Cricket: Butcher passes the test at last

Stephen Brenkley explains how Lord's answered Mark Butcher's prayers
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The Independent Online
Mark Butcher had just learnt about the harsh realities of Test cricket. He rather hoped that the most famous ground on the planet would do the decent thing by opening up and swallowing him.

Not only had England's new opening batsman, in his second Test match, failed for the third consecutive innings by popping a catch to short leg. He had also now dropped a straightforward chance from Matthew Elliott (who went on to score a century) so badly that it looked as though he could not catch a cold.

"You never, ever like shelling them anywhere but to do that in a Test match against Australia before a full house at Lord's, it has a real effect on you," he said, wincing at the memory of that damp June afternoon. "I was going back to the hotel after play and I met my dad who insisted on coming back with me. He thought I'd better have some company as he didn't fancy the idea of me going up to the room alone and jumping off the balcony."

Alan Butcher kept his elder son company, and tried to keep him relaxed but the feelings of guilt and dented confidence were difficult to erase. Butcher wondered what had got him this far, mused on whether it was good enough. For two seasons his main concern had been about converting fifties to hundreds and now he it crossed his mind that he might as well as have been trying to turn water into wine.

The second innings of that Lord's Test was the sort of severe examination of character which makes or breaks embryonic Test batsmen. Butcher was dropped early on but, unfazed, gritting his teeth, defending stoutly, staring into the middle distance to retain concentration and remembering his technique he made 87 and saved the match and probably his international career. A huge leg- break from Shane Warne prevented his progress to a maiden Test century.

"It was only two days afterwards that it hit me really about missing out on the century," he said. "I was just pleased at the time to have batted as long as I did, but then it sank in. A hundred at Lord's - the name on the board of honour in the dressing-room for all time."

The vagaries of Lord's have somehow epitomised Butcher's season. When it started he was in prime form. He had been the star of the England A tour to Australia on the back of a wonderful 1996 season, he opened this one by scoring 153 in the trial match at Edgbaston between England A and The Rest. He was picked for the first Test.

Keeping his place after Lord's, he was not quite able to secure his berth in the side. Dropped for the Fifth Test which England had to win to stay in the quest for the Ashes, he was recalled for the Sixth and failed again. But on Tuesday the selectors confirmed their faith and chose him for the West Indies tour. He knows there is work to do. Runs have not only been hard to come by for England but also for Surrey where his top score this season is 79 and his average under 30.

"For two seasons I didn't really have a blip," he said after compiling 52 and at last passing his 1,000 runs for the summer before being out leg before in Surrey's second innings at The Oval on Friday. "I can't really tell you what's happened this year. There was a lot of rain early on and that can interrupt your rhythm. The pitches for the Test weren't that good for batting; the Australian bowlers don't give you much; it's hard coming back from a Test because sometimes it can be tougher to get yourself going.

"But those are only excuses. It's been such a peculiar season. I didn't feel out of place in the Test team, or that I shouldn't have been there. But I've got to get back that confidence, almost arrogance that was with me last year."

He will spend some time before the tour begins in January with his dad and batting guru, Alan, spotting flaws, but mostly rebuilding the approach which gave him a Test place. Like so many before him he may now know hard Test cricket is but he wants lots more of it.