Cricket: An innings against the odds

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The Independent Online
MARK BUTCHER should be put into Madame Tussaud's for this. His innings of 116 at the Gabba defied all reasonable logic. His confidence had been shot to pieces by two nasty eye injuries, his first-class scores in Australia so far had been 0 not out, 2, 5, 2 and 0 and the fact that Australia had recovered from 106 for 4 to 485 all out cannot have made him any chirpier.

It is impossible to pin-point an exact explanation for his rise from rags to riches. His strength of character had a great deal to do with it, as did his excellent technique against short-pitched fast bowling, but this cannot quite explain how he coped mentally with a list of such intimidating failures.

His composure was apparent from his sprightly step as he accompanied Mike Atherton to the crease. He faced the first over and unceremoniously square-drove Glenn McGrath for four when he pitched wide and short. Feet which had been stuck in concrete for a month had suddenly acquired the lightness and mobility of touch which belongs to a ballroom dancer.

Of course, he profited from Nasser Hussain's example after Atherton had been swiftly swept aside. It was Hussain, who played the stroke which caused the Australian brickwork to begin to crumble. He had only been in for an over or two when McGrath, who has the predators' approach of a Michael Holding, bowled him a fast bouncer. Unbelievably, Hussain, on the front foot, hooked him in front of square for four. It was a massive and contemptuous statement of superiority and it will have shaken the Australians. I remember Tom Graveney handing out similar treatment to Charlie Griffiths, who was not slow, at Port of Spain in 1967-68 with an equally devastating effect, on his way to an extraordinary 118.

The beauty of Butcher's innings was that he played exactly as the best Australian would have gone about it. When play began on the third morning, the Australians would have been fervently hoping that Saturday evening had been no more than a blip on their radar screen. This England side was meant to collapse and follow on.

It was imperative that they did not capitulate so that this splendid start did not turn out to be nothing more than yet another false dawn.

When play began, Hussain dealt with the leg spinner, Stuart MacGill, who went for 22 in three overs and was taken out of the attack. This was also an important statement for it has been agreed that leg spin will destroy England. McGrath bowled the second over of the morning to Butcher, who proceeded to straight drive him for four with a flowing certainty. McGrath never quite found his rhythm on this third day and Butcher's straight drive may have had something to do with it.

England were winning most of the tricks and all Australia now knows their team have a fight on their hands. Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, has been shown, too, that England are indeed worth a five-match series. This is the measure of Butcher's achievement.

It was a matter of great personal pride that he went on to score a hundred, but Butcher is a team man and this was an innings for the team. An unselfish cricketer, he has a great knowledge of the game combined with a shrewd common sense and now a considerable stature. I wonder if he might not be the man to succeed Stewart to the captaincy when the time comes.