Cricket: England's spirits altered by Atherton: Second Test: Leader ignores controversy to finish one short of a deserved century but Hick disappoints again after promising start

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England 268-4 v South Africa

HAS the man no shame? There he was, in full view of the crowd, the television cameras, the umpires, and the International Cricket Council match referee, clearly altering the condition of the ball. What's more, there were incriminating red smudges all over the centre of his bat to prove it.

Say what you like about Mike Atherton (and most people have since Lord's) but if the ICC's forensic boys were to examine the substances that lie beneath the England captain's breast pocket, they would find a fair amount of steel. Given the pressure he was under, Atherton's day was only slightly spoiled by getting out one run short of what would have been his eighth Test century, and it at least saved him from having to risk putting his hand in his pocket for a round of celebration drinks.

This was the second time in consecutive home summers that Atherton has been out for 99 in a Test match but the crowd gave him a three-figure ovation in any event. In these parts, playing for Lancashire is considerably dirtier than anything you might have in your pocket, but the Yorkshire public will rarely fail to warm to a bloke with guts.

All in all, it was undoubtedly a day of unfamiliar action in this second Test, not least because England had much the better of it. They are also playing a specialist spinner for the first time here since 1987, but even more unfamiliar was the fact that the ball failed to swing despite an oppressively sticky atmosphere.

It was, therefore, a decent toss for Atherton to have won, as Headingley pitches rarely get better, and the ball is already behaving oddly. Mostly it is reaching the wicketkeeper at about the same pace as Angus Fraser hurtles around the outfield, but the occasional ball has reared up from not much short of a good length.

Atherton himself discovered this in mid-morning. If he did not have a lump in his throat when the crowd applauded him to the middle, he did when Brian McMillan hit him an inch to the right of his Adam's apple, and Allan Donald also had him hopping around in a lively spell just before he was out (after five hours and 20 minutes) caught and bowled by McMillan.

Donald did not take a wicket yesterday, although on his only two previous appearances here - for Warwickshire - he has a combined aggregate of 19 for 189. He did, though, inadvertently introduce the first real note of levity into the ball-tampering business when, to the accompaniment of loud whistling from the crowd (and a lengthy chuckle from Atherton) he rubbed his hand into the Cornhill Insurance logo at the end of his run-up.

Donald, however, does not have to walk back anything like as far as that to find a smear of white paint, as the stuff is plastered all over his face. The electronic scoreboard continually advised spectators that unprotected skin had only 25 minutes to remain unburned, but Donald could survive 25 minutes from a blow torch.

To begin with, the Atherton survival factor (ie, how long spectators could watch him without nodding off) was considerably less than 25 minutes. By lunch, he had made 19, which was perhaps carrying his pre- match mood of introspection a touch far.

Having been re-united with Graham Gooch, the liaison did not last as long as either would have liked, Gooch driving at a ball from Fanie de Villiers wide enough to ignore, and falling to a catch at second slip by McMillan. Gooch has now cobbled together only 84 runs in his last six Test innings.

If Atherton was under pressure, then Graeme Hick would also have been feeling it, and his first ball - slashed over the slips for a one- bounce four that would probably have been caught had there been a third man - was part nerves, and part determination to finally cast aside the diffident air that has so often affected his batting for England.

As he did at Lord's, he looked in good nick, and as he did at Lord's, he got out just when he was threatening to dominate. It was as careless a stroke as Gooch's, but Hick was more unlucky in the sense that McMillan's catch this time - at full stretch high to his right - was a blinder. McMillan is such a brilliant slip, that Atherton was lucky to survive an overhead chance to him off Donald when he had made 41, and Graham Thorpe (on one) was also a touch fortunate when Kepler Wessels was unsure enough of a low edge to first slip to withdraw his initial claim.

Thorpe, though, then went on to play comfortably the most attractive innings of the day. He hit 13 fours in his 72, figured in a stand of 142 with Atherton until spooning a drive to cover point, and his hooking and pulling off Donald represented the kind of spanking that the selectors deserve for leaving him out all summer.

Kepler Wessels went to hospital last night after injuring his left thumb. X-rays showed it to be badly bruised but not broken.

(Photograph omitted)

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