NOT EVEN a maiden Test century by Mark Butcher could alleviate the feeling that England had missed a marvellous opportunity to put South Africa under pressure on the opening day of the final Test. With the score on 181 for 3 and Butcher past his hundred, England conspired to lose their last seven wickets for 49 runs.
Carelessness on this scale rarely wins you a bunfight let alone a Test match and England's bowlers will now have to work hard to keep their team in the match.
More galling, from an England perspective, is that South Africa's cautious tactic of bolstering their batting with Brian McMillan was close to being exposed. Now, principally after Makhaya Ntini's 4 for 72 and three wickets apiece for both Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, it looks the height of sagacity though, once again, several poor umpiring decisions helped to force the issue.
If England's score of 230 proves competitive enough to keep them in the game much will be owed to the Surrey left-hander for his contribution. Indeed, not since before the BSE crisis will a Butcher have been so popular in England, and this was simply a marvellous innings on a day when the next best score was 24.
Like all the purveyors of meaty fare, this one is also part of a family business with father, younger brother and uncle all having played first- class cricket. In fact, in a happy coincidence his father Alan, a coach since his retirement from first-class cricket in 1992, was yesterday recalled to the Surrey side 11 years after his last game. Batting at seven he scored a breezy 22 against Derbyshire while son Mark compiled his maiden Test century.
Still only 25, Butcher began his career as a swing bowler, only moving up the order when a pelvic injury prevented him from bowling for a season. The change clearly suited and it was not long before bowlers realised that his deceptively simple footwork gave him time, a commodity almost as precious to a batsman as a strong box.
A powerful driver off the front foot, he put away anything that was overpitched with ruthless efficiency. On a day when most of Butcher's cover drives sped past Jonty Rhodes, Pollock can probably count himself a little fortunate to have got him out off one that cannoned into the stumps from an inside edge.
By and large it was a curious day for the bowlers, who were buffeted about by gusting winds. After a cautious beginning when both teams felt their way it was the bowlers who ended by dominating events. With many billing this match as Donald versus Atherton chapter two, the lack of early intensity would have been disappointing. In fact Donald did not get to resume his unfinished business with the Lancashire opener until his 23rd ball by which time the batsman had got his eye in at the other end.
If memories of his odyssey at Trent Bridge were still fresh in his mind, there would be no repeat, and driving at a half-volley from Ntini, Atherton edged to Jacques Kallis at second slip.
Curiously, it appeared to be the right shot to a ball that did nothing out of the ordinary. In Test cricket even heroes can be victims to the humdrum. South Africa prize Atherton's wicket above all others and after an uncertain start, the breakthrough lifted them and England's progress was slowed.
Knowing that England's best chance of winning was to occupy the crease as long as possible in their first innings, Hussain in particular dug in. But if the tactical thinking was right, it discouraged the Essex vice- captain from playing his natural attacking game.
By now Pollock had got the measure of bowling into the wind from the Rugby Stand End and he got one to bounce at Hussain from a fullish length. The batsman's reaction was to withdraw his bottom hand, which is possibly why the umpire Peter Willey gave him out. Hussain's brief glare showed that he thought differently, a point of view the television replay tended to uphold.
Few captains would come to the crease with his team at 83 for 2 and play as Alec Stewart did. Joining his brother-in-law at the crease, Stewart got off the mark with an imperious on-drive off Ntini. Not content with this near perfect start, he decided to chance his arm taking two more boundaries.
After his pre-match claim that he and his team would treat this simply as "just another Test match", Stewart looked as pumped up as he was on the final day at Trent Bridge. Too much adrenalin can be counter-productive and when Stewart tried to dominate Donald in the same way, his good intentions ended up with Kallis at second slip again.
After tea, Mark Ramprakash followed, an early let-off at gully being followed 19 runs later when he bottom-edged a cut to the wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher. Although the batsman walked, TV replays showed that Boucher had scooped the catch on the half-volley.
With Butcher's innings ending soon after, the floodgates opened. Playing in his second Test Andrew Flintoff will now know what it feels like to be "sawn off" by the umpire. Pushing forward to Pollock, the big all-rounder was given out caught at short leg. Once again TV replays showed no contact had been made.
By now the day's momentum had shifted inexorably South Africa's way, a fact illustrated by Graeme Hick's tame dismissal. Taking 19 balls to get off the mark, Hick's big chance ended when he cut a long hop from Ntini straight to Rhodes at cover.
With Ian Salisbury playing on, only Cork was able to push England forwards with a breezy knock curtailed when Angus Fraser edged Donald to third slip. Unless there is a near repeat of England's bowling performance in the second innings at Trent Bridge this series will surely slip away.
Henry Blofeld, page 26
England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings
M A Butcher b Pollock 116
(322 min, 252 balls)
M A Atherton c Kallis b Ntini 16
(76 min, 50 balls, 2 fours)
N Hussain c Boucher b Pollock 9
(69 min, 45 balls, 1 four)
*A J Stewart c Kallis b Donald 15
(50 min, 30 balls, 3 fours)
M R Ramprakash c Boucher b Donald 21
(91 min, 62 balls, 2 fours)
G A Hick c Rhodes b Ntini 2
(39 min, 21 balls)
A Flintoff c Liebenberg b Pollock 0
(2 min, 3 balls)
D G Cork not out 24
(47 min, 34 balls, 4 fours)
I D K Salisbury b Ntini 0
(7 min, 4 balls)
D Gough c McMillan b Ntini 2
(16 min, 7 balls)
A R C Fraser c Cullinan b Donald 4
(18 min, 7 balls)
Extras (b4, lb5, w2, nb10) 21
Total (375 min, 83.3 overs) 230
Fall: 1-45 (Atherton); 2-83 (Hussain); 3-110 (Stewart); 4-181 (Ramprakash); 5-196 (Butcher); 6-196 (Flintoff); 7-198 (Hick); 8-200 (Salisbury); 9- 213 (Gough).
Bowling: Donald 20.3-6-44-3 (w1) (7-2-18-0, 2-1-8-0, 6-2-9-1, 5-1-7-1, 0.3-0-2-1); Pollock 24-8-51-3 (nb6) (4-2-7-0, 4-0-12-0, 6-3-9-1, 10-3- 23-2); Ntini 21-5-72-4 (nb4,w1) (7-3-16-1, 3-0-18-0, 7-2-20-0, 4-0-18- 3); Kallis 9-4-30-0 (3-1-8-0 6-3-22-0); McMillan 9-0-24-0 (nb3) (2-0-4- 0 7-0-20-0).
Progress: 50: 82 min, 18.4 overs. Rain stopped play: 12.54-2.09pm 63- 1 (Butcher 37, Hussain 5) 26.2 overs. 100: 161 min, 37 overs. Tea: 147- 3 (Butcher 93, Ramprakash 2) 55 overs. 150: 238 min, 55.3 overs. 200: 336 min, 77 overs. New ball taken: 82 overs at 227-9. Innings closed: 6.46pm.
Butcher 50: 140 min, 109 balls, 7 fours. 100: 250 min, 201 balls, 17 fours.
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings
G Kirsten not out 4
(15 min, 17 balls, 1 four)
G F J Liebenberg not out 4
(15 min, 7 balls)
Extras (lb1) 1
Total (for 0, 15 min, 4 overs) 9
To bat: J H Kallis, D J Cullinan, *W J Cronje, J N Rhodes, S M Pollock, M V Boucher, B M McMillan, A A Donald, M Ntini.
Bowling: Gough 2-1-4-0; Fraser 2-1-4-0 (one spell each).
Umpires: P Willey and Javed Akhtar.