Redemption days for Butcher

From a lost soul to England's No 3, the road back to fulfilment has been a long and hard one
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When Mark Butcher learnt that he had been put on stand-by with only two days to go before the Edgbaston Test, his nervous excitement was even greater than when he was first picked for England in the Ashes Test on the same ground in 1997.

When he went in to bat in the second over of the first day, his nerves were still jangling. "I don't know how it looked on TV, but for the first few balls I was so nervous I could hardly hold the bat," he says. Off his fifth ball he gave a chance to Adam Gilchrist and the keeper – a bag of nerves himself – dropped it. Butcher has not had much luck in the past couple of years and he took this as a sign that whoever has been watching over him had decided that he had suffered enough and it was time to give him a break.

He started to enjoy batting after that chance was missed. He and Mike Atherton put on 104 before Butcher was caught at silly point off Shane Warne in the last over before lunch. He was angry with himself: "It was definitely my mistake," he says.

When Australia batted, he came on with five wickets down and took 4 for 42. His figures would have been even more remarkable if he had taken a hard chance given by Gilchrist before his final onslaught began. "It was annoying because I got a fat bit of mitt on it," he says.

Umpire Steve Bucknor was laughing all the time Butcher was taking wickets. "He couldn't understand how I was getting people out. Then Gilchrist hit 22 off one over and I was able to turn to him and say that that was a bit more like it."

But Butcher had swung the ball more than any of England's front-line bowlers. He thought he might. On the first day he had said that the conditions would suit him.

In the second innings, Butcher batted with Marcus Trescothick for the first time. "He clubs the ball, like Graham Gooch," he says. They put on 95 before Butcher got a ball from Brett Lee that literally stood up out of the wicket. He had scored 41, and his match total of 79 was the highest among England's batsmen, as was his haul of wickets among the bowlers.

Within a week of his unlikely England recall (it would not have happened but for injuries to his Surrey colleagues Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash), Butcher was being asked if he would be willing to serve as England captain again.

He said he would not, but the astounding thing was that he was being asked at all. Only seven months ago Butcher was so unhappy that he made himself quite ill. For 18 months, beginning with the break-up of his marriage, his life had been in turmoil.

The story of the long decline and sudden rise of Mark Butcher's fortunes would make a poor plot in a comic strip. Not even an impressionable child would believe it.

Mark Butcher was born in Croydon, Surrey, in August 1972, and, although he never scored consistently, he established his place as Atherton's opening partner in the Test team. He made centuries against South Africa and Australia, and during a mad summer in 1999 he captained England in the Third Test against New Zealand. The drawn game was not a good advertisement for Butcher: "A lot of things happened that I wasn't really happy with," he says obliquely.

That summer he had an affair that led to the break-up of his marriage to Alec Stewart's sister. He had been chosen for the tour to South Africa that winter, but he soon discovered that he could not leave his unhappiness behind in England. "Test match cricket is hard enough, but if your mind isn't on it, you haven't got a chance. My mind wasn't on it," says Butcher.

"I told Nasser [Hussain] and Duncan [Fletcher] that if they dropped me I would understand. To their credit they stuck by me." Butcher played in all five Tests that winter, averaging 20.75, but he began to hate cricket: "It was an awful trip and I didn't handle it very well." He drank a fair bit, and his condition deteriorated on his return to London. Not only was he out of the Test team, Surrey dropped him too, for an important NatWest fixture.

He had talked things over with Stewart, and they had agreed that the break-up should not be allowed to affect their professional relationship, but some of his Surrey colleagues were less tolerant of his moods: "People started not to give me the time of day."

Last winter he became ill, and his doctor told him his stomach was in danger of packing up. That was the catalyst that drove Butcher back into the gym and into the arms of his father Alan, who is also Surrey's assistant coach.

Alan informed his son that it was time for a radical overhaul of his technique. Actually, he had first thought so before the personal troubles even began. They went back to the beginning.

"He altered my stance. Had me standing straighter. Turned the bat round in my hand so the face wasn't so open. Stopped me holding the bat so tight. First month of it was awful, but when I got used to it, it was wonderful." At Edgbaston the Australians noticed the difference. Butcher reports that one of them said to him: "Hey, you look really relaxed out there."

At the beginning of this season he felt he was playing well but not getting runs. (His average in seven County Championship games was 34.27.) Indeed, he thought he was playing well enough to get a couple of games against Australia if a batter was injured later in the summer.

"I felt I'd been building towards something," he says. Then the injuries came thicker and faster than anyone could have imagined. Ramprakash was called up to cover for Michael Vaughan. Butcher was actually batting with Ramprakash when the latter injured the hamstring that was to rule him out.

"You have a little think through your mind of who the likely replacements might be and I wasn't one of them," he says. But David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, called on the Monday evening before the Test, saying that he had noticed that Butcher had come into some form, and that he had heard that he was feeling better within himself. "The chance coming so soon was one reason why I was so scared when I was asked to join the squad. I wasn't quite ready, or how I wanted to be."

He had moved into a flat of his own only four days earlier, and when he took Graveney's call he was surrounded by packing cases. There were chores to be done in the new flat on Tuesday morning, and Butcher was two hours late arriving at Edgbaston to join the England squad, but once he had had a net, he felt he was back in the fold.

"I've played nearly all my Tests with Nasser and we've always got on pretty well. It was almost straight back into an old club."

When he got in he saw the ball well and just did what he had been doing all summer. Mark Butcher had lost his inhibitions, and he may be asked to hang around the club for a while longer.