CRICKET: Maddy's chance to usurp Butcher

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IT MAY not be the OK Corral, but the showdown at Buffalo Park between Mark Butcher, Chris Adams and Darren Maddy for two batting spots in the Test team has threatened to usurp the match itself. If the plot and place make it sound like a spaghetti western, the characters are straight out of a Happy Eater, and the closest things are likely get to a bloodbath will be a spot of tomato ketchup on the collar.

In the Tests so far, Butcher and Adams have been the men in possession rather than in the runs, while Maddy, having scored 133 and 60 in two low-key, one-day matches, is looking for an opportunity to take his form to a bigger stage.

One gets the impression, particularly after the draw in the second Test, that it would take something special from Maddy over the next three days to force his way in for the Boxing Day Test in Durban. But impressions are sometimes all it takes to niggle away at long-held beliefs and bring an about-turn.

The trio in the spotlight will also be the top three against a combined Border/Eastern Province side, with Butcher and Maddy going in first. Grouping them all together should offer them similar conditions and thus eliminate any room for excuses.

It should also help the captain and coach who, with Alec Stewart running the show on the field, will be watching from the sidelines. At present, they appear slightly confused as to the trios' current order of worth and will be looking for clues to separate them before the side is picked for the next Test.

If it appears that there is all to play for, the recent pointers are that Butcher will continue to open the batting in Tests with Michael Atherton. The hierarchy cite Butcher's left-handedness as being a foil to Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock as well as his fine form in the nets as the reasons for their faith.

The trouble is neither reason is converting to runs and he has made just one score in excess of fifty all tour. At Test level the drought has been even more prolonged. In his last 10 Tests, Butcher has made 267 runs in 19 innings at an average of 14.05. It is a record most No 1s would be concerned with.

On the surface, Butcher appears unflustered by his poor from. It happened last winter and just when speculation over his exclusion mounted to fever pitch, he took a century off Glenn McGrath and Co in the Brisbane Test.

This time he has barely got a start, although two questionable lbws in either Test have not helped Butcher get through the new-ball period so crucial to success against South Africa's attack. This match, if not offering quite the same pedigree, will pit him against Makhaya Ntini and the decidedly hasty Tyron Henderson.

"The statistics suggest that Donald and Pollock are the best pair of bowlers in the world," Butcher said yesterday. "But although I enjoy facing them they are going to nail you every now and then."

Butcher has played 24 Tests and cannot still be adjusting to the Test arena, a claim that Adams could justifiably make. But modern tours with their unceasing beat leaves little room for problem-solving other than on the field. "A five-Test tour can seem a long time when you are having a bad trot," added Butcher. "Everything is centred around the cricket and it's difficult to distance yourself from that. Getting yourself out of a rut can be difficult."

Butcher claims he has never been complacent and welcomes the competition for places. "Darren is playing well and I find it helpful to have someone breathing down my neck."

Whatever the outcome of the next four days, England must find themselves a resilient opener to partner Atherton. In the four innings so far this series, England's highest opening stand has been five.

Apart from ensuring that the sight screen is in the right place, it is not the best way to endear yourself to the No 3. As that is the skipper himself, the irritation is no doubt multiplied. And those in contention here can be sure he will be watching things closely over the next few days.

ENGLAND (v Eastern Province/Border XI at Buffalo Park, East London; starts today, three days): D L Maddy (Leics), M A Butcher (Surrey), C J Adams (Sussex), M P Vaughan (Yorks), *A J Stewart (Surrey), G M Hamilton (Yorks), G P Swann (Northants), C M W Read (Notts), A J Tudor (Surrey), D Gough (Yorks), C E W Silverwood (Yorks).