It finally became clear yesterday that the most effective use for England's beleaguered team might be as a model for a senior teaching hospital. As Mark Butcher precariously assembled his third Ashes century, the motif of the tour – defeat apart – refused to subside. After damaging most limbs from head to toe between them in every major Australian city, the team moved on to less straightforward afflictions.
Alec Stewart, the recalled wicketkeeper widely tipped to be playing his last Test, was taken to Sydney's Clinic for Infectious Diseases. Chicken-pox was suspected but not confirmed. The only bulletin on his condition, an impromptu statement from the team's media manager, described it as a rash, which might or might not be contagious.
The vision briefly arose of the entire team succumbing, so that England might suffer the final humiliation of not being able to raise a team to be humiliated. But Stewart was cleared by the clinic, pronounced himself fit and arrived at the ground less than an hour before the start.
At that stage his skin was the same colour as the gauntlets worn by his counterpart, Adam Gilchrist, which designate the mobile company that sponsors the Australian team. Fortunately, he was not needed immediately, as Nasser Hussain won his fourth toss of the series and opted to bat.
Since the débâcle of Brisbane, the England captain will surely always follow the old adage about what to do when winning the toss, which consists of three phases: opt to bat; if in doubt still bat; if still uncertain ask a trusted lieutenant and, if he says bowl, then bat.
England did so with intermittent skill on a pitch that will almost certainly take prodigious spin as the match wears on. That is tradition at the Sydney Cricket Ground, although before the start some good judges insisted it was not the pitch it used to be. This is tradition for predicting how a pitch will play: nobody has a clue.
Butcher was delighted with his efforts. He is not a man given to the grand gesture, except when playing a rather mean guitar, but the way he hoisted helmet, bat and arms aloft on completing his hundred spoke of a depth of feeling. "I was really very happy, which hasn't always been the case when I have got to a hundred," he said.
Butcher is playing in his 50th Test match and has an average of 31, less than it should be for a player in such a prime position. Since he made 123 against Sri Lanka last summer and then had knee surgery, he has had an average of 24 in 13 innings. But three hundreds against Australia is still something; it is more than the number scored against the oldest enemy by Frank Woolley, Ted Dexter, Robin Smith, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, and as many as Peter May.
Butcher had four lives: on 0 when he might have been lbw; on 13 and 43 when he was dropped; and on 95 when he was caught but reprieved by the umpire's decision. "I wouldn't be the first person on either side to have had more than one go of it in an innings on this trip, so I'm not going to make any apologies," he said.
Nobody begrudged him. Apart from the fact that the ground was full of Englishmen, he has become something of a hero in this country and, especially this state, after letting New South Wales' favourite son, Steve Waugh, off the hook in the previous Test by refusing to claim a catch.
Butcher's reward for this honesty was a dodgy lbw decision, but perhaps he had a greater reward yesterday. He did not see it that way. "The reason I didn't throw it up was because I didn't think I had caught it," he said. "It's not anything wonderful I've done. I just didn't catch the bloody ball, so I gave it back. I haven't saved anybody from cancer or anything." But that was going too far in the list of English debilitation this winter.
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