It was, as Atherton remarked later, a batsman's Test. But it was also a match of revivals, first by England, as they bounced back from their defeat at Lord's, and then by the South Africans, who mounted a vigorous rearguard action to salvage a draw. It was the first drawn Test at Headingley since 1980, and the first since 1968 that occurred without the significant assistance of the weather. The bowlers of both sides, without the expected movement either in the air or off the pitch, were unable to perform well enough to achieve victory.
England were disappointed in the end, but the match did much to rehabilitate their captain's reputation, so battered at Lord's. He went out to bat to a warm reception when the game began, and returned 321 minutes later to a standing ovation, having been dismissed, for the second time in a Test in 14 months, for 99. He had justified his decision to bat first and underlined the strength of his character. Later, however, he could not resist the jibe that the century he had so nearly made would have been the best response to the gutter press. His sense of timing, so dramatically effective in the middle, had deserted him under the media spotlight.
England went in without White, whose absence with a stress fracture in the shin enabled the selectors to submit to the clamour for the left-handed Thorpe. Tufnell replaced Salisbury as the spinner; he was preferred in the final eleven to the uncapped but in-form 33-year-old Surrey seamer Joey Benjamin. South Africa were unchanged and thus again spinless. Thorpe was an immediate success. After he joined Atherton at 84 for two, his urgency, instinctive placement and crisp driving brought him 13 boundaries in his 72 (off 112 deliveries) and their partnership realised 142 in 37 overs as the South Africans' line wavered against the left-right combination. Atherton, meanwhile, was quick to punish the bowlers whenever they strayed to leg. Everything went his way until, looking for his hundred, he drove firmly but too early and the brawny McMillan - who had a hand in all four wickets on the first day - took a difficult return catch.
With Donald battling against an infected toe, which eventually forced him out of the second innings, South Africa's stereotyped swing and seam attack lacked the penetration and discipline it had at Lord's. On the second day, Stewart, annoyed at being dropped down the order so that Gooch could resume his opening partnership with Atherton, responded with 15 fours in an innings of 89. With Rhodes scoring 65 not out, Crawley 38 and most of the tailenders joining in, England were able to declare at 477 for nine - the biggest total South Africa had conceded since their return to Test cricket. England dismissed Hudson before the close and, next morning, took complete control when Defreitas dismissed Gary Kirsten and Cronje with the third and fourth deliveries of the day. At first, only the night-watchman Richardson fought effectively and he was bowled by a shooter that suggested the Headingley pitch was becoming its old self. When Wessels was out at 105 for five, South Africa looked certain to follow on.
In fact, they recovered to within 30 of England's total after lunch on the fourth day. Much of this was due to Peter Kirsten, who at 39 years and 84 days became the sixth-oldest player to score his maiden Test century. The record-holder is Dave Nourse, 42 years and 294 days old when he scored 111 for South Africa against Australia in 1921-22; the other four were Ted Bowley, Harry Makepeace, Eric Rowan and Andy Sandham, all aged 39. Kirsten batted for almost five hours and faced 226 balls. All his experience went into maintaining vigilance and striking hard when the opportunity presented itself, and he refused to go off after Gough felled him on 50. Rhodes and McMillan gave him excellent support. The pitch never again showed the spite that accounted for Richardson, and on the fourth morning the England bowling strayed terribly against the South African tail: Matthews, who hit ten fours and a six in his 62 not out, played an especially important part.
England still had slender hopes of victory and, with Thorpe making another stylish contribution, Hick advanced fluently to his first Test century in England, with nine fours and three sixes. England declared at lunch, when they were 297 ahead with a minimum of 60 overs left to dismiss South Africa a second time. Finally, there were signs that the pitch was wearing and Gough and Tufnell both tested the batsmen. But Gary Kristen dug in for 65 to prevent any late dramatics, and the match dribbled away with six overs remaining.
Man of the Match: P. N. Kirsten.
Attendance: 67,500; receipts £1,092,975.
Close of play: First day, England 268-4 (A. J. Stewart 24*, J. P. Crawley 12*); Second day, South Africa 31-1(G. Kirsten 7*, D. J. Richardson 13*); Third day, South Africa 318-7 (B. M. McMillan 57*, C. R. Matthews 0*); Fourth day, England 144-2 (G. A. Hick 48*, G. P. Thorpe 51*).