Cricket: Atherton ready to take international stage

Kent 186 Lancashire 419-8

IF ANYONE had any doubts about the state of Michael Atherton's game, they must have been emphatically dispelled here yesterday.

The popular perception that the former England captain's career was in terminal decline was dismissed with contempt. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While not exactly putting Kent to the sword - it was a somewhat blunter instrument that he wielded to great effect - Atherton certainly made Kent's day in the field a miserable one. There were no dramatics from him. Not an alarm went off during his stay, which lasted seven and three quarter hours. The progress was serene. He was unhurried, unflustered. To watch him compile his first first-class hundred - and indeed his first century in any form of cricket since the one he scored against Surrey at The Oval last September - was rather like sitting in one's garden and turning the pages of War and Peace; some bits were uninteresting, but if the eye skipped the occasional page it did not matter too much as there was plenty of time to pick up the plot.

In the context of Atherton's perceived situation of having to fight with the pack to ensure his place in the Test side, then it was a fascinating read. Chapter by chapter Atherton gradually restored himself as someone who is likely to be one of the chief protagonists for this summer's series against South Africa.

It took him more than five and a half hours to reach the 45th first-class hundred of his career and his 26th for Lancashire. There were just seven fours in the 311 balls he faced.

By then he was well on the way to a fifth-wicket stand of 121 with Mike Watkinson, who added a bit of pizzazz to the Lancashire innings as he cracked a good-looking 87 with a six and 14 other boundaries before holing out on the mid-wicket boundary in mid-afternoon. If a shadow of criticism could be permitted to pass across the sunshine of Atherton's welcome return to form, it would perhaps be that Lancashire missed out on a fourth batting point by just five runs. Maybe it was because Atherton spent 71 minutes in the 80s and a further half hour in the 90s. But that is just being picky.

Besides, he had a partner at the time, the wicketkeeper Warren Hegg, who himself went on to reach a worthy fifty. It was absorbing stuff throughout, watching two contests, that of bat against ball and man against himself.

Eventually, some time after tea, the last page was finally turned. In attempting to cut the 404th ball of his innings Atherton succeeded only in presenting Carl Hopper at slip with a catch off Matthew Fleming. The book closed with Atherton having passed the 150 mark for the ninth time in his distinguished career, and he had helped Lancashire's - and his own - cause no end.