Cricket: Donald rejoins battle of big cats

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The Independent Online
THIS WAS another superb day's Test cricket even though England still have some work to do if they are to avoid defeat. Batting on the last day on a pitch with an increasingly uneven bounce may not be easy.

There is nothing in cricket at the moment to compare with the ongoing duel between Allan Donald and Mike Atherton. The mere sight of each other persuades them both to lift their game to a different, more exciting and dramatic level.

In the Johannesburg Test, victory had gone emphatically to Donald. But in Port Elizabeth it was Atherton who was magnificent as his number one adversary bore down on him like a panther in his prime. Somehow Atherton ducked, weaved and sometimes drove as he climbed to his 13th Test hundred.

It was a battle which should have been enacted further north, in the game reserves of the Kruger Park. It was the very essence of big-game hunting. The stealth, the naked ferocity, the skill, the know-how, the relentless search for any weakness and finally the kill.

There was another piquant touch to the day - the arrival of a young, raw-boned fast bowler who will soon be making Donald and Shaun Pollock look to their laurels. He is the 22-year-old Nantie Hayward, who made the final pounce which destroyed Atherton.

Startlingly blond and not given much to smiling or making friends with batsmen either, Hayward hereabouts was bowling consistently at around 93mph. It was his raw pace which blasted a way in quick succession through Michael Vaughan and Atherton.

The South Africans have had their eye on Hayward for some time. He came to England in 1998, fast, furious, red-haired and wild. Not much was seen of him and he was allowed a solitary one-day international.

He is now learning the disciplines which turn fast-bowling talent into the finished article. First, he beat Vaughan for pace and trapped him helplessly on the crease. Atherton was also surprised by his sheer speed and was late with his back stroke.

When Jacques Kallis is again fit to bowl, South Africa will have a full hand of four prime fast bowlers. We all know what this dreaded combination did for West Indies cricket under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards in the Seventies and Eighties.

While Atherton was brill-iantly immovable - the supreme technician going quietly and undemonstrably about his business - it was Nasser Hussain's original initiative which set South Africa back on their heels.

These two played the leading roles for England, but Vaughan, Chris Adams and Andy Flintoff all made their mark in promising fashion. Vaughan stayed firm with Atherton for 36 overs and was always composed and mature. Adams looked the part until he became over-confident and tried to cut a ball which was too far up. Flintoff, who impr-oves with every outing, then launched a spectacular assault on Pollock which ended when he also became over-ambitious, while Andy Caddick showed his true mettle at the end.

The England batsmen have showed they had learned some of the lessons of Johannesburg. They were tighter and less prone to error, though there is still much to be done. This side is not yet efficient enough either in batting or bowling to beat South Africa. Having said that, at least they are improving.

It was brilliant, compelling cricket all day. Nothing, for me, could match Donald's three overs at the start, all to Atherton. It really was the irresistible force against the immovable object, and worth changing continents to see.