Butcher cuts opponents to the quick

FACES FOR '96: Two young sportsmen are at the vanguard of emerging British talent; David Llewellyn finds the versatile Surrey opener has his sights on an England place; CRICKET
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It is tempting to think that Mark Butcher was always destined for something special, after his historic debut for Surrey against Glamorgan in a Sunday League match four years ago. His father, Alan, was captain of the Glamorgan side when the then 19-year-old Butcher knocked 48 runs off his old man's attack and took Surrey to within four runs of victory. The pair became the first father and son to play against each other in any sort of match between two first-class counties.

The young pup Mark certainly has the breeding. His father began his career with Surrey, won an England cap and then switched to Glamorgan before turning coach at Essex; uncle Ian played first-class cricket for Leicestershire and Gloucestershire; and Mark's brother, Gary, the youngest of the litter, is on the Glamorgan playing staff.

Mind you, he could have ended up as a rock star. "I flirted briefly with showbusiness," he confesses. "I was in a band. I sang and played lead guitar. We played our own stuff, a bit of rhythm and blues, funk and that sort of thing. But really I was always going to play cricket."

Butcher certainly has the ambition to match the pedigree and the talent. "I want to become an England player," Butcher says. "I want it badly. I like watching England on the TV, but I'd rather be doing it."

What exactly he would do for England is a moot point. A pointer can be gleaned from his musical dalliance, where he did more than one thing. So it is with his cricket. The clean-striking left-handed bat opens the Surrey innings with Darren Bicknell, but he can also bowl - right-arm seam at a fairly sharp lick, with a useful away swinger in the armoury.

"I want to go for the England all-rounder's spot," he says without a flicker. "It seems to me there is room for a middle order all-rounder. Look at South Africa. They have Brian McMillan coming in at No 6 and he is also bowling 15 or so overs in a day. That is what England need.

"In a relatively short space of time in my career I have batted pretty well everywhere and that sets you up, and once you have an opened an innings I think you can bat anywhere."

On last season's figures Butcher's credentials as an all-rounder are somewhat dubious, however. He had begun the 1994 season as a member of the Surrey attack, but injury intervened. On his return, Butcher became the umpteenth partner for Bicknell, hit his maiden first-class hundred and a couple of fifties, and his role was sorted. The bowling took a back seat.

Two subsequent operations (hernia repair followed by a pelvic operation) did not help his cause, throwing Butcher's bowling out of kilter for much of last season. Surrey and Butcher suffered. At least he had his batting to fall back on.

Butcher's switch to opening the Surrey innings has resulted in a glorious surge of self-confidence; last summer he passed 1,000 runs in his first full season for the county, including a cascade of half-centuries and a couple of hundreds, including a career-best 167. Butcher, though, is not satisfied. "I should, as a pro, have turned at least half my fifties last summer into hundreds," he says harshly. "If I had had a ratio of five tons to seven fifties I would probably have had a better shout of getting on to a tour. Fifties don't tend to raise people's eyebrows quite as much as the big hundreds."

However, it is his bowling that concerns him, and since the end of the season Butcher has been working hard on it. He says of the 1995 season: "I had not had any time, pre-season, to put in a great deal of work in the nets, so last summer I was in this crazy situation where one day I would go out and bowl OK and the very next day I would bowl a complete load of crap. But this winter has been different. I have no injuries and have been making sure I do as much bowling as possible. It's something I enjoy doing. It keeps me involved in the game."

Butcher is now trying to master the in-swinger with the help of an Ian Botham video. "I still can't work out how he does it,"Butcher confesses with a laugh, "but I'm working on it."

So he has the application necessary to succeed. How about the temperament?

"People can needle me a bit - mainly, though, when I am bowling," Butcher acknowledges. "I am quite calm when I am batting. I just stand there and let everything wash over me. It surprises me sometimes. But as soon as I have the ball in my hand I turn into this seething idiot. That could be half the problem with my bowling, I suppose. It comes down to wanting to do well all the time. Batsmen get up my nose when I am bowling and I run in hopping mad. But it doesn't do me any good at all."

But his girlfriend of four years, Judy - sister of the Surrey captain, Alec Stewart - does. "She has been a great help to me," Butcher admits. "She has made me realise that this is what I want to do. She has made me focus harder and says even now that I could be a lot better than I am. She gives me a good kick up the arse."

It may not be long before Butcher is kicking international backsides on behalf of his country.