Cricket: Cool head at the top

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MARK BUTCHER began this season as a batsman who played in Tests. He will end it as a Test batsman. The bridge between the two might be tantalisingly short but it is also narrow and, as many before have discovered, there lurks a yawning chasm beneath.

When Butcher returned from the West Indies he might have fallen into it. He had played 10 matches for England since the start of the 1997 season, his average was barely above 20 and he had marked his final appearance on tour with a pair. Armed with this evidence, the selectors chose him as Michael Atherton's partner at the top of the order. Rarely can both opening batting places have been the subject of such debate, rarely can such a selectorial hunch have been so rewarded.

Butcher responded with half centuries in all three of the matches in which he played and the culmination was his maiden hundred in the palpitating finale at Headingley. He and Atherton looked a natural left-hand, right- hand combination, unhurried, composed, resolutely unflashy, ready to pounce on the poor ball. "I feel more more at home in Test matches, the atmosphere has become less alien to me," said Butcher. "When I first played for England last year it I got some runs but there's no doubt it was a little harder, it didn't feel quite right."

Part of that might have been down to the simple change of class from county cricket to facing Glenn McGrath with the new ball for Australia, but it was largely because Butcher had somehow temporarily lost his form. There had been a spell in 1996 which he then repeated on the A tour to Australia the following winter when he was in peak form. For no apparent reason it deserted him and remained absent.

"I was well aware that I wasn't playing as I did then when everything seemed to flow," he said. "I had to try to reflect on what was working for me then, what my routine was and what was in my mind and then try to repeat those circumstances. The trouble was there were periods at the crease when I was thinking about all that and not about the ball about to be delivered."

How these matters resolve themselves is probably as big a mystery as the disappearance of form for no reason in the first place. Butcher chatted with the England psychologist Steve Bull, looked at video-tapes, practised hard at the start of this season and then, hey presto! He began this season well for Surrey and in the First Test against South Africa made 75. A broken thumb kept him out for the next two matches. If either of his replacements, Steve James or Nick Knight, had made runs, his rejuvenation might have been to no avail.

"Actually, I was never worried about that," he said. "I just thought that I would get back because I was batting well enough to do so, if not for this summer than sometime soon." There was probably, too, of course, the perfectly healthy reaction of wanting England to win, of wanting his replacements to make runs and not fail ignominiously but, perhaps, not to become heroes either. It seemed eminently appropriate for him to be recalled and he and Atherton immediately shared another century partnership at Trent Bridge.

"We seem to be batting well together though maybe it's a bit early to judge us as a partnership. I like his experience. We don't say that much in the middle but he'll talk before we go out about what to watch out for and what we might be aiming to do."

If all this sounds hearteningly confident, Butcher still emphasises the draining nature of Test cricket, which is not difficult to understand. There may be no easy Test series these days but there are probably easier ones than those against Australia, West Indies and South Africa which formed his introduction.

"It is very tough to go back and play for your county the day after a Test," he said. "It may be a big one-day match and you certainly don't want to let down your team-mates but it can be hard to get in the right frame of mind. The atmosphere is less rarefied."