton said afterwards. "The ball swung and seamed all day and you really had to work hard for your runs and Shaun Pollock must have beaten the bat 30 or 40 times."

It would be tempting to conclude that unburdened by one of the most difficult jobs in sport he has simply been reborn. Yet while it is no doubt true that captaincy clutters the mind with thoughts unrelated to your own game - by the end Atherton was preoccupied most of his waking day - his batting average actually improved with leadership.

More accurate might be the assessment that although the trademark strengths, as well as one or two recent weaknesses, were present, the proportions were different - something a lacklustre performance by Allan Donald and Co would have partly contributed towards.

Biding his time, Atherton looked relaxed at the crease, his feet and bat moving in unison, rather than the confused sequence he showed in the West Indies which often betrays low confidence levels. His bad back, so often a factor in his technical shortcomings, also looked chipper, and one cover drive for four, off Lance Klusener, was as languid as they come.

He was helped along by Mark Butcher, who seemed to nonplus the visitors' pace bowlers, and on a slow pitch, with infrequent but occasionally extravagant movement, their opening stand was allowed to flourish.

There is much bunkum spoken in the name of nostalgia and many felt that splitting the Atherton-Stewart opening partnership would bring pestilence and plague. As it was, England's former captain added 179 with his latest partner, a stand eight runs higher than the best he managed with Alec Stewart, at Bridgetown early in 1994.

Of the two, it was Butcher who settled first, though he should perhaps have been given out lbw to Pollock when he was on 11. The left-hander has been in rare form for Surrey and he confidently followed an on-driven boundary in Donald's second over with another past mid-off. By contrast, Atherton took 23 balls to get off the mark.

Within the hour, the sun was out and Cronje himself was on, plying his attritional medium-pace well wide of off-stump, something definitely not in his original script.

Whether the visitors expected England to lie down - something not unreasonable in light of their past performances - the speed with which South Africa retracted any adventure was bewildering, and it must have boosted the confidence of Atherton and Butcher, neither of whom are among the most frenetic wielders of a willow.

Indeed, after a spell with the new ball that briefly generated a threat, South Africa bowled sloppily without either wit or vigour, which was borne out by the 25 runs they gave away in wides and byes. Even the lone success, when Butcher's top-edged sweep off Paul Adams fell to Jacques Kallis at square leg, was unplanned.

Mind you, so was the appearance at three of the captain, Stewart. Apparently, having been padded up for most of the day, Nasser Hussain had requested a five-minute breather, during which the wicket fell.

A new gizmo, which measures the speed of a bowler's delivery- it employs the Doppler effect and is, by all accounts, highly accurate - proved revealing. All three main pace bowlers were clocked between 81 and 86 mph, their uniform pace matching their uninspired outlook.

However, bowling to fields set to stifle, South Africa's bowlers erred in length far too often for any mistake-inducing pressure to build. Perhaps the sluggishness of the pitch contributed or the right and left-hand combination, but there was a distracted air about some of their cricket that suggested the grind of the international circuit - this is their 12th Test in eight months - is finally beginning to leave its mark.

It may have been the pounds 200,000 incentive bonus promised should England win the series that sharpened their resolve, or merely the presence of a new voice at the helm. Whatever the precise combination of reasons, there is no escaping the fact that England are making a habit of playing potent cricket at Edgbaston.

With real chances thin on the ground, the celebrations that greeted the fall of Butcher were understandably vigorous. Had the bowling been the same, England might not have enjoyed their best opening day since despatching Australia inside four days this time last year.

Edgbaston scoreboard

South Africa won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

M A Butcher c Kallis b Adams 77

(272 min, 214 balls, 7 fours)

M A Atherton not out 103

(360 min, 275 balls, 12 fours)

*A J Stewart not out 28

(86 min, 63 balls, 3 fours)

Extras (b17 lb16 w8) 41

Total (for 1, 360 min, 92 overs) 249

Fall: 1-179 (Butcher).

To bat: N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, M A Ealham, D G Cork, R D B Croft, D Gough, A R C Fraser.

Bowling (to date): Donald 18-5-43-0 (w2) (6-2-13-0, 2-0-5-0, 5-0-19-0, 3-1-6-0, 2-2-0-0); Pollock 22-8-37-0 (w1) (7-4-7-0, 7-1-13-0, 3-0-3-0, 4-3-5-0, 1-0-9-0); Klusener 16-4-45-0 (8-3-26-0, 5-1-9-0, 3-0-10-0); Cronje 11-3-28-0 (w1) (4-2-4-0, 3-1-6-0, 4-0-18-0); Adams 18-2-47-1 (8-0-19-0, 10-2-28-1); Kallis 7-2-16-0 (w1) (one spell).

Progress: First day: 50: 82 min, 19.5 overs. Lunch: 67-0 (Butcher 25, Atherton 35) 30 overs. 100: 164 min, 42.5 overs. 150: 236 min, 60.2 overs. Tea: 151-0 (Butcher 65, Atherton 65) 62 overs. 200: 303 min, 79 overs. New ball taken after 89 over s at 239-1.

Butcher's 50: 198 min, 142 balls, 4 fours. Atherton's 50: 180 min, 146 balls, 5 fours. 100: 354 min, 269 balls, 12 fours.

SOUTH AFRICA: G F J Liebenberg, G Kirsten, J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, *W J Cronje, J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, M V Boucher, L Klusener, P R Adams, A A Donald.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and R B Tiffin.