Roland Butcher plays a shot

Roland Butcher played three Tests and three ODIs for England between 1980 and 1981

Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images


Roland Butcher: 'I was better at fielding and football than Ian Botham'

The former England batsman who later became a football coach talks about his playing days, Jofra Archer, and the coaching manual he has written for Caribbean football

Interview by George Dobell  |  

It was football that took me to cricket. When I arrived in England - I was born in Barbados - I was nearly 14 and had never played football. But in England, football was like cricket used to be in Barbados - everyone played it. I soon fell in love with the sport.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived in the Caribbean for the England tour in 1981. But everywhere we went, people were incredibly supportive and warm. They were pleased for me. I wonder if I might have been a bit better if there had been some hostility.

I had two nicknames growing up and they have both stuck with me today. The first was "Buffy", and I don't mean like the vampire slayer. I always had a cricket ball in my pocket as a boy and people used to say my pocket was "buffed out". People still call me that. And there was "Bland" - Colin Bland was my hero. I never saw him play, but I read the descriptions of his fielding and it inspired me. I wanted to be just like him.

Ian Botham was at the MCC at the same time as me. Ian Gould, too. All three of us played semi-pro football, at least, so we had a pretty good side. Botham was a very ordinary bowler at the time. You would have no idea how good he was going to become.

"I don't believe black people are getting the opportunities they should be in coaching and management. It's probably particularly noticeable in football, where there are so many clubs"

I'm not sure I fully appreciated the significance of becoming the first black man to represent England in international cricket at the time. For me, it was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. There was some talk at the time about the milestone, but it was only years later when I realised the significance. Other black players told me it inspired them - the likes of Devon Malcolm, Neil Williams, Wilf Slack and Norman Cowans.

One Sunday morning we were playing football in the park as usual. There was football on TV in the afternoon, so we were about to go home and watch it. But then a cricket team turned up, said they were a player short and asked if any of us wanted to play. I wasn't keen. I was hungry and thirsty. But someone persuaded me. I did okay, I remember I took a couple of catches, and they invited me back the following week. It was Stevenage third XI. A few weeks later, I was in the seconds and before too long I was in the first team. From there I was recommended to Gloucestershire and joined MCC Young Cricketers.

I only played three Tests. And I played them against one of the best bowling attacks in the history of the game. It was tough, but I felt I could cope. I was dropped at the end of the series, though, and I never got another chance.

I don't believe black people are getting the opportunities they should be in coaching and management. It's probably particularly noticeable in football, where there are so many clubs and there should be so many opportunities. You can't tell me there haven't been some fantastic black candidates. There seems to be this belief, "They can play, but they can't manage." It comes down to trust. They don't trust us with the responsibility of running a professional club. You might call it unconscious bias. I don't see any improvement - it's getting worse, if anything. And I don't think we should be afraid to say it. No one is asking for a handout. We're asking for a level playing field.

"I had two nicknames growing up - 'Buffy', because I always had a cricket ball in my pocket as a boy and people used to say my pocket was 'buffed out'. And 'Bland' - Colin Bland was my hero" Aubrey Hart / © Getty Images

I wasn't the most talented of the boys I used to play with [in Barbados] and I don't think I'd have been spotted. I was incredibly passionate about the game, though, so maybe I would have found a way.

My memories of my Test debut are mixed. Yes, it was a joy to be picked and to do it in Barbados was incredible. But the death of Kenny Barrington, the team manager and former England player, was a shock and a tragedy. I had been sitting with him just the day before. We struggled to concentrate on cricket while dealing with that grief.

Was Botham a better footballer than me? He couldn't get near me! He was a better batsman and a better bowler than me, and he tried hard to be a better fielder. But I was better at fielding and football. I think he'd admit that.

Any hopes I had [of a recall] ended in July 1983. I was in fantastic form - the best form of my life - and felt I was close to an England recall. But then I missed a hook against Leicestershire's West Indian fast bowler George Ferris and was hit just below the left eye. It was my fault. I had just hooked him for a couple of fours and I was just a bit casual. There were multiple fractures and I had to undergo two operations. I couldn't tell people at the time, because I was worried I'd lose my job, but my eyesight never recovered.

I always seemed to be at my best when I felt I had to prove people wrong.

Charlie Griffith, the West Indies fast bowler, taught me to bowl back in Barbados. I was a legspinner at that time. But when I joined the MCC as a Young Cricketer, I had time to work on my batting and that took over.

"I consider my work with University of West Indies my greatest contribution to sport"

Jofra Archer is from the same parish as me: St Philip. I tried to get him to join MCC Young Cricketers a few years ago, but it fell through. Then he almost joined Northamptonshire. They were in Barbados on pre-season and were told about him. When he flew to England, I thought that's where he would go. But he was recovering from a stress fracture at the time and built up a good relationship with Chris Jordan. I think Chris persuaded him to go to Sussex.

It was a mistake to agree to go on the rebel tour to South Africa in 1989. At the time I was 36 and I thought, "My playing career is coming to an end. This is an opportunity to secure my family's financial future." And yes, the way it was sold to us, we would be helping the black community and giving them something to enjoy.

I had admired Sir Hilary Beckles - the Barbadian historian and vice-chancellor of the University of West Indies [UWI] - for a while. I had read some of his books and knew that as a young man, he had played for Warwickshire 2nd XI. We were on holiday in Barbados and I went to meet him one day. I was struck by his commitment to education and sport and his belief that both were important to young people.

