History witnessed from 22 yards

'You get strong vibes from Athers. He's as hard as nails. The bloke is like a rock, he inspires you to want to stay with him'; Derek Pringle talks to the six players who for 492 balls and nearly 11 hours took turns to observe a captain's innings to end them all
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England were facing certain defeat in the Second Test at the Wanderers, 382 runs behind, when Alec Stewart opened their second innings with Atherton on Sunday, the fourth day. The pair faced 76 balls in a partnership that lasted 88 minutes and 133 balls, contributing 75 runs. When Stewart was out for 38, Atherton was on 26 and had faced 57 balls.

"I'VE opened a lot with Athers, and normally we look to get past the first 15 overs. We were confident the pitch would stay good despite the cracks, so we decided to take things an hour at a time.

"After we'd done 20 minutes, one of us would point out that there was only 40 to go, and then we'd start again the next hour. Mind you, when Allan Donald's second ball hit me under the heart, those thoughts went from my mind for a bit. His bowling with the new ball is as fast as I've faced and Athers has taken to staring at him and the others after they've bowled him a bouncer just to show them he's not intimidated."

Mark Ramprakash came in at No 3 and lasted two balls before being bowled by Brian McMillan for nought after the bowler had done the same thing to Stewart. Atherton did not face during that time, so no runs were added.

"I DIDN'T have time to say anything to the skipper. But I felt I needed to score some runs - it's the way I play. Athers on the other hand is a natural occupier of the crease - it fits his game plan."

Being left-handed, Graham Thorpe, England's No 4, provided the first tactical conundrums for the captains. His partnership with Atherton lasted exactly two hours, taking up 184 balls, of which he faced 84 for his score of 17. Together they put on 59, of which Atherton's contribution was 41.

"I SAID before the start that with just over five sessions to bat it was a similar situation to Brisbane last winter, which we lost. Only this time, I said, let's do it properly.

"When I came in I felt great. The pitch seemed to have flattened out and the skipper looked in really good nick. The most amazing thing about his knock is that he kept up the same tempo all along. Occasionally, when he felt like it, he'd play a hook or a pull-shot, otherwise he'd just get out of the way. It keeps them guessing and they never seemed to know whether to attack him or defend.

"The chit-chat we had was fairly light-hearted. It helped both of us to relax before concentrating again. Once he asked me to see if he had a hair or something in his left eye. I couldn't see one but then I wasn't sure if I was meant to look in his left eye as I was looking at it, or as he was looking at it. We never did find anything.

"When you take on fast bowlers like Donald and Pollock, sometimes the adrenalin takes over. It's something we talk about a lot, especially the need not to overreact or let them get to you. Athers is masterful at it and he was constantly piping up down the pitch after a bouncer: 'Next ball, next ball. Remember, take it on merit.'

"Although a team like the Aussies prefer to rotate the strike so bowlers can't work on a batsman for too long, I told Athers I was happy to take Donald when he was bowling with Eksteen. To me the rough outside my off- stump just increased the spinner's opportunity and wasn't worth the risk, particularly as he wasn't turning it much to the right-hander.

"What I saw out here was a typical Atherton innings. The only difference is that it went on and on with hardly a loose shot. It was the best knock I've seen by an Englishman during my time at this level."

Graeme Hick was next in, scoring four before edging Donald to the keeper, Dave Richardson. The partnership was brief, lasting 18 minutes and 30 balls, of which Hick faced 17. Atherton went from 67 to 74.

"EVERYONE walks out to bat in that kind of situation hoping they'll be the one who'll stay to the end. Although mine was a brief stay, I'd love to have played that sort of knock. For me there are two really satisfying things as a batsman: it always feels good when you play a big innings that sets up a Test match, but maybe even more satisfying is the kind of innings Athers played to save the Wanderers Test. It was just magnificent.

"You can sense the great buzz the longer you stay there as the fielding side's heads go down. South Africa turned up on Monday expecting to win a Test. Suddenly it dawned on them that they might not. In a way they were probably under more pressure than us in the end, as they were expected to win."

Robin Smith's time at the crease included a crucial period for England when South Africa took the second new ball. For England to survive the shine had to be seen off, and the pair resumed on the final day with England on 167 for four and still facing defeat. The No 6's partnership with his skipper was useful, lasting 129 minutes and 210 balls. Runs by this stage were irrelevant, though Smith scored 44 in 111 balls while Atherton reached 107, his ninth Test century.

"WE began the last day aiming to be still together by first drinks, which we were, though I got out soon after. Athers and I have got a catch- phrase going - "Be strong. Be strong" - which I like to use.

"When I look at Athers from 22 yards, he always seems so composed. He has absolutely the right balance between positive aggression and calm. He seems to have the adrenalin pumping when he has to but is calm when it matters.

"He's just so consistent in the way he approaches his batting. He's very strong mentally and highly organised, and his powers of concentration are incredible. I really envy his unflappability. He can get hit on the head twice an over and it won't unsettle him.When he was dropped by Kirsten at short leg on 99, there was a great sense of relief. I just thought it a sign that it might be our day.

"I helped take a bit of the sting out of the new ball for six or seven overs, but I was hacked off when I was caught cutting Donald. In that situation you want them to have got you out, not got yourself out."

Jack Russell, wicketkeeper and idiosyncratic left-hander, was by far Atherton's most important ally. They batted for 277 minutes, facing 458 balls but scoring only 119 runs. Again Atherton faced fewer deliveries than his partner, 223 to Russell's 235, giving rise to the speculation that he has listened closely to Geoff Boycott, whose advice for the best way to play fast bowling was to watch it from the other end.

"UNLIKE when Thorpey was in earlier on, we didn't have any set plan in terms of who'd face each bowler. I did think that I should take Meyrick Pringle though, as he was swinging it into me and was more dangerous swinging it away from Athers. But we scrapped that idea. We didn't want to stuff things up by pissing about.

"I haven't often batted with Athers, but you do get strong vibes from him. For one thing, he's as hard as nails. The bloke is like a rock, he inspires you to want to stay with him. Athers confronts them, but that is not really my style. If you are going to stare you have to do it with conviction. I was wearing my sunglasses so they couldn't see my eyes. That way, they just couldn't tell whether they were getting to me or not. They made a few comments about my grunting by calling me Monica [as in Seles, the tennis player] but there were no gems.

"Just to get to tea was a minor miracle for me. Having said that, the shift of confidence from them to us at that moment was immense. Cronje kept going well, but you could sense he was struggling to get through to his men. They had needed the lift of a wicket by tea. When they didn't get one there was real belief in our camp. That was when we knew rather than hoped it could be done.

"As our partnership wore on, I did more and more of the talking. Athers had been out there so long. All I kept saying was 'Barbados! We don't want another effing Barbados!' Although Athers wasn't on that tour in 1990, I remember being out well after tea and thinking, 'We're safe now, the other boys can do this.' But they didn't and Ambrose blew us away, taking five wickets in six overs.

"The other phrase I kept repeating was 'keep working, keep moving'. Athers reckons he still hears it in his sleep. Mind you I kept thinking, 'Bloody hell, if he gets out, we've got some work on then.'

"It felt really special out there. It took comradeship to another level, almost like a two-man war with our lives dependent on it. Somehow nothing else mattered, and when the tannoy kept announcing things like Athers's 4,000th Test run, he came down and said: 'That's a load of bollocks that is. We're not interested in that. Just keep going.' And we did. But it was him that really showed us all it could be done."