If he is lucky, a batsman may once play an innings that defines him; one that, whether he likes it or not, he will be remembered for - Mike Atherton
For a sporting nation as proud as South Africa, their re-admission into global sport was fundamental to Nelson Mandela’s dream for a united South Africa. The Springboks had just won the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the vision of Mandela wearing the infamous Springbok jersey provided an incredible backdrop to England’s first tour there in nearly 30 years.
During the apartheid era, South African sports teams and athletes were banned from international competition and England’s cricket tour of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ in 1995 was their first official tour since 1964-65.
There had always been a rivalry with South Africa, but this Proteas team emerged from apartheid full of talent, with an appetite to put South African cricket back on the sporting map. Older more experienced players like Gary Kirsten, Darryl Cullinan and Jonty Rhodes combined with future South African greats like Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock, and the fearsome Allan ‘White Lightning’ Donald to comprise a highly talented and motivated team.
The first Test of the tour saw South Africa’s Shaun Pollock make his debut and England’s Graeme Hick make 141, but the match was drawn due to rain. With a visit to the iconic Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg the venue for the 2nd Test, nobody could have predicted what was about to unfold.
On December 4, 1995, in the face of a fiery South African pace attack which featured both Donald and Pollock, England captain Mike Atherton did the unimaginable. With England set a huge total of 479 for victory and South Africa all but set to canter to glory, the gutsy England opening batsman held firm for 643 minutes, warding off defeat with an unbeaten 492-ball 185* and achieved a draw for his country in what was one of the most remarkable escapes in Test cricket history.
Backed up at the other end of the crease by the resolve and dogged determination of Jack Russell, they had to bat for two full sessions to escape defeat! The South African bowlers troubled Atherton and hit him on the body a number of times but despite that, he didn’t get deterred and held fast. Russell matched him in grit and calmly tackled the Proteas bowling.
With he South African captain running out of ideas and the fast bowlers running out of steam, 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.
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 and will go down in English cricket folklore as one of their greatest days in Test Match history.
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