On August 20, 2001, Mark Butcher blazed his way to an unbeaten 173, steering England to a rare victory against the Australians that summer. Adam Gilchrist termed it as one of the great Ashes innings and Michael Atherton said it was one of the best attacking innings he’d seen in 13 years as an England player. Karthik Parimal revisits that incredible knock.
In the English winter of 1999-2000, Mark Butcher’s cricketing career was on a ventilator. He was discarded from the side once England returned from South Africa, dealt with a broken marriage and resorted to copious amounts of alcohol to get over the intricacies of his life. After spending significant time in wilderness, his father, Alan Butcher — an England cap himself — helped restore his confidence. Representing Surrey’s Second XI, he was dismissed first ball against Lancashire’s Second XI and people who watched him play that game had no qualms in stating his best was behind him.
Little did they know in the following summer, when the Australians visited the English shores for the battle of the urn, Mark Butcher would square-drive Shane Warne to pull off one of the best Ashes heists.
In the first three Tests — at Edgbaston, Lord’s and Trent Bridge, respectively, the Australians had done what their predecessors had done to the previous English teams: puncture a few careers before jeopardising the post of the England captain. The margins of defeat were gargantuan and the fourth fixture at Headingley, Leeds was expected to tread along similar lines. Adam Gilchrist was the stand-in captain in Steve Waugh’s absence, as the latter was stretchered away in the Trent Bridge Test owing to excruciating pain in his left calf. Nonetheless, it wasn’t to have a big impact on the first day’s play.
Before the Headingley Test commenced, however, there was slight turbulence. Butcher was seen out late during the Trent Bridge Test and the selectors, livid with his behaviour, wanted to drop him for a game. Nasser Hussain, the skipper, too, agreed with the head honchos and having stood by Butcher multiple times prior to this incident, decided to make an example out of him this time around. He conveyed the same to then English coach Duncan Fletcher and, just before leaving the room, Fletcher suggested Hussain make a few phone calls to the senior members in the squad so that they were clear on their facts when they let the media in on this situation.
But talks with Alec Stewart and Michael Atherton forced Hussain to think otherwise. “I told him [Hussain] I thought the selectors were harsh. We had no formal curfew rules and he wouldn’t be the first England player to have stayed out beyond midnight during a Test match. Besides, after a difficult year in which his private life had been confused and his cricket a mess, Butcher was now feeling good about himself and his game,” wrote Atherton in his autobiography Opening Up. Stewart, too, was against the idea of dropping Butcher.
Following these conversations, Hussain refrained from coming down hard on his player. “By the time I got home, I had come to the conclusion that we were shooting ourselves in the foot by leaving Butch [Butcher] out. So I rang David Graveney [the chairman of selectors at the time] to talk about it again. It turned out that Grav [Graveney] had been having the same doubts. He agreed it was harsh and said, ‘If that’s what you think and what Ath [Atherton] and Stewie [Stewart] think, then let’s reverse the decision,” Hussain states in his autobiography Playing With Fire. It would turn out to be one of the best calls taken by the English management.
“One of the great Ashes innings”
On the first morning, Gilchrist won the toss and chose to bat first on a wicket that was expected to hold good for five days. In Darren Gough, Andrew Caddick, Alan Mullally and Alex Tudor, England had a potent attack, but the Australian batsmen were well rehearsed. Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn bagged centuries and, with Mark Waugh’s 72 acting as the perfect subscript, Australia leapt to 447 in their first innings. Steve Waugh’s absence had little impact on that day. Gough was the only standout bowler with a five-wicket haul. Clearly, one felt, another beat down awaited England.
The response was sturdy for most part, but all top and middle-order batsmen, barring Stewart, succumbed during the calmer phase after initially weathering the storm. Butcher looked impeccable before he was run out for 47, but were it not for Stewart’s unbeaten 76, the English would have folded for much lesser than 309. Glenn McGrath took seven wickets and continued to be England’s tormentor-in-chief in the first innings (three for 67 at Edgbaston, five for 54 at Lord’s and five for 49 at Trent Bridge).
Australia’s second outing was brief, yet brisk, lasting 40 overs before a declaration was made with the score on 176 for four at tea on the fourth day. Bad light and rain punched 17.3 overs of play that evening and, as a result, England were left to score 311 on the final day — a task perceived by many to be arduous. Only a miraculous batting effort, one that wasn’t etched during that series by any Englishman, would make it possible.
