August 28, 2008

Mike Holmans

When Butcher cut loose

Mike Holmans
England v Australia, The Ashes 4th npower Test, Leeds, 16-20 Aug 2001
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In my post on the iniquities of the career average, I mentioned Mark Butcher, and it occurs to me that it’s about time somebody rang down the curtain on his Test career. He hasn’t retired and he wasn’t dropped: he missed the last three Tests of the 2004-05 series in South Africa through injury but was ignored once fit again.

Butcher was identified in his teens as a promising talent, and his ascent to the England ranks was virtually inevitable, but once there, although he played a couple of good innings against South Africa and one against Australia, it was apparent that he was not up to the job. His defensive technique was no match for Test-class pace bowling and he played spin the way a guitarist would play the bagpipes.

In a number of parallel universes, he would have lived out his days on the county circuit carrying the millstone of “Test failure”, but in this one there was a stream of injuries running up to the 2001 Ashes which resulted in him getting another chance.

He grabbed it with both hands and became a fixture at number three for the next four years.

A compact left-hander, his business shots were the slapped drive through extra cover, the neat late cut past backward point and the flick forward of square leg, with the occasional straight drive mixed in. However, his other main shots were the waft to gully, the chip to mid-off and the spoon to midwicket, which had him permanently teetering on the edge of danger, compounded by his unfamiliarity with judging a run.

Yet he was one of England’s most consistent performers. The remodelled Butcher averaged 42.53 over the period: the only other reasonably regular number threes to have averaged as much for England since 1970 are Alec Stewart and David Gower.

The trouble was that he was a supporting actor rather than a star, and that is not really enough from a number three in Test cricket. Consistent though he was, despite appearances, it was rare for him to play the kind of decisive innings one expects from first drop.

Once, though, I was there when he did it, and oh, what a day it was!

It was the fifth day of the Headingley Test in 2001. Adam Gilchrist had declared the previous evening with the intention of nicking a couple of wickets before the close but had been thwarted by bad light, so England had the little matter of 310 runs to get.

My train was late, and the groan from the crowd as I reached the gate told me a wicket had fallen. 33-2 it was, with hope already ebbing away fast.

Scratchily, Butcher and captain Nasser Hussain kept the new, swinging ball out. Hussain then lashed out and deposited the ball in the car park, which was the best tactical move of the day, as the replacement refused to deviate off the straight. Gradually, they developed a partnership and were still together at lunch.

The crowd smiled nervously at each other during the interval, wondering if they should dare to hope. Butcher still seemed to be living on borrowed time – how many of those dabs through the gully region had been mere inches short of a fielder?

On they went, and then, after another forty minutes, something seemed to click. Butcher’s shots were being hit with an unfamiliar confidence; though they still went fairly close to fielders, they looked precisely placed. When he reached his hundred, the place erupted. It was on!

He lost Hussain with 100 needed; his place as Butcher’s foil was taken by Ramprakash, though he went just before the end and it was Usman Afzaal who saw Butcher stroke England to victory, ending on 173*.

In bright sunshine, I waited for the traffic gridlock to die down, floating around the streets listening to the post-match interviews on the radio, a beatific smile on my face and humming David Bowie: “We can be heroes, just for one day.” Life felt good again, even though the Ashes were long gone.

For that day especially, thank you, Mr Butcher.

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Posted by CMQ on (October 19, 2009, 10:33 GMT)

Seemingly a very popular chap, but how on earth Butcher merited 70+ caps with a test average of less than 35 is a travesty. For me, he epitomised the insipidness of English cricket from 1997 until the tide began to turn in 2004.

Lovely looking 30's, but big runs when needed and the series still live....no. Hundred at the 'Gabba in 1998/99, nothing for ther rest of the series....173* at Leeds in 2001, England already 3-0 down....hundred to save his career at Sydney in 2002/03, England stave off a whitewash. Add in his very fallible slip fielding and he was such a frustrating cricketer - Vaughan was no fool, it's no coincidence the Ashes were regained in 2005 when Stewart, Butcher et al were finally jetisoned.

Daryl Cullinan is often (unfairly) derided as a weak cricketer, but his record over a similar number of tests to Butcher shows he deserves the number of caps he was awarded, whereas Butcher should've been dropped after his disappointing 2002/03 Ashes campaign.

Rant over !

Posted by Chris Weston on (August 30, 2008, 20:44 GMT)

I do believe it was a mistake to pick Bell for that series, but I'd have had Thorpe rather than Butcher. With all the hoo-ha about Thorpe, I don't suppose anyone considered Butcher.

Keep up the fine writing.

Posted by Mike Holmans on (August 29, 2008, 15:19 GMT)

Thanks for that story, Chris, and nice to see you.

I admit to being surprised at finding that Butch stood so high in the rankings of England number threes when I looked up the figures for this piece.

Given that he actually averaged 44 against Australia, it was in hindsight a mistake to pick Bell rather than him for the 2005 Ashes. Should have been Butch MBE, don't you think?

Posted by markc on (August 29, 2008, 11:03 GMT)

As an aussie watching Mark Butcher he always seemed to be either out to McGrath (cos he was always in early batting no.3 for england) for less then 10 or he would look quite good until he reached 50 then would be out to a soft dismissal so had he of turned a few of his good 50 into 100 then that average of 35 could well of been 43/44 and he would of out done all his compatriots of that time bar Thorpe. But he never had the mental strenght of a Thorpe, his big runs were mainly in dead-rubbers.

Posted by Bilal on (August 28, 2008, 18:47 GMT)

Butcher had a such a style which made his batting so graceful and effortless. On song, he was one of the most elegant players to watch, a jewel in glory of cricket.

Posted by Chris Weston on (August 28, 2008, 10:08 GMT)

My abiding memory of Butcher is of an innings he played against the same team, again in a dead rubber, and again to lift a bruised England team. He came to the wicket on the first day of the Sydney Test in 2003 with Michael Vaughan having departed for just four runs. Given that Vaughan had been the major run-scorer for England in that series it looked all the more dismal when Butcher lost Trescothick a few overs later. Nasser Hussain joined him and they put on 150 together in a style that had rarely been seen on that tour. Suddenly the England supporters were singing more loudly, the Australians looked fallible and we had a contest. Butcher moved from 50 to 100 in about 70 balls, taking advantage of the traditional MacGill long-hop in every over. It set up what was a welcome win in that game and Australia's first defeat at that ground since 1995, indeed their first home defeat in four years.

I wouldn't have liked to have come home without seeing a win. Thanks, Butch.

Posted by Abhijeet Gupta on (August 28, 2008, 9:53 GMT)

Mark Butcher will always been seen a guy with good potential but little wasted in terms of results. He played 71 test matches at an average of nearly 35. The stats reveals that he was a slightly above average batsman. What it does'nt reveal that he played most of hids matches v/s australia. Australia had a great bowling attack and the pitches were not always batsman friendly. His lows balanced out his highs. One of his highs is described by the author of this article.

Posted by Abhijeet Gupta on (August 28, 2008, 9:53 GMT)

Mark Butcher will always been seen a guy with good potential but little wasted in terms of results. He played 71 test matches at an average of nearly 35. The stats reveals that he was a slightly above average batsman. What it does'nt reveal that he played most of hids matches v/s australia. Australia had a great bowling attack and the pitches were not always batsman friendly. His lows balanced out his highs. One of his highs is described by the authour of this article.

Posted by AJAX on (August 28, 2008, 7:53 GMT)

Who is this butcher you speak of, Sir?

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