Cricket: Mark of a cool hero

Butcher announces his arrival as a Test player as he demonstrates his composure in unknown territory; Derek Pringle speaks to the England batsman who made light of a heavy burden
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The Independent Online
THERE is a difference between a sporting hero and someone who performs sporting heroics. Heroes are mainly in it for the long term, players and athletes whose consistent brilliance has managed to burn itself deep into the common psyche. On the other hand, sporting heroics can be achieved by anyone, though by definition they are not commonplace.

Mark Butcher, unlike Ian Botham, is not a sporting hero, not yet at least. But the Surrey and England batsman is someone whose performance on the last day of the Third Test in Trinidad, when his unbeaten 24 shepherded England to victory, went beyond merely doing a job. It isn't that anybody thought the deed beyond him, just that he made extremely trying circumstances look like a stroll in the park.

"His coolness certainly surprised me," his brother-in-law, Alec Stewart, said. "I know he's not easily inhibited, but that last morning, with Walsh and Ambrose at you every ball ... well even the most experienced players would have felt enormous strain."

The visual image is as important in sport as it is in nature. If you look confident and give off the right signals, aggressors - and it is an apt description for West Indian fast bowlers - tend to think twice about wasting too much energy on you.

But was the man really as composed as he appeared from the sidelines? Even Butcher, speaking two days later, wasn't entirely sure. "In a way, although there was so much riding on the result that it was unknown territory, it was also relatively easy. The actual task was so clear. To me, the choices were simple, and it was just a question of keeping the concentration going and reminding yourself that the next ball was just as important as the one you had just survived. You see, the pitch didn't really lend itself to doing anything flash. Anyone who tried to get on top of the bowling had got out.

"There was one period when Caddy [Andrew Caddick] was out first ball, where I started getting edgy. I kept thinking if only I could get a boundary to take the pressure off, everything would be fine. Mind you having Deano [Dean Headley] out there was was great. We go back a long way and I'd always back him in that situation. He didn't let me down."

What is truly remarkable, though, is that Butcher's carapace of cool followed on the back of only his second innings in the middle since 18 September, and one of those was an ignominious first baller on the snake pit at Sabina Park. It is a bit like expecting Nick Faldo to come back from holiday and win the Open having had two putts on the practice green.

According to Butcher, whose last-minute selections were due to the illness and injury of others, the secret was not endless hours in the nets. Instead he had been doing a lot of throw-downs on concrete pitches with John Emburey, the assistant coach.

"I wasn't happy with the way I was hitting the ball early in the tour," he said, as we sat under whirring fans in the foyer of the team's hotel in Georgetown. "Having lots of throwdowns with Embers ironed that out. With my balance feeling good from the outset, lack of time in the middle wasn't necessarily the problem it might have been.

"Funnily enough, it's unusual to have the time to work on something away from the middle. In a away it was handy I wasn't playing in the build- up matches. It gave me a chance to not worry about how many runs I was getting, but to put the mechanics back together."

Butcher, whose father Alan played one Test for England as an opening batsman in 1979, made his debut against Australia last summer, following a successful tour with England A the previous winter. In truth it was the deep end, and the Australians, analytical and ruthless as ever, made him flounder. "Although you are told to just go and do the things you do for Surrey, it is much harder. Obviously, with four front-line bowlers you don't get as many bad balls but in a way you expect that.

"What you don't expect is the scrutiny from both the opposition and the media. Things get said about your technique which niggle away. Unless you are making big scores every time, they become difficult to ignore and you start to feel insecure. Once it gets inside your head, it can screw up the way you play."

Having emulated Dad's left-handedness from when he watched him as a boy, Mark went to see his father, now the coach at Essex, for a review of the situation. "Because Dad has been so busy over the years with playing, and now with coaching Essex, he didn't really know my game that well. But we watched some videos of me batting and worked out that my weight was too far back in my stance [a common weakness in batsmen who play on the normally true bouncy pitches at The Oval]. I wasn't really going forward or back. When you get stuck on the crease against the Aussies, they just nail you."

You sense that while Butcher may not be the best technician about, when it comes to level-headed honesty, you would need a spirit level to detect any failings. In cricket, the coupling of passion with equanimity is an uncommon combination, but then Butcher is cut from a rather different cloth to the average Test cricketer.

Most batsmen have a favourite bat they treasure above all else, but Butcher, as befits the best of a burgeoning band of dressing-room guitar players, has as his most prized possession his instrument, a Les Paul Studio, which he actually plays in a band called Slide. And, now that Elton John has given up all hope of batting for England, Butcher also possesses one of the finest singing voices ever to grace the international cricket arena, a combination no doubt of his mother Elaine's Jamaican roots and his father's own raunchy but brilliant impersonations of Mick Jagger.

"He is a top entertainer, especially when there is a Karaoke machine about," Stewart revealed, recalling the time when Butcher brought the house down with a Tina Turner number that included both tutu and wig. But while he hasn't managed any new numbers here, he has gained a new nickname - Selwyn, after an excursion to a Karaoke bar in Antigua at the start of the tour in which he was announced by the MC as "Selwyn the Pub Singer".

There is another side to Butcher that has yet to be harnessed, and that is his bowling. Like his father, he began at Surrey as a seam and swing bowler, until a painful groin injury forced him to concentrate on batting. But while the injury proved propitious in that it released the batsman in him, two successful operations mean he has now begun to return to the outswing of old. With a bit of spit and polish, there is no reason why Butcher should not become a fourth seamer for England instead of his county colleague Adam Hollioake, whose offerings at Test level have looked anything but penetrative.

Stewart says he has a sharp cricket brain and has improved out of sight since he began opening the innings for Surrey two seasons ago. "Although he ignored me when I warned him off marrying my sister Judy," he said, "he's a very good listener and takes advice on board quickly."

His cricket, however, like his social drinking apparently, is not done by half measures, and now he has had a taste of the Test atmosphere he wants more. In sport, such gluttony is admirable and a sure sign of a man not content with just settling for the odd bout of sporting heroics.

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