It was the final morning of the second Test. England were up against the wall, a monumental total of 479 to get - not that anyone was going for it in the slightest - and four wickets down less than a third of the way home. They had drawn their three previous Tests, but only after batting first and banking large totals. If ever a miracle was called for, it was on that December day at the Wanderers, and sure enough Michael Atherton produced one - a sweaty, 11-hour, over-my-dead-body epic that defined his career for all time to come.

Hit and giggle: Atherton and Russell find the humour in it all © Getty Images

England started off on the wrong foot. The pitch looked juicy, but Atherton's decision to put South Africa in first backfired.
Allan Donald, South Africa opening bowler We were as surprised as anybody when Atherton won the toss and put us in. It was one of those Tests where you know you just bat once. I don't know why they thought it was going to be a green pitch - it had grass on it, but it was one of the flattest wickets I had played on.
Gary Kirsten, South Africa opening batsman It was a particularly memorable game for me because I recorded my first Test hundred, in the first innings, and the conditions were very good to bat first.

When England's turn to bat came, they crumbled, and conceded a lead of 132.
Devon Malcolm, England opening bowler The South African bowlers came on to us sharply on the second day as the pitch got quicker.
Alec Stewart, England opening batsman The ball swung a lot and they bowled very well. Donald was quick, [Meyrick] Pringle bowled with control, and [Shaun] Pollock was very fast.
Donald I heard Stewart tell [Graham] Thorpe that it was just a matter of seeing the new ball through, but they failed and we capitalised.

In the third innings big Brian McMillan got going, taking the game further away from England.
Malcolm I had taken 9 for 57 against South Africa the year before, and I felt I had the psychological edge on them. I was full of confidence and had bowled well in the first innings, but in the second innings the field was spread out and we lost the attacking option which could've restricted them.
Stewart We needed to bowl with controlled aggression, but McMillan thwacked our bowling around. He made a good hundred and helped South Africa post a big total.

At stumps on day four, England were treading water at 167 for 4, chasing a target of close to 500.
Atherton At the start of the innings South Africa's bowlers bowled too short; Donald's bouncers were often ill directed, allowing me width, and I decided to take him on...

Pollock's bouncers were invariably straighter, at the body, and I felt less comfortable having a go. There was nothing to be done other than to try to tough it out.
Stewart Chasing down a total of that size, that doesn't happen too often. We needed a special innings from someone. We managed to survive the new ball and get 70-odd, but suddenly we lost the big wickets, and at the end of the day four we were up against it.
Kirsten We thought we had the game for the taking, but as we know, in Test cricket there are individuals who can put up a rearguard of substance. Michael Atherton was one of those, and he was still around.

I've always had tremendous respect for his batting - he is a real Test match warrior and that type of situation was perfectly suited to his style of batting. I enjoyed watching him from close Kirsten on Atherton

South Africa had six wickets to get and three sessions in which to do it. Atherton, on 82 overnight, got to a hundred.
Donald We wanted to get one wicket at least before the new ball arrived. And I got [Robin] Smith early - he went for his favourite upper cut and it landed in the hands of third man. But the thing that swung the Test that day was the dropped catch off Jack Russell. It was the second over of the new ball and Pringle dropped an easy caught-and-bowled. It was one of those that you snatch at, but it just beat him for lack of pace.
Atherton At the start of my innings, batting for five sessions seemed a long way off. I tried to break it down into small periods - a two-hour session until lunch, tea, or the close of play; an hour up to the drinks break; a bowler's spell, which might be 40 minutes; each over; then to the smallest unit, each delivery.
Donald You know against Atherton that it's gonna be very tough if you don't knock him over early. Since he was not the greatest of starters, the plan was to bowl fuller and trap him in the crease for a caught-behind or an lbw. But this time he was in control of everything. And in those first 20-25 minutes he was accumulating singles. It was like he was telling himself, "I've got to kickstart my innings, and quickly."
Kirsten I've always had tremendous respect for his batting - he is a real Test match warrior and that type of situation was perfectly suited to his style of batting. I enjoyed watching him from close. The wicket had a lot of bounce, and at the end of the innings he was taking on the hooks and pulls and playing them very well, after having left those deliveries very well initially.
Stewart Athers was always able to bat that way. He was never a big stroke-maker; he just enjoyed occupation of the crease and stonewalled everything that came his way.

There was able support from the other end, provided by Jack Russell, the wicketkeeper, who matched Atherton stodge for stodge.

Job done, the heroes leave the field © Getty Images

Atherton Jack Russell came to the crease; I knew Russell demanded nothing from me - he was the one who was constantly niggling, snarling through his moustache, and snapping at my heels. "Don't give it away now," he said, "it's not finished yet, remember Barbados" [when Curtly Ambrose demolished the end of the England innings in 1990]. It was wise to let him carry on, and when he had finished ranting, he had to superstitiously touch my pads with his bat before the start of the next over.
Malcolm What he [Atherton] required was a partner who could stick around, and Jack was as good as it got. A dogged little character, an in-your-face kinda guy. He might not have had the technique - which gave the bowler the impression that he could get out to any ball - but he stayed put and gave nothing away.

The two stayed together till the end. England had achieved the unthinkable.
Donald At around tea time I thought, "Oh dear, it is pretty much over." Also, what made it difficult was Clive Eksteen, our spinner, who bowled 50 overs but didn't take even one wicket.
Atherton South Africa took the third new ball, but tired limbs betrayed their unflinching desire. I was dimly aware that we were approaching our goal and got slightly more nervous, at both the anticipation of success and the fear of failing so close to the finish line. But I was also enjoying batting, the feeling of total control and seeing South Africa's bowlers tired and defeated. Suddenly Hansie Cronje came up and offered his hand. It was all over.

Atherton had lasted 492 deliveries, finishing on 185 not out. Perhaps only Dennis Amiss's 262 against West Indies in 1974 ranked higher in the annals of match-saving innings in English cricket.
Kirsten It will live long in my memory. I was relatively new to Test cricket and it gave me the inspiration to say, "Hold on, maybe I could do this one day as well."
Donald It was the best innings I saw from a batsman batting under immense pressure. It was brave, resilient, he got hit everywhere, and he just stuck it out. He was a tough competitor who put a very high price on his wicket.
Atherton For those two days I played a great innings.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo. Atherton quotes from Opening Up, Hodder and Stoughton (2002). This article was first published in the print edition of Cricinfo Magazine