Heroic Butcher owes debt to father

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Mark Butcher's Test career looked to be over at the start of this Ashes series, and no one was more surprised than he to hear of his call-up for the first Test against Australia following a spate of injuries.

That Butcher capitalised on his good fortune and made the most of his second chance, culminating with his match-winning unbeaten century against Australia at Headingley on Monday, owes as much to his father Alan as anyone else.

Butcher Snr knows all about second chances and how important they are because that is something he never got. The former Surrey and Glamorgan left-handed opening batsman made his solitary Test appearance at The Oval against India in 1979, partnering Geoff Boycott at the top of the innings and scoring a modest 14 and 20.

So when his eldest son came to him for help in the winter, Dad knew what had to be done. "For a year to 18 months I'd noticed things were not quite right with his game," said Alan, the Surrey assistant coach, "but I felt unable to do anything because England players are so busy all the time. They don't get the opportunity to really work at their technique. But Mark had felt he was freezing up at the crease, his strokes were getting tighter and tighter."

So in January the pair set to work. "We had to strip his technique down and almost start again. We did little things with his stance and his pick-up. We changed his grip with his top hand, so the face of the bat is now more open."

Butcher's private life also hit an all-time low, culminating in the much-publicised break-up of his marriage to Alec Stewart's sister Judy. "I'm sure that his off-field problems with Judy affected him," added his father. "Fortunately he's come through that, and he also has a better perspective on the cricket side of his life."

The result was there for a nation to see and Butcher Snr was among them, although not at Headingley. He explained: "Yesterday was just fantastic, the greatest day of my cricket life. I was glued to the TV, I had intended going to The Oval to do some work, but I could not drag myself away. I have to admit I had to wipe away the odd tear, sentimental fool that I am."

Whether Mark can repeat his heroics on his home ground when the fifth and final Test starts tomorrow is anyone's guess but, if Headingley has been the scene of great individual deeds, so too has The Oval. There was Devon Malcolm's 9 for 57 against South Africa and Phil Tufnell, called up for this Test, has twice shone with the ball, the first time in 1991 when he claimed half a dozen West Indies first-innings wickets to help set up a home victory, and against Australia six years later, when his match return of 11 for 93 lifted England to a great win.

Unfortunately, like now, by the time Tufnell had been called up for his only Test of that summer, the 1997 series had already been decided. "It is a little disappointing to be picked when the Ashes have already gone, but I can't do anything about that. I have a good record at The Oval -- I've had a couple of good matches there and I think people look at that."

The Middlesex left-arm spinner is not certain to start, but if the selectors do take his Oval record into account and his record against Australia in general, they cannot fail to be impressed. Tufnell has claimed 35 wickets at 34.26 in 11 matches against Australia, while his four Tests at The Oval have yielded 24 wickets at 18.83.

Robert Croft, his rival for what is likely to be one spinner's place, has 11 Australian wickets to his name at 52.27 and, in his one appearance at The Oval, against Pakistan in 1996, he finished the match with 2 for 125. The stage is set for more heroics.