Couch Talk

'West Indies' standard has not encouraged youngsters to take up cricket'

Former England batsman Roland Butcher, now director of sports at the University of West Indies, talks of his cricket and football careers, and his work in developing sport in the Caribbean

Subash Jayaraman: You are from Barbados, moved to England as a youngster, played for Middlesex, and you were the first black cricketer to represent England. Did that tag - the first black cricketer to represent England - give you a certain sense of responsibility?
Roland Butcher: It certainly added a great deal of responsibility, because it is not that I set out to be the first black player to play for England. It made me feel I had to try and be an ambassador, because everyone else was looking on, particularly other black players who perhaps feel that, "If he can do it, I can do it". That certainly was the case in relation to other black players in my team who went on to play for England, like Norman Cowans and Neil Williams. People like Devon Malcolm have said publicly that they saw me make that breakthrough and thought that if they work hard enough they too will get the chance.
SJ: I heard Gordon Greenidge talk about how it was tough being a black person in the 1970s in England. Did you have to face similar situations as well?
RB: We all had to deal with certain situations. In the '70s there were very few black players in county cricket. Gordon Greenidge was one of them. As time went, more black players would come into the first-class game. In Middlesex at that time, we had a number of black players, after which other teams also started to include more black players. It was a tough time breaking through, but also a period where you saw the emergence of local black players in England.
SJ: London is a cosmopolitan city. Was it different for others trying to break through, perhaps in the countryside?
RB: Yes, as I developed as a player and as a person I got to understand that it certainly was a benefit to be playing for a club like Middlesex. If you were there, or in Surrey or Lancashire or Warwickshire, it was more of an advantage than if you played for Leicestershire or Glamorgan, to a degree. Playing for Middlesex was an important thing, being in London, in the heart of England and at the Mecca of cricket at Lord's.
SJ: How do you view the participation of immigrants in English cricket? There is, right now, a sizeable Asian immigrant population that takes to cricket. But it seems to me that for a lot of the immigrant population the sport of choice would be football rather than cricket.
RB: I think as the '70s, '80s and the '90s rolled on, you found that particularly West Indian black players seemed to gravitate more towards football. Football was getting a higher profile and there were a lot of black players playing football and doing very well. During my time, you had parents who had immigrated to England who still had affinity to the Caribbean parts. But after the '80s and going into the '90s, those parents were now born in England and their kids tend to affiliate more with football.
With the immigration of Asian players, all over the world cricket is their No. 1 sport. In England, as the generations have developed, that sport has remained with the Asian community. In the '70s and '80s, there was little exposure of Asian players playing at the top level. Now and for the foreseeable future you will see a proliferation of Asian players playing at the top level of the sports - cricket in particular - in England, because now they have seen a number of players who have made it and have been very successful.
SJ: You made your Test debut in Bridgetown against West Indies. But you didn't play again for England after that series. Could you talk about things leading to your debut and your memories from that series?
RB: The first opportunity that arose for me to play for England was in the summer of 1980, while the Australians were in England. I played in the second ODI against the Australians. I did very well in it. Previous to that, I was at Middlesex since 1972, having spent two years with the MCC Young Professionals. Ian Botham and I came through from the Young Professionals side of the MCC in 1970 and 1971. He went to Somerset and I went to Middlesex. I was at Lord's since 1972, made my first-class debut in 1974, and worked my way through the side to finally, in 1980, being selected for England.
Following the ODIs against Australia that summer, the tour to the West Indies was in early 1981. The first Test was played in Trinidad. I didn't play in that Test match. The second Test was to be played in Guyana. I would have played in that Test match but Robin Jackman had flown out to replace Bob Willis, who got injured in the first Test and had to leave the tour. Just before the Test, it was brought to the attention of the president of Guyana that Robin Jackman had been to South Africa, and hence his permit was revoked. The English board took the stance that if Robin Jackman had to leave, we all had to leave. So the Test match was cancelled and we came to Barbados.
It was the second time it had happened to me in Guyana. Previously I had been to Guyana to play for Barbados. One of our Barbadian players, Geoffery Greenidge, was felled by the same rule. That was the second time we got thrown out of Guyana. To me, a lot of the players were actually happy to leave Guyana. We came to Barbados and that would be my first Test match - in my country of birth. That was a terrific time.
SJ: What do you remember in terms of your performances in the series? You didn't get to play a Test again for England.
"There were times when Middlesex were able to put out a side of internationals: Brearley, Gatting, Radley, Emburey, Downton, Edmonds, Selvey, Simon Hughes, Jeff Thomson, Wayne Daniels, Desmond Haynes and Larry Gomes"
RB: The events that unfolded through the Test changed what was really a very happy occasion to a very sad occasion. On day two, our assistant manager, Ken Barrington, died. It really put a dampener on the Test and the rest of the series. I remember the Test match with some fond memories of friends and family present, but also the sadness. Ken Barrington was a very good friend. Playing cricket was not easy. People just couldn't get as focused as they should be, which is not an excuse. After that series, I was not given the opportunity to play again for England. For me that was a sad situation because I would have liked to play more Test matches and be a lot more successful.
SJ: You had a very long first-class career. But consistency was perhaps missing, which can be seen in the fact that your average is a shade under 32. Would that be the main reason you were not considered for England again? Or were there any other reasons?
RB: I think after that series, in the 1981 season in England, there were a number of players who were left out. After that I had some very good seasons. Perhaps I could have had an opportunity later on. But after 1983 I had a serious eye injury. My days of playing at the international level were really numbered. Having lost some sight in my left eye, it was going to be very difficult.
SJ: In your 17-year career, you must have shared the dressing room with plenty of legends. Who were the ones that you wished you were like, in terms of cricketing talent and accomplishments off the field?
RB: I was very fortunate to have played in a very strong and successful Middlesex side for a long time. Initially we were led by Mike Brearley. The side consisted of Mike Gatting, Clive Radley, John Emburey, Paul Downton, Phil Edmonds, Mike Selvey, Simon Hughes, Jeff Thomson, Wayne Daniels, Desmond Haynes and Larry Gomes. There were times at Middlesex when we were able to put out a complete side of internationals. My career with Middlesex is one that I will always treasure, because we were extremely successful and we are still very close friends.
In September this year, Middlesex will have its 150th anniversary. There is a big function where all the players of yesteryear and now will be together.
SJ: Is there any one particular player who you always admired?
RB: Sir Ian Botham was one. He was fearless in his approach to the game; very competitive, not just with the opposition, but with his players as well. Within the Middlesex side, Brearley will go down as one of the greatest captains. Graham Gooch - a very dedicated hard-working professional. A lot to admire about Geoffery Boycott; the way he went about preparing for Test matches and cricket in general.
SJ: After a successful cricket-playing career, you also spent many years as a football professional. You played semi-professional and also as coach with Arsenal, Reading etc. How did you go from one sport to another?
RB: In the early days, in the 1970s, once cricket finished in September, in the winter months, I would play football. Even before I retired from first-class cricket, I was preparing myself for when cricket was finished, so I would be able to continue having some contribution within more sports. As time went by, I was doing my coaching qualifications. It is ironic that Liverpool is doing so well, because Brendan Rodgers and I did coaching certificates together. We became very good friends during that course. When he became the academy director at Reading, he invited me to work with him as a coach. My first professional coaching job was under Brendan Rodgers at Reading. Following that, I was a soccer schools coach at Arsenal for a long time.
SJ: So you later took up cricket coaching opportunities around the world and made your way back to Barbados to be a coach at the Academy of Sport at the University of West Indies. What made you go back to Barbados?
RB: At that time, I did not have any plans to go back to Barbados. The opportunity came through the university professor Hilary Beckles.
The vision of Sir Frank Worrell many years ago was to combine sports and education. Professor Beckles was a cricketer himself, and played for the junior team in Warwickshire and Hull University. He was the principal of the university and he brought me back as the first director of sports, to set up a sports programme not just in cricket but in many sports. That seemed to be a good challenge to me. I came back to the university in 2004 to set up this programme.
We didn't have a cricket programme at that time. We set up one which is successful in the sense that now we have produced teams that dominate cricket in Barbados. We won the Barbados first division four years in a row, won one-day cups. And out of that, we could get the Combined Campuses and Colleges to play first-class cricket. We have produced six or seven players who have played internationals for the West Indies. Most of them are still students. Last year, we also produced eight players currently playing in the Caribbean Premier League. I worked from my position for nine years, including developing other sports. I am now the head coach of all the sports.
SJ: What do you say to youngsters choosing sport as a career option in the Caribbean, especially from the cricketing point of view, because cricket is no longer the No. 1 sport in the Caribbean?
RB: You have to develop all the sports. Allied with it, there has to be development of facilities. If you can get world-class facilities, it is a lot easier to motivate the players. We have first-class cricket facilities at the university. We have world-class facilities for track and field and world-class facilities for football. Those three sports have been elevated to the level of elite sports and we are now developing facilities for other sports. As you get the facilities, the students want to be more involved.
Looking at cricket in the Caribbean right now, the standard of the West Indies team in the last 15 years has not encouraged a lot of players to want to play the sport. Now they are seeing the IPL, the Big Bash, the Champions League. The WICB is working really hard in getting the right programme to develop these youngsters as cricket players and not just T20 specialists that a lot of them want to be.
The other thing that we have to do in the Caribbean is to educate the parents, because a lot of parents just don't see sports as a viable career.
SJ: Are you considered an outsider or an insider in Barbados?
RB: The Caribbean is a very strange place. If you have been away for a year, you are considered an outsider. I am thought of as English. But it has not stopped me from doing what I have to do. Most outsiders are not given an easy time.
SJ: We have another outsider, Richard Pybus, trying to make changes in West Indies cricket. He is the new director of cricket. What do you think about the proposals that he has put forward, with renewed emphasis on the regional four-day cricket and youth level cricket?
RB: I think Richard is spot on as to what is required to rejuvenate West Indies cricket. The question is whether he is going to get full support along the line to implement it.
Richard is someone I have known for a very long time. We played together in England when I finished my professional career. When he came to the Caribbean, I tried to give him a feel of what is happening on the ground and also in terms of what it is like for an outside person. I think he is the right man.
West Indies cricket has been in the doldrums for far too long and we have a very poor first-class structure, a very poor standard of first-class cricket. The club cricket standard is also very poor. While we are going to try to get back to the top of world cricket, I suspect it will be a very long time, because I don't think the other nations are going to sit by idly and just let things play.
SJ: How do you see your role as the head coach at the University of the West Indies expanding and how do you see your continuing presence there? What are your future plans?
RB: I see myself in the short term continuing to develop the university programmes. Football is the big sport to be developed. We have got a brand new stadium. Our team is on the verge of being in the top league in Barbados. We are now developing MoUs with the Caribbean football union. I see myself as being a part of this process in the university for the foreseeable future. After that, I hope I can make a contribution around the region and perhaps a bit further.