Atherton was at the crease for 15 minutes short of 11 hours while compiling his highest Test score to date. It earned a hug from Raymond Illingworth, although the manager - tongue in cheek - later insisted: "I just gave him a gentle handshake, that's all, but it was a tremendous performance by both Mike and Jack [Russell]."
Every member of the South African team trooped into the visitors' dressing- room to congratulate Atherton and his partner, Russell. "Atherton's innings was one of the great rearguard actions," Bob Woolmer, the South African coach, said. "Our bowlers performed magnificently, kept trying to the end, but you have to give him great credit."
Atherton looked as though he could have carried on all night if necessary. "I feel pretty fresh at the moment," he said. "The adrenalin flows when you are out there, but I expect I'll be tired later on.
"Jack and I just took it ball by ball, trying to give every delivery 100 per cent concentration. He's a player who's got immense concentration and he played every ball as though his life depended on it."
For Russell, in particular, defeat would have been almost too much to bear. The England wicketkeeper took part in a similar operation with Robin Smith against the West Indies in Barbados nearly six years ago which ended in failure.
"I didn't want to go through what happened there again," Russell said. "We geed up each other and if one of us was looking a bit lazy we had a go at one another. We had a bit of luck, but we were determined to be there at the end. It's great to save the game from the position we were in."
Highest scores by side batting fourth in drawn Tests
654-5 England v South Africa 1938/39 (Durban)
429-8 India v England 1979 (The Oval)
423-7 South Africa v England 1947 (The Oval)
408-5 West Indies v England 1929/30 (Jamaica)
364-6 India v Pakistan 1979/80 (Delhi)
355-8 India v West Indies 1948/49 (Bombay)
351-5 England v South Africa 1995/96 (Johnnesburg)
344-7 Australia v England 1994/95 (Sydney)
344-6 Sri Lanka v New Zealand 1990/91 (Hamilton)
343-6 India v England 1990 (Old Trafford)