England’s Michael Atherton, one of the most technically correct openers the game has seen, and South Africa’s Allan Donald, easily one of the most feared pacers in history, put on a show for the ages in 1998 that showed why Test cricket is so loved.
For context, the duo were involved in another fierce duel a few years back. In 1995, chasing an improbable 479 to win in Johannesburg over two days, the England opener batted an astounding 643 minutes to stay unbeaten on 185 to help his team grind out a draw.
A little over three years later, South Africa were on top in England. The visitors were ahead 1-0 after the first three matches of the series. Birmingham witnessed a draw, South Africa won by 10 wickets at Lord’s and there was another stalemate in Manchester.
Donald and Atherton would once again square off and this time the stage was Nottingham.
Once again, England were set a target, a steep one keeping the conditions in mind. The hosts had to chase 247 and all eyes were how their batsmen cope with the threat of Donald, Shaun Pollock, Steve Elworthy and Jacques Kallis.
Atherton, leading England through a tough phase in the 1990s, was a doughty fighter and a sticky customer at the crease. It is arguable whether he was really world class but he was a Test opener in the classic mould and was always up for a battle.
Like most batsmen from his country, he was adept with the pull and punching the ball through the off-side. However, leading pacers at the time, Glenn McGrath (who dismissed him a staggering 19 times), Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose were all over him.
But this was a battle Atherton was determined to win.
And, crucially, luck was on his side too. Batting on 27, he had gloved a nasty short delivery from Donald to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher but to South Africa’s dismay, it was adjudged not out by the umpire Steve Dunne.
“You better be f****** ready for what’s coming because there’ll be nothing in your half,” a seething Donald reportedly told Atherton. The battle lines were drawn. There were glares being exchanged frequently from the two players, and importantly, a riveting battle between bat and ball was unfolding.
Donald continued to pepper Atherton with short-pitched deliveries but the latter survived: Ducking, weaving and using soft hands to keep the ball on the ground while also taking several blows on his body. When he did get the chance, Atherton pulled with authority to heap frustration on Hansie Cronje’s side.
With the help of an equally gritty Nasser Hussain, Atherton took his side home, stayed unbeaten on 98 and England stayed alive in the series that they would later go on to win. A frustrated Donald finished second best and against familiar opponents, Atherton once again showed tremendous powers of concentration and led with courage and determination.
“That spell stands out for me in what was one hell of a tight series,” Donald told Sky Sports.
“We only had two days’ rest before we were back on the field but I was really fired up. Going into that final innings we needed quick wickets and when Atherton gloved one to Mark Boucher but wasn’t given, temperatures quickly rose further.
“I valued playing against people like Atherton very, very highly because they put a high price on their wicket. You spend a lot of time figuring how you are going to knock them over, then try to make those strategies work. That’s what makes Test matches special,” Donald added.
For Atherton, this innings was just as special as his epic 185 not out in 1995.
“Cricket is a team game but essentially when you have a bat or ball in your hand you are on your own so it has a gladiatorial element - one man against another,” Atherton told Sky Sports, recalling that knock.
“Both AD and I knew in that Nottingham game that whoever came out on top that evening would go on and win the game so all emotions were heightened in front of a full-house. There was the drama of the appeal for a glove behind and Nasser being dropped. It had all of the ingredients for a very dramatic 40 minutes.”
As Hussain, who had the best seat in the house for that battle – at the non-striker’s end – said: “It was cricket at its best - there wasn’t a lot said between the two and what was, was on the right side of the line.”
Atherton’s 98* in 1998 will be remembered for that spicy battle which will surely be replayed through the generations.
Watch the highlights from that famous England and South Africa battle in 1998 here: