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Few cricketers play a Test innings that will become an Ashes legend. Mark Butcher joined this elite when he struck an exhilarating 173 not out to ensure single-handedly that there would be no "greenwash", and show that, for a day at least, McGrath, Gillespie and Warne could be tamed.
Butcher's score matched that of Don Bradman in 1948, when Australia made 404 for three here on the last day to win against the odds. But the immediate comparison was with Ian Botham's 149 not out in 1981, when his hitting transformed not only a match but a whole summer, and a whole sport. Butcher's knock was not as important as that. A fairer parallel would be the fabled 1902 innings of Gilbert Jessop, whose attacking shots and endless verve inspired a remarkable Test victory no one thought possible. As here, it was England's only win of the series.
Butcher's innings, entirely out of character with the rest of a one-sided Ashes contest, was Jessopian in vein: he cut anything short of a length with exquisite power and timing, stepped forward to drive McGrath through the covers, and clipped sweet boundaries off his legs when the bowlers erred in line. The Australians could not contain him and, though it was the only such day of the summer, his innings will never be forgotten.
Australia's stand-in captain, Gilchrist, had not thought anything like it possible when he closed his team's second innings on the fourth evening with a lead of 314 runs and 110 overs still to play. Rain had seriously disrupted his game plan, taking maybe two sessions of Australian batting time. But Gilchrist's decision spoke volumes for the tourists' aura of invincibility, and their desire to win the series 5-0. Few in England gave the home side hope of victory either: only once, at Melbourne in 1928-29, had England scored as many in the fourth innings to win. Yet, by conventional cricketing logic, the target was attainable even after bad light and further rain removed 17.3 overs that Sunday evening, revising England's task to 311 from 90 overs.
When openers Atherton and Trescothick fell cheaply on the fifth morning, it seemed that a routine humbling of the English batting would occur. Butcher's early overs were spent evading a wonderful spell from McGrath - but, at 60 for two, restored England captain Hussain hooked Gillespie out of the ground. Many thought this the turning-point, not for the bravura shot itself but for the fact that the ball was lost. Its replacement didn't help the bowlers as much and, on a pitch that was never the minefield predicted, batting became less of an ordeal.
Still, it needed a miraculous performance, and Butcher, whose technique had been modified the previous winter with help from his father, Alan, produced it. He was particularly severe in the overs just after lunch, when it dawned on the capacity crowd that they were witnessing an epic day of cricket. Butcher reached his hundred to a seemingly endless ovation, and when Hussain went, England's sole loss in a session worth 104, their partnership had added 181. McGrath and Warne had one last attempt to turn the screw, bowling with economy and menace, but, thanks to the generous declaration, Butcher could afford to be patient.
After tea the outcome was not in doubt. Ramprakash succumbed within sight of the finishing line, leaving Butcher to complete the task. He carved Gillespie for a crackerjack six behind point in an over that brought 19 runs. Finally, he steered Warne away for three and England were home with 20 overs to spare. At their rate of scoring they could have chased 400 and still won, illustrating the extraordinary nature of Butcher's innings, and its entertainment value. He batted five and a quarter hours, faced 227 balls, and hit 23 fours as well as that six.
Gilchrist and all the Australian players shook the English hero's hand. Their sportsmanship was welcome, and genuine. Even though they had dominated the first four days and were superior in class and attitude, their smiles were not forced. On the first day, they had opted to bat after winning the toss and scorched to 288 for four. It may not sound much, but rain had delayed the start until 2.15 p.m. Hussain later lambasted his side's lackadaisical approach. Ponting batted with rare panache, his 144 from just 154 halls laced with three sixes and 20 fours, while Martyn had 18 fours when last out for 118 shortly after lunch next day. Simon Katich, Australia's first debutant specialist batsman for over three years, compiled a nervous 15, but a total of 447 looked a good score on a Headingley pitch with a worryingly dry top.
England responded with general competence, all the top-order batsmen starting well but failing to reach 50. Stewart, starting at No. 7 for the first time in 114 Tests, and unhappy at the demotion, responded with a bizarre innings of 76 not out, throwing the bat with daredevil irresponsibility. But his luck held, the follow-on was averted and, after a two-hour interruption either side of tea on Saturday, England reached 309, even making Australia take the second new ball for the first time in the series. McGrath's figures of seven for 76, which took him to 351 Test wickets, were those of a maestro and, in a normal Test, a match-winner. But this was no normal game.
When Ponting flew to 30 in 35 balls, before the light deteriorated, and increased his momentum with wonderful batting next morning, everything pointed to Australia taking the game beyond England's reach. Instead, the weather permitted only 30 runs between lunch and Gilchrist's declaration at 5.35 p.m., as well as limiting the day's play to just 25 overs. It was frustrating for the big crowd, but many would be back on Monday, little realising that Sunday's conditions had provided the stage on which Butcher would storm into Ashes history.