Cricket: Atherton ready for resumption of fierce rivalry

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IN A few days' time, Michael Atherton will walk out to bat at the Wanderers and attempt to rescale his personal Everest. He knows that getting beyond base camp will be tough despite talk that his old rival Allan Donald is not yet firing on all cylinders. But if his opponents once again remain a huge challenge, the biggest problem may be finding a suitable encore on the ground where, come judgement day, he probably played the innings of his life.

For those hazy of memory the bald facts are these. Four years ago, Atherton, then the England captain, defied South Africa for 10 hours and 45 minutes, scoring an unbeaten 185 that dulled three new balls. It was a monumental achievement, which helped England save the second Test, an escape that some even likened to the relief of Ladysmith in the Boer War, some 96 years earlier.

"They are happy memories," Atherton admitted after nets yesterday, "but you have to look forward not back. Naturally, you gain strength from such things and it's nice to know you have scored runs against certain bowlers. When it comes round to it again on Thursday morning, I'll know I've got that in the bank to draw on."

It is some balance, too, and Atherton's record against Donald and Co is mightily impressive. In the 13 Tests since South Africa's return to Test cricket, he has scored 1,090 runs, at an average of 49.55. Against all the other Test sides his average is a more humble 36.6.

Not many people get the opportunity to return to the scene of their defining glory, but Atherton has managed it largely because, four years on, and in spite of serious back problems, he remains the mainstay of England's batting with 334 runs on tour, from six first-class innings.

As one of the senior pros, Atherton believes he can offer advice to players such as Michael Vaughan and Chris Adams, two batsmen who will be making their Test debuts tomorrow, after England named their 12-man squad. Gavin Hamilton may yet make it a third, but the all-rounder will have to wait until the final morning, when Nasser Hussain assesses the pitch to know whether he or Phil Tufnell secures the final berth.

Speaking about the squad, Atherton said he had been impressed with Vaughan's composure at the crease. He also felt that the aggressive attitude shown by Adams was something the batsman should stick with, though he warned both may initially be taken aback by the noise and hostility of the crowd at the Wanderers.

Last time, the pitch here began grassy but quickened as the match went on, a factor that, with four fast bowlers raging against him, did not make Atherton's stay an easy one. Yesterday he applauded the surfaces he had played on during this tour. "That's the main difference between South Africa and England. The pitches at home are a disgrace."

There is little doubt that Atherton v Donald, has provided one of the most enduring skirmishes of recent times. If part one was the battle in Johannesburg, then part two was the ding-dong at Trent Bridge 18 months ago, where Atherton, after surviving an obvious glove behind, carried his bat to help England reach the final Test at 1-1. It is a score Donald will be looking to even up fast.

The two have a mutual respect for each other and their fierce rivalry has no place off the pitch. "Allan is a class act and his record absolutely suggests he is one of the great cricketers South Africa has produced."

Donald who has been carrying a long-standing ankle injury as well as a sore rib, was due to have a bowl yesterday afternoon, though his plans scuppered by a thunderstorm. "I'm confident within myself of being fit, but I would have known better had I bowled today," said Donald. "Obviously I'm aware that Athers and I will be meeting again and I have great respect for him. He's in good form at the moment, but it only takes one ball to get him out."

Now that both have had their say, it is time to watch two great players jostle for supremacy. But irrespective of who prevails once hostilities are renewed, it will be compulsive viewing.

ENGLAND (v South Africa, First Test, Johannesburg, tomorrow, from): M A Atherton (Lancashire), M A Butcher (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex, capt), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), C J Adams (Sussex), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G M Hamilton (Yorkshire), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Hampshire), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex).