With the South African batsmen on top on Day 3 with a lead in excess of 150, Atherton was caught on camera using dirt from his pocket on the dry side of the ball.When he was pulled up by match referee Peter Burge to explain his actions, Atherton managed to give him a satisfactory enough explanation along the lines of the dirt actually being used to dry his sweaty hands. He said that he had merely "put some dust in my pocket from a used pitch... to keep my hands and the ball dry," implying that he was trying to maintain the condition of the ball in humid conditions rather than alter it.
Burge did not take any action against Atherton that day, but the England captain admitted to have lied about his intentions the next day for violating Law 42.5 which states "No-one shall rub the ball on the ground, or use any artificial substance, or take any other action to alter the condition of the ball." Amid a crushing 356 run defeat for England, Atherton faced the media in a press-conference with Ray Illingworth, who announced that Atherton had been fined 2000 pounds - half of which was for lying, and half for his actions on the pitch.
Atherton, however, maintained that he had been a fool in the entire matter, but not a cheat, and went on to score a gritty 99 for his team under intense scrutiny in the second Test of the series.