Stubborn Atherton leads England towards safety against Pakistan
Michael Atherton's dogged effort in the third and final Test, in Karachi, has been chiefly responsible for keeping England fully in the fight. Pakistan's bowlers struggled once again, as indeed they had for most of the second half of the previous day, to find a way through his impeccable defence.
With his extraordinary performance on the third day, he led England to 277 for four, and reached his 16th Test century from 317 balls, shortly after tea. His gritty batting, a mixture of solid graft and correct stroke-play, has frustrated Pakistan's bowlers who gave little away and bowled tidily enough to take three wickets on an unhelpful pitch.
The morning session totally belonged to England whose defiant approach brought only 66 runs from 32 overs to take the total to 145 for one. Playing with caution, Atherton and Nasser Hussain, achieved their main aim of keeping wickets intact.
For Hussain, who has been in such wretched form throughout this year, there was the added concern of his personal score. He will have had some satisfaction in reaching his first half-century since last winter in South Africa when he hit an unbeaten 146 in the Christmas Test in Durban. Before today he had scored just 318 first-class runs in 2000.
But after nearly four-and-a-half hours at the crease, during which he faced 209 balls, he provided the home side with their first success of the day. Pakistan's leg-spinning all-rounder, Shahid Afridi was brought on for the 81st over and he struck with his third ball.
Hussain edged a leg-spinner and it was held at slip after being deflected by the wicket-keeper. It had been a patient innings from the England captain who showed much restraint in his stroke-play. He had hit four boundaries and on the one occasion when he decided to step out to hit, he lifted Saqlain Mushtaq for a straight six.
It didn't take long for Pakistan to claim another wicket after the long 132-run partnership for the second wicket. Waqar Younis took the second new ball, in the 88th over, and in the fifth over with it, he trapped Graham Thorpe lbw, with the batsman playing no stroke.
Thorpe had driven Waqar beautifully to the extra-cover boundary to reach 18 but two balls later Waqar took his revenge; though replays suggest that Thorpe can count himself unlucky. England were 195 for three and Atherton had progressed to 93.
Pakistan had a long wait before another wicket came their way. Alec Stewart batted for over an hour-and-a-half before Saqlain had him taken at silly point for 29, which included five boundaries.
Atherton's magnificent back-to-the-wall effort left him unbeaten on 117 from an eight-and-a-half-hour vigil at the crease, just 149 minutes fewer than his Johannesburg epic five years ago. Having been unbeaten with 65 in the previous Test, he has now gone 11 hours and 52 minutes without being dismissed. He also took his tally of Test runs for the year to 946. If he continues to bat the way he has for the 387 balls in his innings so far, England will have no difficulty in wiping off the 128 runs that they were trailing by at stumps. If that happens, a draw will almost certainly be the outcome of this Test match.
"It's my time at the moment," Atherton admitted. "I worked hard on my game at the start of the summer after the South African tour and since getting that century in the Trent Bridge Test against Zimbabwe I've batted well. Every batsman goes through stages when they are in nick and then they go through a phase when they are out it, and I'm playing well at the moment. I've had a good year, and having injections every six months in my back has helped because they have kept me going pain free."