Cape Town – It is still one of the most iconic, resilience-themed innings in post-isolation Test matches on South African soil … and perhaps of even a fair bit before that.
Mike Atherton’s 185 not out to save the Wanderers second Test of the 1995/96 series between SA and England for the tourists was a 643-minute (not far short of 11 hours) feat of rare endurance, concentration and determination.
Set a highly unlikely 479 to win, the traditionally less than cavalier opener had already done some pretty hard stonewalling yards by stumps on the fourth day, sporting an unbeaten 82 in a shaky total of 167 for four – and South Africa odds-on favourites to press onward for a win.
Instead Atherton’s resolve only deepened, and England ended up losing only one additional wicket (Durban-born Robin Smith) on a primarily tortoise-paced final day at the Bullring as – the Lancastrian right-hander superbly to the fore - they thwarted a home attack whose ranks included Allan Donald, a young Shaun Pollock, Meyrick Pringle, Brian McMillan and Clive Eksteen.
The boot is on the other foot, around quarter of a century onward, as the Proteas strive grimly to salvage a draw this time, on day five of the second encounter at Newlands.
When stumps were drawn on Monday at 126 for two, South Africa required a further 312 for what would be a dazzling, world-record fourth innings victory (the least likely result of any) but with stalemate highly likely to front their aspirations at this point.
England will be strongly fancied to instead level the series at 1-1, although they have already encountered significant tenacity from Pieter Malan, the debutant Cape Cobras opener.
The 30-year-old stalwart of the domestic first-class scene, shot out for five in his maiden innings at the highest level earlier in the contest, was unbeaten on an increasingly adhesive 63 at the close, having shown an encouraging combination of gumption and technical soundness for not far short of four hours.
And Atherton - nowadays both a television commentator and leading newspaper scribe and as equipped as anyone to make a judgement - likes what he sees in the Mbombela-born competitor.
“He looks well-organised and suitably tough,” the former England captain said from behind the SuperSport microphone.
“The use of his feet against Dom Bess (the off-spinner) has been especially impressive.”
Another ex-skipper of the English cause, Nasser Hussain, was barely less effusive: “As of yet I can’t see any glaring errors in his technique … Malan looks the real deal at this level.”
Naturally Malan has a considerable way to go yet on Tuesday if he is to emulate Atherton’s legendary game-salvaging display in Johannesburg, in what was then the first series between these foes on South African terrain since the host country’s return from apartheid-related banishment.
But he has at least begun the process of stern defiance, and already made virtually sure of his ticket to the remainder of the current series at St George’s Park and then the Wanderers finale.
Malan presented a broad, assured blade on the forward defensive, and also picked line and length astutely to ensure some very smart “leaves” during Monday’s play against faster bowlers on a pitch where that hallmark is essential.
Certainly it will be a damaging torpedo to the Proteas’ hull if Malan is the first to go, and relatively quickly, on the closing day, when he will begin proceedings in tandem with a nightwatchman in Keshav Maharaj.
That there are still 24 overs to go before a new ball can be taken stands in Malan’s favour for a further opportunity to get solidly bedded down again at the crease.
If he ticks that box, he will be much further down the road to doing an “Atherton” for the other country …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing