Butler bounces back
"Touch wood, I've had none so far." That was Ian Butler in February 2002, on the eve of his international debut, at the Jade Stadium, hardly 24 hours after he'd met his new team-mates and got his first training session under his belt. The 20-year-old fast bowler had been rushed from obscurity into the limelight and had never suffered any significant injuries in his domestic career..
"Everything that could have gone wrong with my back did go wrong. I think injuries make you realise cricket isn't everything." This is Ian Butler in September 2009, after a series of injuries that have taken him from tyro fast bowler to broken-down cricketer to rehabilitated allrounder. Now 27 and back from the wilderness, he's just glad to be playing international cricket again.
Sitting in the lobby of a Colombo five-star hotel, a lean Butler looks around at his surroundings and says he's amazed that he's sitting here. This is his third trip to Sri Lanka, and though it's not always been smooth sailing, he's not complaining.
"There are tough times like now, when you're in Sri Lanka and cooped up and playing in the heat, when you can think negatively about it, but you get paid to play the game you love. I'm stoked I'm back here.''
Rewind to the fateful day in 2004 when he suffered a serious back injury, after a one-day international against Australia in Melbourne. It was serious: a career-threatening bulging disc in his lower back. Butler was told his career was over.
"The back surgeons weren't complimentary about my chances. Not everyone gets it right with their diagnosis." With surgery not an option, Butler was reduced to relying on medical advances in an attempt to revive his international career. He thought of taking painkilling injections in order to play for Northern Districts, but his coaching staff told him that was not a wise idea. The risk was too great.
Forced to spend long hours assessing himself and his career, Butler began to chart out a career beyond cricket - as a physical trainer. "I finished doing my personal training at AUT [Auckland University of Technology]. I like talking to people and helping people. It's something I enjoy as well, being in the gym. That was my back-up plan at the time, but I never gave up complete sight of cricket. Even if I didn't get back to this level I'd have done a pretty good job at first class level."
He played domestic one-dayers and four dayers while "drugged up" but scans revealed it was too dangerous. He continued waiting for a medical marvel, even if it meant struggling to complete daily routines, like getting out of bed.
Butler then cut down on speed and attempted to reinvent himself as a batsman. He was picked as a batsman in a Twenty20 tournament in New Zealand. "I played as a batter for a couple of years [for ND] but I didn't really enjoy it because I always wanted to bowl," he says. "I started bowling again. When I was at ND, James [Marshall] asked if I wanted to do a little bit of death bowling off a short run-up. I did that and then had a couple seasons of league cricket to get back into it."
But at the start of a new season, Butler found himself restored in mind and body following a move from ND to Otago and plenty of advice from the coaching staff. "The new environment was a change. I played really well the whole season and really enjoyed it.''
Then he made a comeback, after five years, for the ODIs against India in February this year. Was he surprised?
"I was playing as well as anyone," he says. "You can only look at the other guys who are being picked and you know you're doing a pretty good job and you're close. If you dominate for as long as you can, they have to pick you."
A year ago it would have been next to impossible to imagine Shane Bond, Daryl Tuffey, Jacob Oram and Butler operating in tandem for New Zealand. But here they are, bowling like in the old days. That, Butler thinks, is a tribute to their focus on getting back to what they do best. "It's awesome for us and shows the hard work the guys have put in to get back. People would have never said those guys would be back. People always get criticism when you don't do well, but cricket's a game where you're going to fail every now and again. It's how you react to that... not worry about the knockers that put you down."
Being back together with other fast bowlers who've had their share of injuries is an experience that Butler says is both pleasing and humbling. "Myself, Daryl, Jake and Bondy, we were talking about it yesterday. It's the first game we've played together since 2002 in the West Indies as a unit," he says. "We all know each other really well off the park. While we were all out injured we kept each other going because we've all been injured at some stage.
"It's good when you're really tight as a bowling unit. You're not afraid to give honest criticism. If someone's not doing something, you can say it because you're mates. Daryl and myself [the two have known each other since the Counties-Manukau squad at age 17] probably talk most days even outside of cricket. As a unit we're very tight. Being injured makes you a better cricketer, I think. It makes you realise other things to life and how lucky you are to play cricket. You have that appreciation of what else there is in life. That you are actually lucky to do it."
When Butler made his international debut, against England, he was picked mainly because of his pace. New Zealand were trying to cover for an injury to Bond. In 2009 Butler's pace has dipped but the accuracy has improved. "I've had time to figure out what works for my body now," he says. "I know what to do off the park to keep myself going. I don't bowl the same pace, so that helps.''
"I think you always look back and see what you can improve on. In one-day cricket batsmen and wickets are so good, if you're not accurate you'll go a long way," he says. "That's what disappointed my about yesterday [the 97-run loss to Sri Lanka]. I had a big job to play in the Powerplay and four or five bad balls cost me. Instead of having 2 for 43, it blows out to 55. You have to be so accurate at this level."
Even before his international career Butler, by way of a British passport, could have gone the Andy Caddick way. In the summer of 2001, while playing a one-off game for the Sussex 2nd XI, he was offered a five-year contract with the county that would have put him in the English cricket system. He refused because all he wanted to do was play for New Zealand.
"It's something that comes up frequently. Counties realise if they sign you, you'll be able to play the whole year and not be taken away," he says. "I got asked last year to do it and the year before, but when you've worked so hard to get back to this level at 27.... I've got a lot of time left so it's not something I want to do just yet."
Butler doesn't think he'll be being playing a Test anytime soon, given the strain and the amount of competition around, but the hope lingers. It will be a lot of tough work. "You have to be able to bowl 20 overs and another 20 the next day. That's tough for anyone, never mind someone who gets stiff the next day," he says.
The last two years have helped, though. "I've learnt how to manage it. In the past I didn't do a lot of bowling between games; now I can do a little bit. The body has improved dramatically."
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo