Since Butcher's last Test match, in South Africa in 2004, seven number threes* have been tried in 52 Tests. None, however, have come close to matching Butcher's consistent contributions in the most pivotal of positions, as Ravi Bopara's agonising Ashes struggles were the latest reminder of.
At first glance, Butcher's Test average – a shade under 35 – appears distinctly underwhelming. However, he enjoyed not so much one Test career as two. During his first stint in the side, from 1997, he was used primarily as an opener, but, too often loose outside his offstump, Test cricket proved a major step up. Undoubtedly, it could hardly have helped that 23 of his first 27 Tests were against the ferocious fast-bowling attacks of Australia, South Africa and West Indies. Fleetingly, he appeared to be established as Mike Atherton's opening partner, as a priceless, man of the match-winning 116 in the decisive Leeds Test against South Africa was followed only four innings later by the same score at the Gabba. However, his technique disintegrated along with his marriage, and after 22 innings without a 50 he was dropped after the tour to South Africa in 1999/2000, seemingly with little prospect for a return.
But, helped no end by his father-coach Alan, Butcher managed to fight his way back into the side, having managed to alleviate a certain tenseness in his game – apparent in his dwindling strike-rate and his occasionally reckless running. And, after some battling efforts in his new role at number three amidst the wreckage of another Ashes humiliation, Butcher played a magisterial innings to lead England to an extraordinary victory in the Headingley Test of 2001.
Stand-in skipper Adam Gilchrist was lambasted in the press for setting England 315 to win the Test in a little over a day, but the declaration only appears generous through hindsight's lens. Australia, with McGrath and Warne in their prime, had dominated England to the extent that the target exceeded any score they had made in seven innings in the series. At 33/2, a humiliating whitewash appeared inevitable. Yet Butcher unravelled an exquisite array of shots, especially through the offside. He drove with authority and cut with disdain – often employing his characteristic upper-cut – to turn perhaps the greatest Test side of them all into a rabble. His 173*, made at breakneck speed, was arguably behind only innings by Laxman, Lara and Tendulkar in their brilliance against the Australian cricketing superpower at the turn of the millennium. Gilchrist certainly wouldn't have argued, saying “That has to be one of the greatest Ashes Test innings of all time”.
Butcher proved unable to replicate his phenomenal innings – and who could? But, almost as impressively, he was able to achieve a consistency that allowed him to occupy the number three berth for 42 consecutive Tests. Adaptability was a key attribute of his success. When conditions dictated he was capable of playing the aggressor – most notably during that incredible 173*, but also during the 2003 series against South Africa, when seemingly every ball was timed to perfection. He hit a remarkable 68 boundaries in nine innings (amounting to a staggering 67% of his runs) - hampered only by the return of a familiar foe: a penchant for being dismissed by aberrant shots when well set.
However, Butcher was more than capable of playing in the manner of an old-fashioned, attritional number three. On some testing surfaces on the 2004 tour of the Caribbean, he was exceptional, compensating for the failings of England's openers by getting into line, refraining from playing loose shots and being meticulous in his shot selection. And yet, hampered by injuries, he would play only five more Tests (he was never officially dropped), ending his career with a run of 32 innings without reaching even 80 – although this is not to belittle the significance of his hard-earned runs at three. As with another Surrey man, Graham Thorpe, Butcher's Test runs consistently stood out for their importance.
The captaincy of Surrey was an obvious route for such an intelligent mind, though recording victories proved rather more difficult than scoring runs, which Butcher continued to do at an impressive rate. Ultimately, Butcher's 'second career' of 47 Tests yielded the impressive average of 41. Curiously for a man who could counter-attack with relish, Butcher easily holds the record for the most Tests played without appearing in a one-day international (since the introduction of ODIs). Perhaps the selectors felt his style was too orthodox, as also proved the case with Michael Vaughan, and his domestic one-day average of 31 was distinctly mediocre.
The sight of Butcher thumping a ball through the offside, often idiosyncratically down on one knee, was one for Englishmen to cherish. Anyone who saw his two brilliant Headingley Test hundreds would attest to this.
* Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell, Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah, Andrew Strauss and Rob Key – plus three nightwatchmen