When Croydon-born Mark Butcher broke into the England side for the 1997 Ashes series as a combative left-handed opening batsman, he came up against the undisputed best side in the world – one widely regarded as the best ever.
Butcher recalls, “It was pretty nerve-wracking but very exciting, we won my first Test – Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain put on a huge partnership, we bowled Australia out for just over 100 and we won the Test by nine wickets. It was kind of like ‘what’s all the fuss about’? This is an easy game!
“Before we knew it, we were 2-1 down and then lost the series. From the 2005 Ashes onwards, England have largely dominated – but in the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s, Australia were dominant – and despite getting a hiding from them, it was a fantastic time to be playing.
“[I was] playing against some of the best players to have played the game, and there was still a level of innocence about the game. It was not quite as professional as it’s become. There certainly wasn’t the money sloshing around. It was a lot of fun, perhaps we got away with one or two things we wouldn’t have got away with nowadays!”
It wasn’t plain sailing for Butcher, whose career faltered in the early 2000s and he even considered packing it in, saying: “It had been a rocky road. As was one last roll of the dice – I spoke to my dad, Alan, and asked if he’d help. I was struggling to make any runs, and struggling to enjoy batting. He rebuilt my game from the ground up – I said ‘treat me as if I’ve never played the game before’ and we worked solidly for three months in the off-season, before the summer of 2001.
“The goal really was to get back enjoying the game and scoring some runs, playing for Surrey – I perhaps had ambitions of getting back in the Test team, but it was a long way off. But lots of players in front of me in the pecking order got injured, and come the first Test against Australia at Edgbaston in 2001, my name appeared on the team sheet batting at three, by virtue of an 80-odd in a TV game in a one-day semi-final for Surrey. The irony was I never played an ODI game for England. It was that which got me the call-up, along with everyone else falling down dead! From that game on, I didn’t miss a Test match for 42 Tests. Later on in the summer, the knock at Headingley happened – it was quite a day. Life-changing really.”
That knock was a match-winning 173 not-out against Australia - the best in the world.
Butcher would go on to earn 71 Tests, one as captain, averaging a respectable 34.58 runs per innings.
As a Surrey CCC player for his entire career and with pivotal contributions to three County Championship titles in the space of four seasons, Butcher was delighted for the county winning their first title since 2002 in the last campaign.
“It was brilliant, a terrific effort. Young captain Rory Burns took over, the club under Alec Stewart and Michael Di Venuto have been building along the lines of a team who might be able to dominate the county scene for a long time, and if they don’t do that – will be providing a lot of players for England over the next decade. They’ve basically gone back to old-school principles about producing brilliant young players – give young players a chance, guys like Ollie Pope and Jason Roy who have made their bow for England.
“They haven’t been afraid to throw these young guys in and give them opportunities. They’ve coached them to the highest standard that you’ll find around, and have given them a chance to show what they can do, and the team basically blitzed the Championship with a lot of those guys doing great things.”
Indeed, he sees parallels between Surrey’s approach and Roy Hodgson’s Palace. “I almost go back to the Surrey idea of bringing through your own young players, not being afraid to send them out there to do the work – if you feel they’re good enough. In doing so, there’s a pride in playing for the shirt – but also the belief that you get, when somebody like Roy Hodgson who’s been everywhere, seen everything, done everything – that he believes you’re good enough to play against the best in the world. If you get five or six guys in a team around the same age group with the same drive and same ambition, it’s amazing what can be achieved under those circumstances.
“All the while you’re producing talent from within, and not relying on buying people who are perhaps at the wrong end of their career to help you out of trouble, the better chance you have at creating sustained success. Who am I to say? But that’s what it looks like the club is trying to do – keep a basis of lads who know each other and understand what it’s like playing for the team. And it’s paying dividends."
Butcher became a lifelong Palace fan after being taught at Purley’s Cumnor House by Palace legend Steve Kember. “He used to coach football and cricket teams at my school, along with my dad. Our families are very close – I was best man for his eldest son Matthew’s wedding and he was best man for me. ‘Zimmer’ as we call him is a great man – still as full of life, with an eye for a player, and loves his sport as much as he ever did.”
Butcher recalls youthful days on the terraces, with many players living long in the memory: “I remember watching Vince Hilaire and Jim Cannon during the 80s. I would get down to Selhurst on a relatively regular basis to see sides in the 90s. But my favourites? You’d go a long way to beat Wright and Bright. Geoff Thomas, too, I always liked central midfield players.”
During our conversation, Butcher was reminded of an event he took part in during the summer of 2005, helping launch the new Palace kits for the upcoming season alongside legendary striker Andy Johnson. The bizarre image shows Butcher in full Palace kit with no shoes on, whilst Johnson is holding a Slazenger cricket bat.
“I remember that," he says, "it was in Allders in the Whitgift Centre. I was out injured for a while with a wrist injury which ended my England career. I remember going down – having no idea what I was doing there, and no-one there knew who I was, it was one of those embarrassing photographs! I definitely wasn’t expecting to be put in the full Palace kit, so one of those great days. When you sent me the picture, I didn’t even recognise myself in it – it’s horrendous!”
Playing football was a release for Surrey and England teams during his career, but pre-game warm-ups with a size five ball came under scrutiny from several coaches. “As with all cricketers, we all wished we could have been footballers. During the warm-up, we had periods of time when it was allowed to play football – it was the best bit of the day. If things got a bit tasty, we’d have to put the ball away – and have to catch some balls instead! We used to persuade the coaches is was much better for our morale over a long season if we were allowed to play football!
“Stewie [Alec Stewart] was handy, a decent player in his youth, as was Thorpe who could have played at a higher level. I wasn’t too bad – I held a few Shirley District records in my day as a centre-forward – I even scored a penalty at Selhurst Park as a schoolboy! We’d have Pakistani imports like Saqlain Mushtaq and Azhar Mahmood who were utterly hopeless, but got so caught up in how enthusiastic we were about the game – they loved it as much as we did, which was always good fun.”
Alongside TV punditry that takes him all over the world, Butcher has since embarked upon a music career as a singer-songwriter and guitarist, with his second album launching in July.
Reflecting on his innings so far, he said: “It’s not a bad life – I say to people that the idea was to see if I could get through until my retirement without having a proper job, I’ve managed to scam it so far!”