Sportsnight #14: 1995, Cricket, Johannesburg – Second Test, England v South Africa

by Ray_North on June 26, 2013

Good Evening and welcome to Sportsnight. Tonight, we’re going to the Wanderers Cricket Ground in Johannesburg for the second test between Hansie Cronje’s South Africa and Michael Atherton’s England. After the first test was drawn, the first four days of the second test have been dominated by the South Africans. After scoring 332 in the first innings to England’s disappointing 200 all out; and 336 in their second innings, England needed a massive and improbably 468 to win the match or, just as improbable they would have to bat for a day and a half to force a draw. Surely they couldn’t do it? Well, up to the crease came Michael Atherton.

It was England’s first tour of South Africa after the end of Apartheid. It was the days when England were a team with a few talented individuals, but more often than not, lacking in the strength of character that is needed to consistently win in test match cricket.

South Africa had a great team – captained by the late and troubled, Hansie Cronje who was in his pomp, he was surrounded by men of steel – men like Brian McMillan, Gary Kirsten, Jonty Rhodes and Shaun Pollock, men who you got the feeling would wrestle a Transvaal lion with their bare hands if it meant getting a wicket or a run. Their pace attack was ferocious, and the fastest and most ferocious of them all was Allan Donald. Donald was an amazing fast bowler – small for a paceman, but blessed with natural talent, wonderful athleticism and a desperate desire to win.

All of South Africa expected South Africa to easily get the ten wickets they needed to win, after all they had a day and a half to knock of the ten wickets and there was no sign or rain.

At the end of Day four, England had lost Stewart, Ramprakash, Thorpe and Hick, leaving South Africa with a whole day to get to send the six remaining Englishmen back to the pavilion.

There then followed one of the greatest duels in the history of cricket, perhaps even the history of sport. Michael Atherton came to the crease with one thing only on his mind – to see England through the day, and he went about that mission with a skill and determination that would have made Bradman, Boycott, Richards or any other batsmen who ever lived proud. Donald threw absolutely everything at Michael Atherton, and when he wasn’t bowling, McMillan, Pollock and Pringle were battering from the other end. But Atherton was not to be moved. Initially, he was assisted by the obdurate Robin Smith, but, when in mid morning, Smith was caught by Pollock after Donald had bowled a perfect bouncer, up came the wicket keeper Jack Russell and England were down to their tail.

Surely, a miracle couldn’t happen?

But, Atherton just batted on and on. For 10 hours and 43 minutes he batted, facing an amazing 492 balls – most of them around 90mph and many of them aimed at his head, as Donald thundered in at his man. But Atherton remained unflustered, staring down Donald after every bouncer, letting him know that he wasn’t scared. Bobbing and weaving, leaving the mad balls, batting away the hittable ones, Atherton was dropped on 99, but continued to reach his then highest ever score of 185 saving the match and ultimately leading to a successful tour of South Africa. For Atherton it was the innings that would define his career, in the ultimate sporting contest between two men – he had come out on top.

A few years later, as a young barrister prosecuting the driving list in Manchester Magistrates, my opponent whispered to me that the nice middled aged, Court Usher was in fact Michael Atherton’s mum. I couldn’t resist it, ‘can I say Mrs Atherton, how amazing your son is. You must be very proud.’ ‘Oh, he’s not done too bad has he,’ she replied.

Not bad at all.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Killingworth June 27, 2013 at 7:26 am

Hubris. An Ashes series is about to start, so what does ATL pick for its “Sportsnight” cricket moment? Beefy in his pomp in ’81? David Gower’s first cover drive? Strauss and Cook scoring at a run a minute on the first morning of the last Ashes Lord’s Test?

No. Let’s give the Aussies a message, thinks Ray (and an opportunity to tell his Mrs A anecdote – that bit I fully understand). Hubris. Mind you, the bookies do have them at 4-1…


Ray_ North June 27, 2013 at 9:19 am

No arrogance here Mike – just well founded confidence!


Eddie Kaye June 27, 2013 at 8:51 am

A monumental effort. I remember it well. The mid ’90’s were a bad time for England: made to look like a village team by the Windies; the ‘dirt in pocket’ media storm; watching a side that could never quite decide on its best XI, and where to play them (the dream team of Gough, Fraser and Cork hardly ever being fit together).

Looking back the lack of success beggered belief. Strong openers in Atherton and Stewart (who was also a good gloveman). Middle order talent to pick from including Ramprakash and Hick (the last two players to score 100 centuries), Thorpe, Smith, et al. Decent generation of seamers – the dream team above, and no room for the Surrey paceman Martin Bicknall. A decent wicket keeper in Jack Russell – despite his Jo’burg heroics I always felt a specialist stumper a bit of a nonsense when Alec Stewart was around.

The ’90’s also weakness was partly down to the ‘find the next beefy’ merry-go-round (including good county all rounders Craig White, Mark Ealham, Adam Hollioake to name a few) never produced the match winning spark that Sir Ian had carried through the ’90’s, or Flintoff would inherit through the noughties. There was also the inexplicable policy of dropping the outstanding slow bowler of the time we had in Phil Tufnell. Another merry-go-round saw little know Min Patel of Kent, Richard Illingworth, and a few others not fit to lace Tuffers’ bowling boots, but were considered better batsmen, fielders, and ambassadors on tour. Finally, the tactics stank – having Ramps and Hick in a middle order then batting one of them with the tail, and not letting him really flourish was a cardinal sin.

So, yes Mike, not a barnstorming reminder of Headingley ’81, or Vaughnie and the boys at Edgbaston in ’05 – or even a dig back to Compton sweeping to leg to reclaim the Ashes in ’53, or Len Hutton’s 364 in ’38 – but a timely reminder of how far we have come. England are now a world force, not saving draws on foreign tours. There is a message for the Aussies!



Mike Killingworth June 28, 2013 at 6:44 am

Pretty much on the money, there, Eddie. The key event was probably the counties’ realising that they depended financially on the national team, and re-organising the first-class game in England accordingly. But that’s not doable on Sportsnight!


Ray_North June 28, 2013 at 8:13 am

Eddie, you are Allthatslefts answer to Christopher Martin Jenkins (rip)


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