Mark Butcher, born on August 23, 1972, is a former England top-order batsman who currently plies his trade as the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter of a band. Jaideep Vaidya goes through the cricketing career of a man who essayed one of the most memorable knocks in Ashes history.
Born in Crydon, located in the county of Surrey in South East London, Mark Butcher is the son of a Jamaican mother and English father, Alan Butcher, who played one Test for England. As a young boy, Mark was innately attracted to sports due to his genes and played football, cricket, rugby and athletics. In fact, up until the age of 14, he had dreams of becoming a footballer after representing Crydon and playing for a Sunday youth side in his childhood.
Butcher’s cricket began at age seven, however, he was picked for the Surrey Under-11s and went right up to the Under-19 level at the county. Back then, he was a bowling all-rounder who loved having a go at batsmen and did not particularly enjoy batting as much as the other trade. However, as he grew up, the rigours of bowling began to affect his body, which was a sign of persistent injuries in the future, before he finally decided to concentrate on his batting. Surrey offered him a contract at the age of 17.
Butcher broke into the England setup in 1997 as a gutsy left-handed top-order batsman who loved punching the ball through the covers. He was a typical Surrey lad, as future teammate Nasser Hussain pointed out in his autobiography Playing With Fire, “When we played against each other as young players, we didn’t get on because I thought he was an arrogant so-and-so and he thought the same of me. He was one of the Surrey strutters. He had to have his shades on and his cap the wrong way round. He had a real natural swagger to him and I used to think, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’”
However, Hussain was to realise soon that Butcher was indeed “a genuine, calm, relaxed man who knew his game, was very talented and was very much a team man. I learned so much from him about how to bat with a relaxed mindset and low heartbeat. That’s why we batted well together. I made him concentrate more than he wanted to, and he made me relax more than my drive let me.”
Barely a few months into the job, Butcher played a short but under-pressure innings with extreme calm against the West Indies at Trinidad that helped England win the Test and level the series. “His coolness certainly surprised me,” said Alec Stewart, as quoted by the Independent. “I know he’s not easily inhibited, but that last morning, with [Courtney] Walsh and [Curtly] Ambrose at you every ball … well even the most experienced players would have felt enormous strain.”
Butcher went on to record tons against some of the best teams in the world — South Africa and Australia — in 1998 before getting a chance to captain England in Hussain’s absence during a Test match against New Zealand the following year. However, this was when his formed dipped for both country and county, which was also due to the fact that his marriage with Stewart’s sister Judy broke up. He eventually lost his Test spot to Marcus Trescothick.
For the next 18 months, Butcher did not play for England but honed his skills in the domestic circuit, with help from dad who was the coach of Surrey. Finally, he was to make a return to the squad for the 2001 Ashes at home, where he was slotted at No 3 instead of his earlier opening spot. England performed disastrously and lost the first three Tests, with Butcher’s 83 at Lord’s being his only score above 50. As the teams went to Headingley for the fourth Test, Butcher broke the team curfew prior to the match and was caught in the act by the management. “He is also a bit of a throwback in that he enjoys a good time and has very little will power, and he would have fitted in very well in the era of Botham, Gower and Lamb,” wrote Hussain.
The team management and selectors wanted to make an example out of Butcher for the rest of the team and decided to drop him from the Headingley Test, and decided to give David Fulton his first England cap. And if not for some timely intervention from Hussain, who deep down inside felt that England were making a grave mistake by dropping him, the cricketing world wouldn’t have been able to witness one of the greatest Ashes knocks in recent times. Hussain informed chief selector David Graveney of his premonition and the latter also agreed, before holding back the call to Fulton and letting Butcher escape with a fine. It was the narrowest of escapes for Butcher, who went on to score what was easily the innings of his life.
England were set 315 to win in just over a day by stand-in Australian skipper Adam Gilchrist, who declared Australia’s second innings on 176 for four late on Day Four. With the shambolic form that the English batsmen were in at the time, Gilchrist considered it a total big enough to defend, especially with the likes of Glen McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne in his bowling arsenal. England lost their openers, Mike Atherton and Trescothick early on Day Five, when the buddies Butcher and Hussain came together in the middle. The Headingley crowd was expecting an early finish; Butcher had other plans.
He put on 181 for the third wicket with Hussain (55) and 75 with Mark Ramprakash (32) for the fourth. By the time Ramprakash fell, England were within 30 runs of their target. Australia had no clue of what had hit them, which would best be described as a right “Butchering.” The cover-drives were elegant and powerful; the square-cuts off anything short were cracking and timed to perfection; and the flick off the legs had the Australians tearing their hair out. He batted five and a quarter hours, faced 227 balls, hitting 23 fours as well as that six. If anything, it brought back painful memories of Headingley 1981 when Ian Botham had gone berserk in a similar manner.
“I had never seen him play that well,” wrote Hussain. “There are times in anyone’s career when you just seem to be on a higher level. You play better than you have ever believed possible. This was Butch at his absolute best. It was incredible. The Aussies were completely taken aback. The Aussies, typically, all shook Butch’s hand and Gilchrist said it was one of the great Ashes innings.”
Butcher’s 173 was a turning point in his career, which is evident from his career statistics. In the three years that he played international cricket post the 2001 Ashes, he scored 2,618 runs compared to the 1,670 he notched up between 1997 and 2001. His average in the last three years of his career was over 39, compared to his overall career average of 34.58. He also scored five of his eight Test centuries in this period. He struggled a bit in the following Ashes Down Under in the winter of 2002-03, but mounted a comeback in 2004 as England’s leading scorer in their 3-0 Test thumping of the West Indies in the Caribbean.
However, a series of injuries the following summer brought to an end a run of 42 consecutive Test appearances. Poor form again followed and Butcher played his last Test in the winter of 2004 before succumbing to a wrist injury. He played 71 Tests in his career, but never a One-Day International (ODI), which is a record after the shorter format came into being. He continued to play for Surrey until 2009, when a persistent knee injury forced him to call time on his playing career. He retired as the captain of Surrey, a county he had played for during his entire career. “It was a very tough decision to walk away from the club that I have called home since I was a boy and the game that has given me so many great memories,” Butcher said. “But I feel that it is the right time to move onto the next chapter in my life.”
The Mark Butcher band
The next chapter in Butcher’s career has nothing to do with cricket. At age 13, Butcher had started playing the guitar and was already writing songs and playing live on stage before signing for Surrey. He formed The Mark Butcher Band, a soul and r’n’b band for whom is a vocalist and guitarist. When teammate Ben Hollioake was killed in a car accident in 2002, Butcher, who was inconsolable at the time, sang a ballad at his funeral and even wrote a song in his remembrance.
The band released an album titled ‘Songs from the Sun House’ in 2010, which became very popular with the masses. The legendary Eric Clapton, also from Surrey, described it as “great stuff”. Clearly, here is one talented man.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)