Cricket: Butcher steps into the breach

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ENGLAND WILL be without their captain but not without a leader when they start the third Cornhill Test against New Zealand at Old Trafford this morning. Mark Butcher, whose experience at the helm was gained from captaining Surrey earlier in the season, will take over from Nasser Hussain, who yesterday ruled himself out after his broken finger failed to respond to a gentle net on the previous day.

History has not treated stand-in captains kindly and on the last 10 occasions that England have used them defeat has only twice been avoided, with Geoff Boycott winning against New Zealand in 1977/78 and David Gower drawing in Pakistan six years later. Yet, as Karl Marx once noted, "Men make history, not the other way around" - a point England's cricketers can start proving by bucking losing trends instead of creating them.

With the four-match series level at 1-1 it will not be a simple task, but Test matches are not meant to be cakewalks. With the Old Trafford pitch set to turn early and with New Zealand tails resolutely up, the pressure on Butcher, despite his equable temperament, will be immense. His first toss will be vital and, providing a total of over 350 is posted, conditions will favour the side batting first.

"I'm delighted," said the Surrey left-hander, who found out about his daunting task first thing yesterday morning when Hussain found his finger throbbing from his gentle net session. "It's a bit of a shock though and I never saw myself in this position. But it's a fantastic honour for me and I'm really looking forward to it."

Hussain, who must endure the frustration of watching his team from the sidelines, was content with the choice of stand-in. "I'm very happy about having Butch take over," he said at yesterday's press conference. Promising not to interfere, Hussain added: "He's one of the people I've turned to in the field [more noticeably at Edgbaston than at Lord's] and he has a good cricketing brain as well as being someone that the players listen to."

Butcher's appointment, especially after the power was initially handed to Graham Thorpe at Lord's, was obviously a choice made after the dust had settled. But if Thorpe is less than chuffed about that, Butcher has apparently impressed while leading Surrey in Adam Hollioake's absence. He certainly conducted himself like an old hand at the press conference and was quick to play down rumours of his attacking and aggressive style of leadership. "I try not to have too many theories for too many situations," said Butcher. "I just try to stay on top of things and be in a position to react quickly to change them."

It is admirable talk but first he must persuade his batsmen (himself included) to sell their wicket dearly. All the fancy manoeuvring in the world will not come to much if you cannot top 200 in your first innings, a failing England have managed 12 times in their last 23 Tests.

The return of Michael Atherton, no doubt feeling the odd twinge of nerves, should help matters on that front. Atherton plays at the right tempo and, given that he does not receive a snorter with the new ball, generally has to be prised from the crease. He will open with Butcher, with Alec Stewart at three. Thorpe will bat at four while Graeme Hick will bat above Mark Ramprakash at five, a move unlikely to enthuse the Middlesex captain, who once again finds the pressure to perform mounting.

With the temptation to give Stewart the gloves being resisted, Chris Read will keep wicket on a pitch that looks ideally suited to spin. Certainly the groundsman, Peter Marron, thinks so and, in a move to prevent an already cracked and bare surface from breaking up too quickly, he doused the pitch on a spinner's length on Tuesday.

It was still damp yesterday, conditions similar to those that enabled Peter Such take 6 for 67 on his debut here against Australia in 1993; figures that he has yet to better after 10 Tests. Such will partner Phil Tufnell and the only decision England will make this morning is which seamer should take the new ball with Andy Caddick.

Grassless pitches tend to favour reverse rather than conventional swing which means Dean Headley could be the man, a move that means a return to county duty for both Chris Silverwood and Alan Mullally. New Zealand, on the other hand, could bring in the slow medium swing and cut bowler Chris Harris rather than a second spinner from the side that played at Lord's.

Whoever plays, England must be mindful of the widespread disappointment caused by their capitulation at Lord's and set about rectifying that. For those who have not erased the last 12 months from memory, the Test here against South Africa last year was played following a disaster at Lord's.

Poorly attended, and with those who did come through the turnstiles seeing fit to boo the home team from the field on the third day, it looked as if a new nadir had been reached. Only it had not and England, against all the odds, managed to draw the match, a feat which apart from bringing a standing ovation injected enough belief for them to win their last two Tests and take the series. A draw this time will not really do, but the commitment shown by the batsmen in the second innings at Lord's will be a good place to start. If they can manage to reproduce that in the first innings this time, the match can be controlled rather than chased - which is how all the best teams win Tests.

ENGLAND (from): M A Butcher (Surrey, capt), M A Atherton (Lancs), A J Stewart (Surrey), G P Thorpe (Surrey), G A Hick (Worcs), M A Ramprakash (Middx), C M W Read (Notts, wkt), A R Caddick (Somerset), D W Headley (Kent), A D Mullally (Leics), P C R Tufnell (Middx), C E W Silverwood (Yorks), P M Such (Essex).

NEW ZEALAND (from): M J Horne, M D Bell, S P Fleming (capt), N J Astle, R G Twose, C D McMillan, D L Vettori, A C Parore (wkt), C L Cairns, D J Nash, G I Allott, C Z Harris.

Umpires: D R Shepherd (Eng) and R B Tiffin (Zim).

Third Umpire: K E Palmer (Eng).

Match referee: P L Van der Merwe (SA).