Early next morning, Atherton gloved a lifter from McGrath and was back in the hut after adding just eight. Marcus Trescothick, too, was dealt with the same fate and, at 33 for two down, a “greenwash” looked inevitable. Hussain and Butcher were now left to face the wrath of McGrath and Warne, but what followed thrilled the English supporters, especially the 13,000-optimistic crowd that turned up to watch from the stands, immensely.
Butcher’s first runs were procured through a cracking drive off McGrath to the boundary and soon Jason Gillespie was meted out the same treatment. Despite all the commotion that engulfed him prior to the start of this Test, Butcher looked unflustered from early in his innings. Brett Lee was brought in to ruffle him up, but two good shots to the fence ensued and he was soon removed from the attack. The more the ball lost its hardness and bounce, the more he attacked the Australian bowlers. Even Warne, in good form throughout the series, offered no quandaries that could puzzle Butcher. In fact, it was a punch off Warne to the leg-side for three runs that took the southpaw to a fifty — his second in that Ashes.
As Butcher and Hussain’s partnership, driven mainly by the former, excelled, hopes rose in the English camp. Butcher’s exotic approach had many glued to their seats, even in the biting cold, for it could be sensed that something special was in the offing. Once the half-century was usurped, he unfurled a series of straight drives — off Warne, McGrath, Gillespie and Lee — before switching over to a similar number of square-cuts. Runs kept flowing from his magical willow that day like never before. The slightest of width on the off-side was treated with disdain and anything on the pads was despatched over the square-leg fielder or glanced fine to the fence.
As England galloped to 173 for two in the second session, Hussain had trudged to 40 whereas Butcher raced to 97. Yet again, Warne, bowling over the wicket, drifted it a little across the off-stump, but Butcher, deftly moving to his left, punched it to the leg-side to pick up three runs, thereby reaching an incredible hundred. Taking off his helmet, he soaked in and acknowledged the raucous applause from the crowd and his team-mates alike. For a man who was a doubtful starter owing to off-field antics, it was a turning point in his cricketing career. As Atherton said, after languishing in Surrey’s Second XI a year before, Butcher was now cutting, pulling and driving his name into the history books at Headingley. Fully aware of England’s frail middle-order, he reverted back to his zone and resumed pummelling the bowlers.
Tea was called when the English were perched on 222 for three, needing only 92 to win in the final session. Hussain was caught off Gillespie but Butcher was yet to be conquered. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind now as to who would leave Leeds the triumphant party, but one can write the Australians off at their own peril, and none knew this better than the English.
Gilchrist cordoned the off-side with seven fielders and instructed his fast bowlers to keep the ball outside off, but Butcher pierced the gaps time and again with remarkable precision. More often than not, before the fielders could react, the ball zipped past them to thud into the fence, and the bowlers could only stare in awe. A thunderous square-drive took him to 150 and the next few runs weren’t hard to come by either. The same shot off Warne, again for three runs, took England home with quite a few overs to spare.
Butcher remained unbeaten on 173 (23 fours, one six), finishing what was labelled by Gilchrist as one of the great Ashes innings. Atherton said it was the best attacking innings he had seen in 13 years as an England player. Wisden, too, was highly appreciative of the innings, stating “Few cricketers play a Test innings that will become an Ashes legend. Mark Butcher joined this elite when he struck an exhilarating 173 not out to ensure single-handedly that there would be no “greenwash”, and show that, for a day at least, McGrath, Gillespie and Warne could be tamed.”
Hussain’s reaction best summed up that evening: “We have made some bad decisions in selection over the years, but I’m delighted we got this one right. We were right not to shoot ourselves in the foot by leaving Butcher out. I don’t think the kick up the arse made him play any better. He was batting well that summer and he just carried on doing it,” he writes in his book.
Australia’s declaration was perhaps a tad bit generous, but their bowlers left no stone unturned to dismantle Butcher, and the fact that he stood against the might deserves great praise.
Australia 447 (Ricky Ponting 144, Mark Waugh 72, Damien Martyn 118; Darren Gough 5 for 103) and 176 for 4 decl. (Ricky Ponting 72; Darren Gough 2 for 68) lost to England 309 (Alec Stewart 76*; Glenn McGrath 7 for 76) and 315 for 4 (Mark Butcher 173*, Nasser Hussain 55; Jason Gillespie 2 for 94) by 6 wickets.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)