Butcher hundred gives England hope in Sydney
It might not have escaped Nasser Hussain's attention that the only time he has led England to a Test success against Australia was at Headingley in 2001 when Mark Butcher recorded a magnificent hundred and the captain himself shared a third wicket partnership of 181 with the Surrey left-hander. That memory will serve as a happy omen for Hussain as he and Butcher, with another hundred, put on 166 for the third wicket to take England to a promising position in the fifth and final Ashes Test in Sydney, closing the first day on 264 for five.
England have been saying for some time that they could compete with Australia had the hosts suffered the same crippling injuries to their attack as had been the case with them. Now was their chance to prove it, for Australia were without both Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, the lynchpins of their attack, for the first time in 101 Tests.
Hussain won the toss and batted on a pitch likely to take increasing amounts of spin as the match progresses, but soon found that Brett Lee was a more than adequate replacement for McGrath as the new ball partner for Jason Gillespie. Inside 14 overs, England had 32 runs on the board, but both openers back in the pavilion.
Michael Vaughan, with two big hundreds to his name in the series already, went to the seventh ball he faced. Lee had produced three successive outswingers at which Vaughan drove, only to make contact with thin air. A fourth found Vaughan driving again - this time finding a thin edge which presented Adam Gilchrist with a catch behind the wicket.
Lee could have struck again next ball when umpire Russell Tiffin turned down a very convincing lbw appeal against Butcher and not until the two left-handers, Butcher and Marcus Trescothick, were starting to settle into a partnership did the next wicket fall.
Trescothick's run of poor form continued when he played a loose drive outside the off stump against Andy Bichel and Gilchrist did the rest by diving in front of first slip. Trescothick arrived in Australia with a reputation as a world-class Test opening batsman. Unless he can produce something special in the second innings, he will leave the country with a point still to prove and a reputation to be rebuilt.
With Butcher unsure and a new batsman in, Australia might have pressed on at this stage as in previous Tests in the series. However, Hussain was dogged, Butcher survived a number of chances and it was England who established a position of strength from such unpromising foundations.
There is no way Butcher's innings could be described as chanceless. Apart from the first ball scare, there were other confident appeals turned down and he was dropped twice. A majority of those chances came in the early part of his innings, but once he got past fifty, he began to play with more freedom and growing confidence to dominate the partnership with Hussain.
Hussain appeared in no mood to try to assert himself on the attack as he sometimes does. With Butcher at the other end he could afford to play the anchor role, even if it meant that the scoring rate was never going to match that usually achieved by Australia in similar circumstances.
Butcher himself was not exactly racing along either, and he enjoyed another piece of good fortune when three short of his hundred. He went to sweep leg-spinner Stuart MacGill and got a bottom edge into his pad that looped up for Matthew Hayden to take the catch. This time it Dave Orchard who reprieved the Surrey man to allow him to reach three figures off 221 balls with 15 fours.
Hussain appeared set for a similar contribution when, with 75 to his name, a ball from Gillespie lifted sharply to take the glove as it went through to Gilchrist. With Robert Key failing to establish himself and falling lbw to Steve Waugh's nagging medium pace, and Butcher eventually playing on for 124 to Lee with the new ball, there was the makings of a middle-order collapse.
However, John Crawley sealed one end while Alec Stewart showed glimpses of vintage form at the other and the pair took England through to stumps without further mishap. Nevertheless, as the last of the recognised batsmen, much responsibility rests on their shoulders. Anything much less than a hundred partnership and it is difficult to see how England could reach the sort of total that might cause Australia serious concern as the match unfolds.