When Mike Atherton and Jack Russell did the unthinkable

Mike Atherton (left) and Jack Russell © Getty Images

On December 4, 1995, in the face of a fiery South African pace attack, Mike Atherton did the unimaginable. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at a fantastic display of batsmanship by the England captain when Atherton laid siege of the crease for 643 minutes at Johannesburg to eke out a draw.

It wasn’t the usual vigil or a gritty display, but one that truly signified character and defined Mike Atherton‘s career. With South Africa all but set to wrap up the game, the gutsy England opening batsman held firm and warded off defeat with an unbeaten 492-ball185 in one of the most remarkable escapes in Test cricket history. In an intimidating setting at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, Atherton’s knock along with Jack Russell’s determination would be likened to gladiator-like efforts.

With the first Test ending in a draw, the two teams headed to Johannesburg. This was England’s first tour to the Rainbow Nation since the latter’s readmission after the apartheid era and the occasion was built up as a special one. The wicket at the Wanderers was a batting beauty and Atherton’s decision to bowl first did raise a few eyebrows. At the back of Gary Kirsten’s maiden Test hundred, South Africa made 332. In reply, England were bowled out for 200 as the wicket started aiding the seamers on the second day.
The South African seam attack comprised the white lightening, Allan Donald, the young Shaun Pollock, Meyrick Pringle and Brian McMillan. Clive Eksteen bowled his left-arm orthodox for the Proteas. In a team effort, they wrapped up the tourists in the first essay to secure a 132-run lead.

With a sizeable advantage, South Africa went about their job of placing the game out of England’s reach. The England seamers Devon Malcolm, Dominick Cork and Angus Fraser bowled with some fire, but the South African middle-order held firm. The burly McMillan took it to England with an attacking hundred to extend their challenge. That left England to get 479 for victory in 165 overs on the final two days.

Considering the firepower in the South African attack and the enormity of the task, an England defeat was imminent. Things looked bleak for them when they lost wickets at regular intervals and ended the fourth day on 167 for four – with Atherton unbeaten on 82.

Atherton’s partner, Robin Smith, was dismissed by Donald with the score on 232. In walked Russell who showed the resolve to stay in the centre. In order to save their side, they had to bat for two sessions. The South African bowlers troubled Atherton and hit him on the body a number of times. Despite that, he didn’t get deterred and held fort. Russell matched him in determination and calmly tackled the Proteas bowling.

The South African captain was running out of ideas, with the England batsmen showing a rock solid approach. The fast-bowlers were losing steam and Eksteen was ineffective. As the day approached a close, an unbelievable England escape looked certain. At the end of the gruelling 165 overs, England finished on 351 for five. Atherton had batted 492 balls for his 185 and Russell scored 29 off 235 balls. It was an effort of pure discipline and persistence in the eye of a storm. For Russell the game was even more special as he claimed the record for the most catches (11) in a Test in that game.

When Mike Atherton and Jack Russell did the unthinkable

The fighting knock defined Mike Atherton’s career © Getty Images

That effort is always remembered as Atherton’s best – a player who often stood up to some of the most fearsome bowlers. This knock may have defined his career, but one that truly defined his character came almost three years later when the two sides clashed in England. The picture of Atherton and Donald staring at each other during an intense duel at Nottingham in 1998 would never be forgotten. However, Atherton took England to victory then as he brushed aside one of the quickest bowlers with his trademark perseverance.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst, anchor and voice-over artist for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He has also participated on live TV talk-shows on cricket. Nishad can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)