Telephone calls to the referee, the former Australian Test cricketer Peter Burge, had drawn his attention to television film of yesterday's afternoon session, in which Atherton appeared to be polishing the ball after removing one hand from his trouser pocket, giving the impression to some viewers than he might have been making use of something secreted there.
Atherton spent more than an hour in conversation with Burge, who, after studying the video recording, issued a statement which concluded: 'Consultation with the umpires and inspection of the ball confirmed that there was nothing untoward. I also confirm that no official reports were lodged by any parties. I have accepted the explanation given and no action will be taken.'
The South African team manager, Mike Procter, said that he had seen a replay of the incident. No complaint had been made to the referee by anyone on the South African side, he insisted.
Atherton, meanwhile, had been genuinely nonplussed about the incident. Adamant that he had done nothing untoward, he took his trousers with him to his meeting with the referee, should laboratory analysis be required to clear his name. After a lengthy consultation, this was not deemed necessary and Atherton and Fletcher left the ground shortly after 8pm, half an hour before the statement clearing him was made.
It was a controversial end to a slow day, which South Africa ended 372 runs ahead with six second-innings wickets standing. England had been bowled out for 180 in the morning, saving the follow-on.
For the third day running, Lord's was packed to the rafters and, while a cooling breeze gave some comfort, England's patchy efforts with bat and ball left them hot and bothered. Unless the weather turns, any chance of even saving this match has now all but disappeared.
The only momentous thing about this encounter from England's point of view is the way history keeps repeating itself, and yesterday saw another lamentable performance at HQ. No sooner has the quality of the opposition been improved than Ray Illingworth's new dawn seems to have faded rapidly to dusk, as familiar failings reappear.
Engngland's first priority was to avoid the follow-on, and this they achieved before most of the crowd had settled into their seats. Needing 17 runs, Philip DeFreitas set about the bowling and took 13 off the second over of the day. Poor old Craig Matthews, who had bowled 12 faultless overs on Friday, suddenly became the culprit, as a touch of early morning stiffness allowed England an early reprieve.
DeFreitas kept swinging merrily, until one injudicious slash saw one of Allan Donald's less testing deliveries end up in Kepler Wessels's hands at first slip. Of the tail, only Ian Salisbury defended with any resolve, and the England innings closed in farcical fashion as Fraser was run out going for a third run. Never the fleetest of foot, even without the pads, Fraser was undone when Gary Kirsten's long chase and throw broke the stumps with Fraser a yard short of the crease and England still 177 light of South Africa's first innings total.
Fraser was then entrusted with the new ball from the Nursery End, a part of the ground Fraser only normally comes across on his way to and from the net area in the morning. The ploy paid off sooner than expected as Hudson was lbw to one that squatted and nipped back up the slope.
Any hopes that this might be England's day were soon thwarted as Gary Kirsten and Hansie Cronje went about a typically dour period of consolidation. Although Cronje loosened up to play some attractive off-side shots before he was caught on the hook by Angus Fraser, Gary Kirsten's grinding 44 took just under three hours to defeat even the hardiest insomniac.
Once the England bowlers had stopped feeding his one well-oiled shot - the cut - runs dried up and it was out of pure frustration that for the second time in the match he succumbed to Graeme Hick exploiting the rough outside the left-handers off stump. On this occasion the batsman tried to use his feet only to find that some extravagant turn left him fending fresh air and Steven Rhodes did particularly well to break the stumps promptly. Stodgy or not, Kirsten, and his captain Wessels, are the latest in a long line of left-handers that have thwarted England's bowlers recently.
Salisbury's late appearance in the attack, like the absence of White before tea, indicated that easy runs could not be tolerated, and Hick, in his lengthiest bowl of the season, bowled for much of the afternoon, giving his captain some belated control.
South Africa are not as green as their warm-up matches have led most of us to believe. Though there is still naivety and caution in their cricket, their key players do not shirk their responsibilities. Not for the first time this summer did Wessels begin to dig himself in, but just as he seemed set to see the last session out, Salisbury, bowling around the wicket, cramped his stroke and the resulting nick on to pad fell comfortably to Crawley at short leg. Wessels was clearly annoyed, but he has seen South Africa past a lead of 300.
His adhesive role was taken up by Peter Kirsten who, with Jonty Rhodes, painstakingly added to their already substantial lead. If England bat as poorly a second time, the visitors' commanding lead with still two days to go is already more than enough.
Pringle on Bacher, page 3
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