They competed. Initially, they did so with due caution, then almost wildly, but they did not meekly submit and head rapidly for that safe haven where they can make hollow promises of doing better next time. By the standards of recent perform-ances it involved digging into places whose existence they were beginning to forget. A deficit of 86 runs with only one wicket left is hardly a guarantee of taking their first lead on first innings for 15 matches, let alone a platform for victory, yet on a slow pitch growing more untrustworthy they have given themselves not so much a reason to believe as a reason to live.
It would have been a more forlorn effort than usual to avoid putting up a fight. The pitch was placid, the conditions fair, and above all the atmosphere was quite wonderful. The one-note, if apparently patriotic, noise of the Barmy Army notwithstanding, this ground oozes the mood of a festival.
In the Old Grandstand adjacent to the Duck Pond End a brass band plays for most of the proceedings. Around them people frolic. It is a happy place to be, a reminder that cricket, Test cricket as well, is only a game.
The first and integral part of England's innings, when the band were going through their repertoire for only the fourth time, was built, as so many before it throughout the past 10 years, around Atherton. He took 339 minutes and 245 balls to construct his 13th Test century, which was probably about his mean rate. Few, if any, have been things of beauty exactly, though they have all contained the odd memorable stroke and have invariably borne an air of unfussy solidity, the stamp of a painstaking craftsman.
The former captain came into this match on the back of a pair at Johannesburg, his second in consecutive overseas Tests. It was a sequence to provide a severe examination of his fam-ous mental resolve. He toughed it out all right. Perhaps his sweetest single moment in this vigil came early on Friday evening, when he drove Allan Donald through extra cover and finished the shot's execution with a flourish on one knee.
There were few flourishes thereafter. Atherton merely went about his job, eyes staring ahead, bat perpendicular, hands so soft they could have been hired for a washing-up liquid advertisement, unprepared to take unnecessary risks. Maybe, it was possible to think, admiring his purposefulness, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
He ignored the indiscreet verbal attentions of the South African fielders yesterday morning. Umpire Steve Bucknor was moved to issue gentle conduct warnings, first to Jonty Rhodes and then to Hansie Cronje. The pair are Christians of high profile but they were presumably not asking the batsmen if they knew today's church service times. Atherton, in this sort of mode, would be unmoved by exhortations from Billy Graham. It was his first Test century since he took one off the same opposition at Edgbaston in 1998, and England's first since Alec Stewart's against Australia last December.
Atherton saw off another two partners yesterday. Nasser Hussain was embarking on his normal policy of imposing his authority after a few initially circumspect overs but he was ensnared by Donald in doing so. No sooner had England's captain played a cocky little uppercut for four square over the off-side than, next ball, he took on Donald's bouncer. The bottom edge was thin but obvious.
At 160 for 2, England could still have caved in. Atherton, however, was joined by Michael Vaughan and will have already noted that they share obduracy as well as a name. Vaughan will have to learn to keep the scoreboard rotating, but he has a fortress for a defence.
When he was stranded on 11 for six minutes short of an hour, at a time when the ball was soft and England might have tried to force the pace, his calm outward appearance bespoke a man who likes the idea of playing cricket over five days. He and Atherton had put on 68 when the younger man was bowled by one from the debutant, Nantie Hayward, which kept cruelly low.
Hayward has been the quickest bowler in this match, a 22-year-old whirlwind who is somewhat more slender than the only other Test cricketer anybody can think of who has played cricket with a peroxide blond hairdo, Shane Warne. The slightly uneven bounce has helped him here but on a quicker pitch if he can keep it straight he will make most batsmen hurry, and if they do not hurry they will be hurt.
He was still roaring when he accounted for Atherton. Stuck a tad in his crease, Atherton misjudged the line and the inside edge went on to pad and wicket. South Africa may have thought briefly that they were through, and when Alec Stewart and Chris Adams started playing shots which, if not suicidal, were not always conducive to the state of the match, they might have known it. Maybe Stewart could have advised Adams that Test cricket involves building brick by brick, run by run.
There is something to be said for their policy, but Stewart perished to a ball from Donald that was all but a yorker, Adams cut with abandon to wide second slip. The pace did not slacken. Andrew Flintoff supplied an hour of frolics in the late- afternoon sunshine. He played shots which were high, wide and handsome. It was difficult to judge their place in the context of a Test match but as Hayward by bowling at 94mph had pushed the speedometer to the limit, so Flintoff took the entertainment needle to its edge.
He hit four fours in one over from a tired Shaun Pollock, thumping square and straight. Marvellous stuff, ended when he swished across the line and lost his off-stump. Horrible stuff. But still England did not easily surrender. Andrew Caddick stood proud and drove - it is his bowling he must now work on - until the loss of two more wickets late in the day worsened England's position slightly.
The land of milk and honey is still way out of sight, but sometimes England manage to provide slender evidence that it truly exists.
