Cricket: In Search of the Lost Chord ; Stephen Brenkley Says Mark Butcher Is Ready to Lead from the Front
Brenkley, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)
IN THE nostalgically reflective way of these matters, most of the attention during the long countdown to the First Test this week will be on an England opening batsman. This will not be Mark Butcher. The name of Michael Atherton will be hither, thither and everywhere else.
It is as natural as it is certain. Atherton is returning to the Wanderers ground at Johannesburg, the scene of his greatest accomplishment, a rear- guard feat of such magnitude that it was instantly granted legendary status. The last time Atherton was there, four years ago, he batted unbeaten for 643 minutes, faced 492 balls, made 185 runs and saved the match for England from a hopeless position. The then team manager, Ray Illingworth, described it as one of the great innings of all time, a verdict with which it was impossible to disagree, unless you wanted to accuse him of underestimation.
Each moment, it seems, is being relived in the days before Atherton goes back, partly because it was a truly heroic captain's effort, partly because the hero himself is once more in prime nick, the form, it is being whispered, of his entire career. It is straightforwardly accepted that if England are to win this series, if indeed they are to compete effectively, his contributions will need to be in the region approaching enormous.
All of which has tended to deflect the spotlight from Butcher. He will be glad of this, being aware that he has not scored heavily enough on this tour so far. One score of 87 not out was partnered by six of under 21 until yesterday when he made a well-ordered 39. His place in the line- up on Thursday is guaranteed not by his average but by the faith that the management have in him. But, make no mistake, Butcher's success is hardly less crucial than that of Atherton. England have been short of good starts lately and their importance is about to become increasingly pressing. Butcher knows the score.
"Athers and I have been talking about the hazards of the first 20 overs of an innings here," he said. "It really is a key part of the game because there tends to be a bit of juice in the pitch then and the hard Kookaburra ball moves about. The more balls that you can leave in that part of the game the better. After that it seems to change almost completely. The ball goes soft and it's a case of patience, almost whoever makes the first mistake."
It was his impeccable judgement of what to leave as much as what to play that initially made Butcher a serious candidate for Test cricket. The ability has not quite deserted him at present, but nor is it as fine as it has been in the past. He has been lured into the forcing shot early on when he might have known better. On the first morning at Centurion Park last Thursday, for instance, his opening scoring shot was an edged drive which went high and wide of the slips. It went for four down to third man but another option would have been to let it slide by.
"Maybe it's the sort of thing you stop doing quite so automatically when you're having a bad run," Butcher pondered. …