It’s Trent Bridge, 1998 and England are playing South Africa in an enthralling Test Match. At the same time the just turned 12-year old me is on a family holiday in Skegness and sat watching the coverage in one of the local pubs. What followed was one of the most compelling and intense periods of sport I have ever seen.
The spell from Allan Donald, South Africa’s premier fast bowler was quite simply brutal. Bouncer was followed by bouncer as his anger and frustration at not being able to make the breakthrough, partially due to a dropped catch and some ordinary umpiring, was channeled into a fearsome assault on England. Facing the barrage were Nasser Hussain and predominantly Michael Atherton.
If you haven’t seen Atherton bat through that spell then I recommend a quick trip over to YouTube. The opening bat survived through a mixture of skill, defiance and sheer bloody-mindedness to carry England to a crucial victory. It’s one of the great sporting battles I have seen and one of the many examples I could point to as to why despite my enjoyment of 50 over and T20 cricket, test matches will still be the ultimate.
It wasn’t the first time that Athers had thwarted the South African attack. In the 1995-96 tour he had played the ultimate captains innings. His innings of 185 not out from a mammoth 492 balls was an incredible performance to save a test match for his side and once again demonstrated that sheer stubborn grit that was synonymous with him as a cricketer.
If you look at Atherton’s career stats they look decent without being outstanding. After 115 test matches he ended with a batting average of 37.69. Generally when people are looking back on a career an average of 40+ is the sign of a quality test batsman. Statistics for all their ubiquity in cricket don’t always tell the full story of a player though. Look at Andrew Flintoff, Atherton’s fellow Lancastrian who finished with neither outstanding batting or bowling averages, but was crucial to England’s success.
Atherton’s value to his side was significantly greater than that average suggests. Firstly as an opening batsman he had the misfortune to play in an era where almost every side had an outstanding group of fast bowlers. Donald, Pollock, McGrath, Gillespie, Lee, Ambrose, Walsh, Wasim and Waqar were all regular competitors. It’s also fair to say that pitches generally offered more for the bowler in his era, meaning he was facing most of the outstanding bowlers of the last few decades on pitches doing plenty against a new ball.
More than that though Atherton was a man who for a long period carried the weight of the England team on his back. Growing up as an England cricket fan in the 1990s was a pretty thankless task at times. As captain for much of that time he had to deal with the pretty catastrophic mismanagement of the side and victories were scarce. If he lost his wicket early there was a palpable feeling of ‘here we go again’. He was the backbone of the side and showed a level of fight and determination that never seemed to dip whatever the circumstances. Something all the more remarkable given that he also suffered from chronic back problems.
As I say growing up in the 1990s as an England fan was tough. It still feels slightly wrong to me that their is a generation of fans for whom the Ashes series of 2005 would have been their first and therefore they are significantly more used to seeing England win than lose. What it did do was make you appreciate what you had got and in Atherton we had a leader and a fighter. There were arguably more gifted batsmen around at the time, Mark Ramprakash, Graeme Hick and John Crawley who could never quite overcome the uncertainty around the team to establish them and Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe all finished with higher averages, but Atherton was always my hero.
He showed that you could stand up and fight and though you might lose some along the way you could also succeed. Since he retired he has gone on to become one of the most well respected journalists and broadcasters around and continues to show himself to be an incredibly impressive individual.
Today is Atherton’s 49th birthday and it will be 16 years in August since he played his final test match. Despite the passing of time he remains one of my favourite all-time cricketers and provided me with some of the moments that helped me fall in love with the game in the first place.
Happy Birthday Athers.