Botham was strong, determined, and he had incredible courage. He learned how to swing the ball from a guy called Bill Jones and he became a fantastic bowler. We're still friends. It was brilliant that he became my Test captain.

Could I have made it in top-level football? I thought I had a real chance for a while. I had pace. But I didn't play before I was 14. By then, you should have picked up all the core skills you need. I was always playing catch-up.

It was almost impossible to get to Bridgetown by car. My grandmother used to pile vegetables up on her head and walk into Bridgetown to sell them every day. That's a 30-mile round trip. She'd leave in the early hours of the morning, sell them, walk home, go to the farms to get the vegetables for the following day and then do it again.

Despite sustaining an injury that damaged his eyesight, Butcher carried on playing high-level cricket for another seven years

Despite sustaining an injury that damaged his eyesight, Butcher carried on playing high-level cricket for another seven years © PA Photos/Getty Images

I received hundreds of letters [after deciding to go to South Africa to play]. I've kept them all. One of them read: "Dear Butcher, you've taken black people back to the age of slavery. Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver for selling his soul. How much are you getting?"

I was encouraged to take my football coaching badges by Alan Sefton, who led Arsenal's coaching in the community scheme, and then he took me on as a soccer school coach. Eventually I was put in charge of running the soccer schools for Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Devon and Cornwall. I had 30 or 40 coaches working under me. I was a Manchester United fan as a boy, but Arsenal became very special to me.

I found a way to play cricket for another seven years [after my injury]. I changed my head position and worked very hard, even getting my wife to throw balls to me in the local park, so I could work without anyone knowing how much I had to do - but I was never quite as good.

Football is much more popular in the Caribbean than cricket now. Far more. In terms of participation, cricket is down to third behind netball. Most people support a Premier League side.

I probably wouldn't have played international cricket unless I'd left Barbados. It wasn't just the level of talent. It was that I lived in a very rural area on the eastern tip of the island, "behind God's back", as they used to say.

"It was a mistake to agree to go on the rebel tour to South Africa in 1989. At the time I thought, 'My playing career is coming to an end. This is an opportunity to secure my family's financial future'"

I made 50 on my international debut, against an Australia side that included Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and Len Pascoe. It was the quickest half-century - it took 36 balls - an England batsman had made in ODI cricket at the time.

I learned later that Sir Hilary missed one of his final exams at university as he had a commitment to the university cricket team. As a result, he graduated with a second-class degree, but his team won the national universities trophy. And he took a five-for in that match. The chancellor at his university gave him a scholarship to do his PhD.

I was naive [about playing in South Africa during apartheid]. And the reaction surprised me. Things got out of hand. I had people at the front door, the back door, camping on my lawn. Friends and enemies were telling me I'd got it wrong. The ANC [African National Congress] came to see me. Priests came to see me.

I'm not surprised by how well Archer has done. I'm maybe a bit surprised by how quickly he has done well, but he was pretty obviously a talented player and he has benefited from early opportunities in the Big Bash and the IPL. I don't think people should get lost in his pace. Yes, he can bowl fast, but he's also very accurate and skilful. It's not realistic to expect him to bowl fast all day.

I was about 30 [when I got injured], so it was too late to make a move into football. I still played for Biggleswade or Stevenage or Arsenal's ex-pros team and I really enjoyed it. I played alongside the likes of Pat Rice, John Radford and Paul Davis.

Butcher on drinks duty as 12th man during the 1981 Lord's Ashes Test

Butcher on drinks duty as 12th man during the 1981 Lord's Ashes Test © PA Photos/Getty Images

It wasn't the pressure that changed my mind [about travelling to South Africa]. I talked to people - not least the ANC - who explained how the tour would be used to justify the current regime. They informed me about the way things really were in South Africa. I'd say the experience educated me. I pulled out. It cost me a fortune. I had to pay for lawyers to get me out of the contract. But it turned out okay. Had I gone on that tour, there's no way I would have been appointed director of sport at the University of West Indies a few years later. There's no way I'd have been on the board of the Barbados Cricket Association or the cricket committee of Cricket West Indies either. Very few of the guys who went on rebel tours have been allowed back into the system. Very few of them have been forgiven. It was an honest mistake to consider going, but it was definitely a mistake.

I've written this coaching manual as I've become frustrated by the lack of Caribbean players on the world football stage. Their development has been so hit and miss. It feels as if we've held ourselves back because of a lack of organisation and structures. This manual should help identify and develop talent and provide coaches with a methodology that should be adopted throughout the region so we have conformity of process. The US universities are full of Caribbean athletes. I want to see them representing the teams in the Caribbean and able to fulfil their talent here.

I took my UEFA B coaching badge around 2000. I met Brendan Rodgers on the course and we became good pals. A year or so later, he was appointed as director of coaching at Reading and he asked me to come and work as an academy coach. Then Jose Mourinho took him to Chelsea and I went back to cricket and took a job as coach of Bermuda.

I was never scared, after my eye injury, but I just couldn't see as well.

Sir Hilary asked me to put together a high-performance programme at UWI, so talented young people didn't have to choose between sport and education. I started with cricket as we had some pretty decent facilities already. Within a few years, we were playing in the Caribbean four-day and 50-over competitions and we've done well. We won the 50-over competition a couple of years ago, and players such as Rovman Powell and Chadwick Walton have progressed through it. I consider my work with UWI my greatest contribution to sport.

There's no reason the Caribbean region couldn't have the same impact on football as African nations have had in the last 20 years or so. The region is a sleeping giant in footballing terms. It's time to wake it up.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo