Rock-solid Atherton wins war of attrition

Unflappable opener refuses to buckle as West Indies warhorses show the game what it will be missing

The first six overs of the day were unforgettable. Those two old warhorses, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, in harness together for the last time, each bowled three maidens which contained the best ingredients of them both.

The first six overs of the day were unforgettable. Those two old warhorses, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, in harness together for the last time, each bowled three maidens which contained the best ingredients of them both.

There was that probing length which keeps the batsman anxiously on his crease, the constant line on or just outside the off-stump, the extra bounce that comes from their height and an unvarying pace of just over 80 miles an hour.

It was an irony that the one wicket in these overs came from the only bad ball, a highly pullable offering from Walsh which Graham Thorpe drilled into square leg's hands. Ambrose might have had Mike Atherton a number of times when he beat his outside edge and then stood in mid pitch glaring in disbelief at his ill luck.

It was wonderful cricket and terrific theatre, just as it had been on that third afternoon at Lord's a little over two months ago when Atherton was the lynchpin of England's two-wicket victory.

If Ambrose and Walsh are the game's irresistible force, Atherton again played the part of its immovable object.

Ambrose has taken Atherton's wicket 17 times in Test matches and has made him suffer alarmingly in this, the final series they will play against each other. But Atherton had the last word at The Oval with two exhibitions of batting which told of the immense skills he brings to the business of going in first.

Apart from his well-tried and trusted technique, it is the unflappable example he sets which has been just as important to England. Nothing has ever seemed to ruffle him. He has withstood barrages of bouncers for year after year without ever letting the bowler know he is in the least concerned.

Unmoved, he has seen Ambrose and Allan Donald and their likes standing almost in the crease beside him glaring with hate. He has received volleys of sledging without moving a muscle unless it was to smile faintly in retaliation. He has stood his ground when the luck has gone his way to the fury of his opponents as happened at Trent Bridge against Donald in 1998.

He rode his luck now as impassively as ever. Walsh and the West Indies were sure they had him lbw on more than one occasion and only Brian Lara and Sherwin Campbell clapped when he reached three figures. The crowd's ovation went on for at least two minutes and after running that single, Atherton stood at the non-striker's end, looking slightly awkward and a trifle embarrassed.

There was no emotion. Nor was there in Melbourne after Christmas in 1998 when he made a pair in the only Test match of the series that England won. Watching him walk back to the pavilion, helmet and gloves off, it is impossible to tell whether he has made a hundred or nought. His face is as inscrutable as the sphinx's.

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