Published on April 9th, 2018 | by Rohit Sankar0
CS Flashback: Allan Donald vs Michael Atherton and a battle for the ages🕓 Reading time:4 minutes
“A hostile spell ensued, as Atherton fought tooth and nail to stave off Donald. Balls whistled past his ears while his helmet grille was at risk every time Donald steamed into bowl”.
Pure white sunscreen smeared across his face, white sweatbands on his wrists and a ferocious look spread across his long face, the White Lightning, Allan Donald, could decimate batsmen with a stare. The sensational South African fast bowler had an illustrious Test career and was the toast of a nation celebrating their return from Apartheid.
Donald’s seamless action and easily imitable run-up made him a favourite role model for young fast bowlers in the 1990s. The ball appeared akin to a gooseberry in his huge hands and the searing pace he generated sent chills down the spines of batsmen.
In every way, Allan Donald defined South African cricket since re-admission. He was easily their best fast bowler and was over-bowled leading to injuries curtailing his career. The White Lightning, as he is fondly called, was the first of the Proteas bowlers to take 300 Test wickets and finished with 330 of them in his 72 match Test career. The 20 five-wicket hauls and 11 four-wicket hauls he has shows the kind of bowler he was for South Africa.
None of those numbers perhaps signify his greatness as much as a 23 over spell in a losing cause at Nottingham in 1998.
The spell that changed everything
Cricket analysts often talk of bowlers steaming in and being in such rhythm but luck eluding them. Donald’s spell at Trent Bridge is perhaps the most telling of those. In a game which Michael Atherton writes in his autobiography as the “most ill-tempered match that I have ever played in, Donald breathed fire.
“It was great fun turning up to a Test where the whole country was talking about it,” said Nasser Hussain. When the match began “it was hell,” Hussain recalls in his autobiography. “I can’t remember sleeping much.”
After being over-bowled in the series, Donald could barely feel his ankles or legs. He sunk into the bath and duly informed the assistant coach that he had nothing left in him. But as legend goes, the best of fast bowlers send down the best of spells when they are tired and can barely move an inch.
England were set 247 to win the Test and as it turned out much would depend on Allan Donald for the visitors and the rip-roaring seamer stormed in for a battle the cricketing fraternity would barely forget in a million years.
Donald started off with a bouncer that hit Atherton’s protective gear and raced through to Boucher. The appeal turned out to be in vain but that bit of frustration was enough to get the White Lightning going.
“That spell stands out for me in what was one hell of a tight series. We’d just come off the back of a drawn Test at Manchester where I’d bowled 40 overs in the second innings after England had followed on. It was probably the hardest game I ever experienced. 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,” Donald later said in one of his commentary stints.
A hostile spell ensued, as Atherton fought tooth and nail to stave off Donald. Balls whistled past his ears while his helmet grille was at risk every time Donald steamed into bowl. A chirpy Mark Boucher further made Atherton’s task tough. But this Englishman had the fire and tenacity to endure the worst. This was the worst.
Donald rampaged in from around the stumps and bombarded Atherton with bouncers. Nasser Hussain, who witnessed the fiery spell from the other end wrote, “Donald chirped him in English, he chirped him in Afrikaans, and Atherton did not say anything. He just gave him that look – “What do you think you’re looking at, son?” – which would have meant nothing in a dodgy pub on a Saturday night, but which in that game, with millions of people watching on television, spoke volumes.”
The Trent Bridge wicket was as dead as a skeleton but Donald breathed fury into the surface and generated extra bounce and zip. One of the most aggressive spells in the history of cricket, though, went futile as Atherton thwarted Donald’s pace, hostility and venom with his dead bat.
When Atherton took a single, Hussain wasted no time edging Donald to Boucher but the keeper dropped a sitter.
“Everyone went quiet, or at least Boucher did. At the end of the over Donald went down to fine-leg and everyone watched to see how he would react. Some bowlers would have sulked: if you can’t be bothered to catch it, why should I flog my guts out?
But Donald started shouting from fine-leg, cheering up Boucher and urging the team on. Atherton and I knew we were still in the battle,” Hussain wrote.
Unfortunately for Donald and the Proteas that was their last chance. Atherton remained unbeaten on 98 and saw England through to the target. But England, Trent Bridge, in particular, had witnessed a spectacle that would last the test of time.
“The next I saw of them, Donald and Atherton were sitting together in England’s dressing room. A fired-up fast bowler and a stubborn English batsman trying to out-do each other with bat and ball, mind and body, then sharing a beer. Yes, Test cricket at its best and how it should be played,” Hussain wrote.
Ah, good ol’ Test cricket!