Henry Blofeld, page 7
PORT ELIZABETH SCOREBOARD
England won toss
South Africa - First Innings
G Kirsten c Hussain b Caddick 15
(Edged rising ball to gully; 33 min, 29 balls, 2 fours)
H H Gibbs run out (Flintoff-Stewart) 48
(Stranded after calling mix-up with Cullinan; 137 min, 98 balls, 8 fours)
J H Kallis c Caddick b Silverwood 1
(Top-edged attempted pull to wide mid-on; 48 min, 30 balls)
D J Cullinan st Stewart b Tufnell 58
(Ran down pitch and missed spinning ball; 140 min, 99 balls, 8 fours)
*W J Cronje c Flintoff b Tufnell 2
(Slogged wide ball to short extra; 7 min, 4 balls)
J N Rhodes c Atherton b Flintoff 50
(Fine catch off flying edge from attempted cut; 176 min, 132 balls, 5 fours)
L Klusener c Adams b Gough 174
(Hit waist-high full toss to mid-wicket; 333 min, 221 balls, 25 fours, 2 sixes)
S M Pollock c Vaughan b Flintoff 7
(Top-edged attempted pull to gully; 16 min, 13 balls)
M V Boucher c Stewart b Tufnell 42
(Thin edge off back-foot forcing shot; 158 min, 119 balls, 5 fours)
A A Donald c Hussain b Tufnell 9
(Skied attempted sweep; 18 min, 18 balls, 2 fours)
M Hayward not out 10
(41 min, 24 balls, 2 fours)
Extras (b10, lb5, w1, nb18) 34
Total (558 min, 128.1 overs) 450
Fall: 1-28 (Kirsten), 2-57 (Kallis), 3-87 (Gibbs), 4-91 (Cronje), 5-146 (Cullinan), 6-252 (Rhodes), 7-268 (Pollock), 8-387 (Boucher), 9-401 (Donald), 10-450 (Klusener).
Bowling: Gough 21.1-1-107-1 (nb11,w1), Caddick 31-5-100-1 (nb2), Silverwood 24-4-57-1 (nb3), Tufnell 42-9-124-4 (nb2), Vaughan 3-0-16-0, Flintoff 7-0-31-2.
England - First innings
M A Butcher b Pollock 4
(Chopped on attempting forcing back-foot shot; 8 min, 11 balls, 1 four)
M A Atherton b Hayward 108
(Inside edge on to stumps from lifting ball; 381 min, 274 balls, 15 fours)
*N Hussain c Boucher b Donald 82
(Under-edge off attempted pull shot; 214 min, 154 balls, 10 fours, 2 sixes)
M P Vaughan b Hayward 21
(Beaten on back foot by ball which kept low; 146 min, 99 balls, 3 fours)
A J Stewart b Donald 15
(Beaten by well-directed yorker; 69 min, 36 balls, 2 fours)
C J Adams c Kallis b Pollock 25
(Edged back-foot forcing shot; 76 min, 65 balls, 2 fours)
A Flintoff b Pollock 42
(Flat-footed hit across line of straight ball; 67 min, 37 balls, 9 fours)
A R Caddick not out 33
(119 min, 89 balls, 4 fours)
D Gough b Donald 6
(Beaten by full-length swinging ball; 32 min, 28 balls, 1 four)
C E W Silverwood c Klusener b Hayward 6
(Diving catch at deep extra cover off lofted drive; 37 min, 23 balls, 1 four)
Extras (b1, lb8, nb13) 22
Total (for 9, 579 min, 133.5 overs) 364
Fall: 1-5 (Butcher), 2-160 (Hussain), 3-228 (Vaughan), 4-229 (Atherton), 5-264 (Stewart), 6-281 (Adams), 7-336 (Flintoff), 8-349 (Gough), 9-364 (Silverwood).
To bat: P C R Tufnell.
Bowling: Donald 32-9-104-3 (3-2-5-0 3-0-29-0 6-1-14-0 5-1-21-1 3-2-6- 0 6-0-20-1 6-3-9-1), Pollock 34-7-112-3 (nb9) (6-1-24-1 4-1-12-0 10-4- 15-0 7-1-20-0 7-0-41-2), Hayward 26.5-6-71-3 (nb2) (1-0-6-0 5-1-22-0 2- 0-3-0 4-2-7-0 4-0-11-0 5-2-7-2 4-0-15-0 1.5-1-0-1), Klusener 25-9-48-0 (nb2) (6-2-14-0 6-3-7-0 3-1-7-0 6-3-11-0 4-0-9-0), Cronje 16-5-20-0 (3- 1-3-0 9-3-11-0 3-0-6-0 1-1-0-0).
Progress: Third day: 150 in 214 min, 49.4 overs. Lunch: 199-2 (Atherton 91, Vaughan 11) 73 overs. 200 in 314 min, 73.4 overs. New ball taken after 80 overs at 213-2. 250 in 412 min, 95.1 overs. Tea: 261-4 (Stewart 14, Adams 15) 100 overs. 300 in 486 min, 112.4 overs. 350 in 543 min, 124.5 overs.
Atherton 50: 123 min, 81 balls, 8 fours. 100: 339 min, 245 balls, 14 fours.
Hussain 50: 83 min, 54 balls, 7 fours, 2 sixes.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and R E Koertzen. Match Referee: B N Jarman.