Butcher's spirit puts England in control

England 407 & 257 India 291 & 17-0
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The Independent Online

Mark Butcher was a sick man after making 92 here yesterday, but not because he missed out on a coveted Test century. The left-handed opener was the mainstay of England's second-innings total of 257 in the second Test, battling sickness for four hours before finally succumbing on the stroke of tea.

It was a heroic knock in all ways and one that has given Nasser Hussain's England a real chance of levelling the series, a result, which given the callow nature of the team, would surely rank among the most famous of overseas victories.

But before that particular garland can be worn, 10 wickets need to be taken in a minimum of 90 overs by the end of today, a task, with India desperate not to lose on home soil, that may not prove as simple as it did in the first innings. After the 17 runs scored by Shiv Sunder Das and Deep Dasgupta, India aim either to draw the match or, if they feeling inspired, to score a total of 374 and take the series.

On a pitch slowly beginning to show its age, only the side in the field should be able to fashion victory. Yet any team with Sachin Tendulkar in its ranks could – if everything goes for them or England's bowlers become stricken with whatever laid low Butcher and Michael Vaughan – make the four runs an over required for an unlikely victory.

When teams play India at home, they are not just up against 11 men, but millions of microbes and e-coli, each one capable of producing symptoms somewhere between turning your intestines to mush and your mind to jelly. A few years ago, New Zealand were so depleted they had to turn to the press box for fielders, a situation England have not yet been forced to confront.

"Although I'd been popping all manner of pills given to me by the physio, I didn't feel too good and had to visit the porcelain bowl when I came off," said Butcher, perhaps adding a little more detail than necessary for those at home attending the usual bout of Christmas parties.

Although clearly suffering, it was not illness that led him to edge his cut shot off Harbhajan Singh to slip, a mistake he was visibly annoyed with. "I'd set myself a little goal to get a Test hundred out here," Butcher said. "But while it was frustrating to fall short, it was also a most satisfying day with everything, from the target we set them to the time we were bowled out, going to plan."

Butcher's innings was just another example, following the earlier efforts of Craig White and Ashley Giles, of England finding the right man at the right time. Never truly comfortable against spin, the left-hander has worked hard on his game. However, technique only gets a player so far, and without confidence to oil them, all the fancy working parts in the world will not translate into runs.

Fortunately for Butcher, his successful series against Australia and, in particular, his stupendous knock of 173 at Headingley, has caused the stuff to ooze from every pore. A thoroughly likeable fellow, he has shrugged off moderate scores in the warm-up games in the certainty that a big score was just around the corner.

Butcher's innings, like those of the departed Graham Thorpe, contained little that stood out. Apart from an array of subtle and well-timed cut shots, he kept the score ticking over without fanfare, a sure sign that his shot selection against two high-class spinners was spot on. He and Hussain added 112 runs after Marcus Trescothick shovelled a pull-shot to Das at midwicket.

Planning to have wickets in hand at lunch, Hussain was fairly circumspect after striking Anil Kumble for an early straight six. The England captain, who made 50, was also lucky, surviving a plumb lbw shout as he padded away Kumble, as well as a skyer put down by Sourav Ganguly.

Hussain's departure after lunch, where he broke his own union rules by walking for a catch off his glove to short leg, brought a period of inertia, broken only by Mark Ramprakash's two huge strikes for six off Kumble. Once he had gone, wickets fell regularly with Harbhajan taking 5 for 71 and Kumble 3 for 118, a haul that took the wrist-spinner to within one wicket of the 300 mark in Tests.

Considering England's domination of the match to date, scoring 86 runs in the two hours between lunch and tea did seem a little cautious and it gave many the impression that their ambitions had not moved on from before the toss on the first day, when they would gladly have settled for a draw.

The most likely reason for safety first is that Hussain and the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, have swallowed a large dose of reality. If you apply some negative spin on England's bowling attack, you have an all-rounder with 100 Test match overs under his belt taking the new ball; a pace bowler in his fourth Test; an all-rounder who cannot bowl quick any more; an effective but partially lame spin bowler; and that same bowler's raw apprentice.

By batting into the last hour, England have enough time for a second new ball, which may prove handy should any late order batsmen prove obdurate against spin. Also, a large total in the bank should allow Hussain to keep the pressure on with men around the bat.

With only a draw to play for India's batsmen may prove more difficult to dislodge this time. If so, England's bowlers, instead of sitting back and waiting for their opponents to press the self-destruct button, will have to find ways of making things happen.

* The match referee, Denis Lindsay, spoke to both captains individually to ensure that the final day's play is conducted in the right spirit. "Everything has gone smoothly so far and I want to keep it that way," Lindsay said.