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The gloves are off

The showdown between Allan Donald and Michael Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998 was brutal and engrossing

Allan Donald starts his premature celebration © Getty Images
Sledging and walking are two of cricket's most debated and contentious topics. While the verbal barrages which batsmen are subjected to are often unnecessary and add nothing to the game, there are instances where it is an acceptable part of the sport - as long as certain lines, such as it getting too personal, are not crossed. And the same with walking. As long as players are consistent and respect the umpire's decision, even when it is wrong, then that's fine.
One incident which involved both came at Trent Bridge in 1998 during the fourth Test between England and South Africa. And it has become regarded as one of the game's classic duels. For about 40 minutes a personal head-to-head between Allan Donald and Mike Atherton was utterly compulsive viewing.
England, who had been outplayed for much of the series, went into the match 1-0 down. That they weren't already down and out was thanks to a defiant last-wicket stand between Robert Croft and Angus Fraser in the preceding Test at Old Trafford.
At Nottingham, South Africa batted badly in their second innings to leave England with a target of 247 in a day and a half. Both sides knew that the outcome would probably be decided by what happened on the fourth evening.

If looks could kill © Getty Images
England started confidently, reaching 40 before Mark Butcher was caught behind by Mark Boucher in the 18th over. "I felt we were entering a decisive phase," Donald said. Hansie Cronje, his captain, agreed and brought him back into the attack. "What followed," Donald recalled, "was the best duel I've ever had with a batsman over a prolonged period."
Donald's first over was a loosener - "not slow but not quick by his standards," according to Atherton - but after one ball of his second over, he switched to round the wicket, a sure sign that he was warmed up.
In Donald's third over he produced a brute of a ball aimed straight at Atherton's throat . "Instinctively, I tried to protect myself with my bat and the ball cannoned into my right hand and ballooned up to Boucher," he recalled. Donald continued his follow-through, arms raised in triumph, while Atherton stood his ground. "I dared not look up," he said. "But when I did umpire Steve Dunne remained unmoved."
Donald said he didn't read too much into Atherton's reluctance to depart, putting it down to disappointment. "We both knew he'd gloved it." But as the reality set in, Donald's disbelief turned to anger. His recollection is that he told Atherton; "You better be f****** ready for what's coming because there'll be nothing in your half." Atherton recalled a more succinct message: "You f****** cheat." The two glared at each other, with Atherton determined not to be the first to break eye contact - "Keep staring," he told himself, "he's got to turn away next."

Rubbing salt in the wound: Michael Atherton celebrates victory © Getty Images
What followed was utterly engrossing, as Donald put every ounce of his energy into flattening the batsman. To add insult to injury, Atherton inside-edged the next ball past his leg stump for four. Donald's only response was to continue the verbal barrage against the batsman, in English rather than Afrikaans. "I wanted him to understand what I was saying to him."
Thereafter Donald did everything but take a wicket, peppering both Atherton and Nasser Hussain with vicious bouncers, striking Atherton a painful blow in the chest. Most of the South Africans added to the tension with audible asides of their own. "I'd never felt such adrenalin," Donald admitted. "Both of us gave our all," Atherton wrote, "laying ourselves bare, with nothing in reserve."
A fascinating period of play was effectively ended when Hussain edged Donald, and Boucher spilt a routine catch. Donald stood in the middle of the pitch, looking fit to burst, and screamed in frustration. But the spell had been broken: Atherton recalled that the missed chance had taken something out of Donald and he visibly tired. England reached the close on 108 for 1, and eased to an eight-wicket win the next day. Atherton finished unbeaten with 98.
The incident proved decisive, as England went on to win a gripping final Test at Headingley by 23 runs and, with it, the series 2-1.
Hard as the two had fought on the pitch, they shared a beer after the end of the Trent Bridge Test. "We chatted amicably enough for a while," Donald explained. "He knew he'd gloved it, and we had a laugh about the fallibility of umpires. He said: `What would you have done?' and I said I wouldn't have walked either."
Rightly, there was no reprimand for Donald. "Great sport transcends the normal rules of engagement," wrote David Hopps in The Guardian. "It would have been a spoilsport of a match referee to try to rein back these protagonists and emasculate this drama."
It was as example of how the game should be played. No quarter given in the middle, but no animosity once play is over. Perhaps that is best underlined by the fact that Atherton signed the offending glove and gave it to Donald as a contribution towards his benefit the following summer.
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Opening Up Michael Atherton (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002)
White Lightning Allan Donald (Collins Willow, 1999)
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 1999