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"One of the great innings of all time," in the opinion of Ray Illingworth, saved England from going 1-0 down. Others acclaimed Atherton's innings as the finest by any England captain, as he had no particular partner until Russell joined him for the last 277 minutes, whereas Peter May had Colin Cowdrey to help repulse Sonny Ramadhin at Edgbaston in 1957. Possibly only the 262 not out by Dennis Amiss at Kingston in 1973-74 was a greater match-saving innings for England.
Atherton, resolutely single-minded in any event, became even more so when he saw his decision to play four fast bowlers and send South Africa in fail badly. This was his bowlers' fault as much as his. Only Cork fired until Malcolm, who had replaced Richard Illingworth, clicked with the second new ball. Gough never got going at all and while Fraser eventually did it was not until the second innings; in the first, Kirsten had frequently clipped him off his legs, and square cut and square-driven his maiden Test hundred. Kirsten also set an example by taking quick singles with Cronje to set South Africa going, whereas England were rudderless in their first innings once Atherton shouldered arms to a ball which just brushed his off stump. He later described his team's disintegration - to a sequence of soft dismissals in the face of some passionate and often short-pitched - bowling as "fairly unforgivable", although Thorpe did receive one of several debated decisions made by Karl Liebenberg. South African coach Bob Woolmer publicly criticised the umpiring, for which he was censured by Clive Lloyd, the referee.
England's bowlers, and Cork especially, kept a fuller length than the South Africans. This enabled Russell to take the world record for dismissals in a Test from Bob Taylor, who was at the ground. Russell took 11 catches out of 13 possible chances, all but one standing back. South Africa, in their second innings, scored so freely against defensive fields - Cullinan's dashing strokeplay was reminiscent of Kim Hughes - that they had a lead of 400 well before the third-day close England's mood brightened a little when they realised they would not have to bat that evening, with the ball still seaming.
South Africa indeed were so cautious that they came off for light that was not unplayably bad when 428 ahead, and with 7.3 overs remaining. Shortly beforehand, McMillan had hooked consecutive balls from Malcolm for six, four and six. Next morning, they went on for 92 more minutes to add 50 superfluous runs - and it was their bowlers who had to do the batting - just so that McMillan could complete his second Test hundred, made with three sixes in all off 168 balls.
England therefore had to survive for four overs and five sessions, not two whole days, or more. They had drawn their three previous Tests, but only after batting first and banking large totals. Atherton and Stewart, in his 50th Test, were aspiring to new heights when they set out to save the game - a target of 479 was theoretical. Only a shower was forecast, and that did not materialise. What did help was that the one lively pitch of the series went to sleep once it had fully dried, and its numerous cracks never became influential: fortunately for England, it had been moved half a pitch width in the week before the Test to avoid the worst of them. A full house of 30,000 on the fourth day waited for England to capitulate, and by the close Atherton had lost four partners twice in three balls, McMillan hit the stumps with yorkers - Ramprakash beaten in an uncontrolled drive for the second time - and yet they were not scathed again in the next nine hours.
On the fifth morning Atherton took a while to return to his groove, until his feet began moving again. On 99, he forced off his body into Kirsten's hands at short-leg, and straight out again. He hooked his next ball from Donald to bring up his ninth hundred and 4,000 runs in Tests, and celebrated with rare animation, exchanging hugs with Smith. Soon after, Smith's slash was caught at third man and Russell offered a return catch to Pringle when five, which was missed. A draw was still only the faintest of hopes.
Gradually that hope grew stronger. Back home, England's supporters hung on to television and radio commentaries, if not quite as grimly as Atherton and Russell. The captain's tempo was perfect, as he did not try an uncontrolled shot, and restricted his scoring arc to his favourite areas square of the wicket, yet he put away the bad ball to the boundary 28 times to stop the bowlers getting on top. Russell took more than his share of the strike and kept reminding his captain of England's collapse in the Barbados Test of 1989-90.
Cronje made little effort to disturb the batsmen's rhythm by varying his bowlers and fields. Donald had nothing left when the third ball was taken - and certainly no time to exploit it, owing to the timing of the delayed declaration. Atherton batted for 643 minutes in all - the fourth longest innings for England - and 492 balls, Russell for 277 minutes and 235 balls.
Men of the Match: M. A. Atherton and R. C. Russell. Attendance: 87,100.
Close of play: First day, South Africa 278-7 (S. M. Pollock 3*); Second day, South Africa 5-0 (A. C. Hudson 5*, G. Kirsten 0*); Third day, South Africa 296-6 (B. M. Macmillan 76*, S. M. Pollock 0*); Fourth day, England 167-4 (M. A. Atherton 82*, R. A. Smith 11*).