December 10, 2000

Atherton grafts a painstaking century

Karachi, Dec 9: Michael Atherton scored a typically sedate and painstaking unbeaten century as England took a decisive step forward in holding Pakistan to a draw in the three-Test series which ends on Dec 11.

The 32-year-old was unconquered on 117 in England's 277 for four at the draw of stumps on the third day of the third and final cricket Test against Pakistan. The tourists are 128 runs shy of home team's 405 and in all probability Nasser Hussain looks set to join Mike Brearley to return unbeaten in a Test series after a gap of 34 years.

Atherton, who started the day at 43 in England's 79 for one, laboured and worked hard for every run before reaching his 16th Test century in 105th Test with a classic cover drive of Danish Kaneria on his 317th delivery. It was also his maiden century against Pakistan in nine Tests which follows his hundreds against Australia, West Indies, India, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

With England scheduled to tour Sri Lanka in February, a similar innings there would place Atherton alongside Australian Steve Waugh with centuries against all Test playing nations. Bangladesh, who were admitted to the Test fold in July this year, have played just one Test against India.

The cool and calculated Atherton once again displayed his steely nerves while batting with Hanif Mohammad-like patience for eight hours and 27 minutes during which he received 387 balls. The commitment of the former captain can be judged from the fact that his innings included just nine boundaries, four of which came in the first 50 runs.

For those who know Atherton, it was not an unusual innings. He had batted for 645 minutes in making 185 not out to save the second Test against South Africa at Johnnesburg in 1995-96 - the fourth longest innings by an Englishman in Test cricket.

Atherton's innings not only had commitment, it had grace, discipline and maturity which unfortunately lacked in the Pakistan batsmen though four centuries were scored by Yousuf Youhana (2), Inzamam-ul-Haq and Abdur Razzaq. It is surely an innings which will be a lesson for not only the home team batsmen but all budding cricketers who watched him on televisions.

It has been a wonderfully consistent series by Atherton who scored 73 and 20 in the first Test at Lahore and then followed up with 32 and a match-saving 65 not out at Faisalabad. And he is not unjustified in saying that it has been a reborn series for him.

"It is a sort of reborn series for me. I had worked hard after the South African series. Since the century at Trent Bridge Test against Zimbabwe, I have been batting exceedingly well. I am pretty satsified with this tour on which I have batted on good surfaces unlike the ones in England," Atherton, who now has 7,264 career runs, said.

Pakistan had always wanted to get Atherton early but the batsman stood like a mountain by defying a spirited Pakistan attack led by Waqar Younis and supported by champion spinner Saqlain Mushtaq.

"Waqar bowled quick but his trademark reverse swinging deliveries were not there. Saqlain spun the ball well and I had to bat with my head down to counter him," Atherton said of the Pakistan bowlers.

He added: "Against some very talented fast and spin Pakistan bowlers, it has been hard work all through the tour."

Many would think that Atherton tried to kill the Test with his knock at a snail's pace which saw him score 74 runs in the entire day's play. But grafted his innings and ensured that England doesn't let an excellent work on this tour go down the drain.

Atherton not only extended his career by a few years if he decides against hanging his boots after the Ashes series next year, skipper Nasser Hussain rescued his sinking career with a dogged 51 - his first half century in 19 Test innings.

Hussain, whose place in the team was in jeopardy after he scored a mere 318 runs in 26 first-class innings before this one, batted for four hours and 26 minutes before being caught by Inzamam-ul-Haq in the first slip off Shahid Afridi. Hussain faced 210 balls and spiced his innings with four boundaries and a six over the head of Saqlain Mushtaq.

Hussain featured in a 134-run second wicket partnership with Atherton. The two batsmen denied Pakistan a wicket in the first session before the home team picked up two in the post-lunch session and one in the last session.

Although Pakistan bowlers toiled all day, Waqar Younis showed his fitness and form by finishing with two for 58 from 22 overs. The speed merchant bowled upto the batsmen and made them play strokes. He used the short-pitched delivery as a secret weapon and at times surprised the batsmen, specially Graeme Hick who was lucky to be still there at stumps on 12. The Worcestershire batsmen pulled away from the bouncer at the last minute which still struck him on his shoulder for two leg-byes.

Saqlain Mushtaq varied his length and pace but failed to rattle the batsmen on a wicket on which the ball turned very slowly to give the batsmen all the time in the world to adjust.

But Saqlain was guilty of bowling 15 no-balls in 37 extras Pakistan conceded. It was indisciplined bowling and criminal on the part of a spinner of Saqlain's calibre to over-step so much.

With the match apparently dead, barring a miracle, all eyes are now set on whether Atherton completes a double century.