Atherton breaks West Indies hearts

Fifth Test: Former captain compiles seven-and-a-half hour century to leave England on brink of historic series triumph

Some tasks are tailored to suit certain personalities so, when England needed someone to bat down the hours and take this momentous Test match beyond the West Indies grasp, there was only one man for the job: Michael Atherton. In the event he turned up for work, scored a seven-and-a-half hour hundred, and promptly broke the hearts of a region.

Some tasks are tailored to suit certain personalities so, when England needed someone to bat down the hours and take this momentous Test match beyond the West Indies grasp, there was only one man for the job: Michael Atherton. In the event he turned up for work, scored a seven-and-a-half hour hundred, and promptly broke the hearts of a region.

Sometime today, unless Brian Lara has it in him to deliver one of his great knocks and snatch the game, Atherton's innings will help bring one of the great sporting records to an end. Despite the West Indies finishing the day without losing a wicket they are still 341 runs in arrears. But while there is still enough in this pitch to suggest that England should win the match, a draw will suffice to secure the series, their first over these opponents since the summer of 1969.

Down the years England have come to rely on Atherton when it most matters. His century yesterday, the 15th of his career, would probably not make his top-five knocks on quality, but it was easily the most significant to be played for his team. All he would say on the matter was that "all hundreds were satisfying." Yet had he been first, instead of last, man out, a West Indies win, and therefore a squaring of the series, might not be the Caribbean fantasy it now looks.

If Atherton ever wrote a novel, it would be categorised under "dirty realism". Not for him the flashy shots and one-day scoring rates of more excitable contemporaries. Certainly his body language changes when he strikes one out of the sweet spot, which he did several times, but he is still more content than most to dead-bat it as well.

Like Geoffrey Boycott before him, this is man who deals in the minutiae of the mental battle which at this level, and especially against two bowling giants as great as Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, takes place on a ball-by-ball basis.

In this Test, Atherton batted for 12 hours and scored 191 runs, 25 more than his captain Nasser Hussain has made all season for Essex and England. On Saturday, Hussain bagged a pair, his first in Test cricket, and now finds himself in the unenviable position of seeing his side close to settling a 31-year old score without a significant contribution coming from his own bat.

With Atherton set to book in for bed-and-breakfast at the crease, it was slow going, but then edifices as entrenched as one the West Indies have built over England take some shifting. Just 47 runs were scored in the morning session, with 66 coming in the second. But the crowd did not seem to care and, when his dab to third man off Ambrose secured his ton, they rose and applauded him for three long minutes, something his opponents declined to do.

Resuming on 56 for 2, Atherton and Graham Thorpe faced the inevitable early blitz from Walsh and Ambrose. As it has done for much of the past decade the combination paid off as Thorpe paddled his pull shot straight to Adrian Griffith lurking just aft of the square-leg umpire.

Walsh has got such a hex over Thorpe with regard to his slower ball that the left-hander has begun to delay any decisions over shot selection just that bit longer. Normally a fine puller, the split-second check it took to confirm it was not another slower ball made him late into position and subsequently early for his shower.

Walsh almost bowled all morning, his efforts helping to check England's progress, which, with Alec Stewart at the crease, should have been substantial. When the Surrey man eventually found his fluency after lunch he and Atherton added 65 runs until he scythed the leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo to slip where Sherwin Campbell took a reaction catch.

Always hungering for more wickets, Walsh had Michael Vaughan, lbw for the second time in the match, and Graeme Hick back in the hutch in the space of three balls. Whether pressured or not, there appears no rhyme or reason to Hick's fallibility, which appears ingrained against bowlers with their tails up.

At 139 for 6, England's lead was still not over 300, a psychological barrier for anyone batting last. Sensing the need, Atherton, with first Craig White and then Dominic Cork to play the flashing blade, took the score past 200 before Walsh mopped up, including the final wicket, that of Atherton, caught behind trying to dab to third man.

At some stage there are bound to be tears in the Caribbean, and even Ambrose looked lachrymose as he bid farewell to Test cricket. As the crowd stood to applaud there were hugs from his old striking partner Walsh, who also said his goodbyes.

Walsh is undecided about his immediate future and, with series coming up against Australia and South Africa, this was merely him signing off in England. He took 34 wickets in this series, one fewer than Malcolm Marshall's record haul against England.

Ambrose ended his Test career with 405 wickets at an average of 20.99, a figure that for bowlers taking in excess of 250 Test wickets has only been bettered by Marshall and Joel Garner.

Throughout his career, which began in 1987, every time Ambrose took a wicket his mother Hillie rang a bell in his home village of Swetes in Antigua. On the day he finally called time on his illustrious career, he went wicketless and the bells that have rung out over 400 times day or night would have been silent.

THE OVAL SCOREBOARD

West Indies won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings 281 (M A Atherton 83, M E Trescothick 78).

WEST INDIES - First Innings 125 (C White 5-32).

ENGLAND - Second Innings (Overnight: 31 for 2)

M A Atherton c Jacobs b Walsh 108 445 min, 331 balls, 12 fours M E Trescothick c Lara b Ambrose 7 52 min, 36 balls, 1 four *N Hussain lbw b McLean 0 25 min, 15 balls G P Thorpe c Griffith b Walsh 10 77 min, 56 balls ÿA J Stewart c Campbell b Nagamootoo 25 132 min, 104 balls, 3 fours M P Vaughan lbw b Walsh 9 48 min, 46 balls G A Hick c Campbell b Walsh 0 1 min, 2 balls C White run out (Griffith TV replay) 18 32 min, 25 balls, 3 fours D G Cork lbw b McLean 26 51 min, 27 balls, 4 fours, 1 six A R Caddick c Jacobs b McLean 0 3 min, 3 balls D Gough not out 1 15 min, 8 balls Extras (b1 lb7 nb5) 13 Total (445 min, 108 overs) 217

Fall: 1-21 (Trescothick) 2-29 (Hussain) 3-56 (Thorpe) 4-121 (Stewart) 5-139 (Vaughan) 6-139 (Hick) 7-163 (White) 8-207 (Cork) 9-207 (Caddick) 10-217 (Atherton).

Bowling: Ambrose 22-8-36-1 (nb4) (9-3-11-0, 6-3-6-0, 7-2-19-0); Walsh 38-17-73-4 (nb1) (14-5-20-0, 11-9-4-1, 13-3-49-3); McLean 22-5-60-3 (8-2-15-1, 7-3-18-0, 5-0-20-0, 2-0-7-2); Nagamootoo 19-7-29-1 (3-1-7-0, 13-5-19-1, 3-1-3-0); Adams 7-3-11-0 (3-1-8-0, 4-2-3-0).

Progress: Fourth day: 100: 264 mins, 64.3 overs. Lunch: 103-3 (Atherton 59, Stewart 20) 65 overs. 150: 355 min, 89.1 overs. New ball taken after 91.1 overs at 159-6. Tea: 169-7 (Atherton 89, Cork 1) 96 overs. 200: 413 mins, 102 overs. Innings closed 5.01pm.

Atherton's 50: 247 min, 184 balls, 5 fours. 100: 415 min, 315 balls, 11 fours.

WEST INDIES - Second Innings

S L Campbell not out 15 58 min, 35 balls, 2 fours A F G Griffith not out 17 58 min, 50 balls, 2 fours Extras (nb1) 1 Total (for 0, 58 min, 14 overs) 33

Bowling: Gough 5-1-14-0 (nb1), Caddick 7-1-18-0, White 2-1-1-0 (one spell each).

Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) and D R Shepherd (Eng). TV replay umpire: B Leadbeater. Match referee: R S Madugalle.

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