Roland Butcher honoured by England Men’s team

During the white-ball tour of the Caribbean last month the England Men’s team presented Roland Butcher, the first Black player to represent England, with his Three Lions pin badge.

Butcher was part of the all-conquering Middlesex teams of the 1970s and 1980s and while his England career was brief, his remarkable life story encapsulates the values the England Men’s dressing room has sought to establish.

Butcher is one of the game’s true trailblazers – spending his post career providing opportunities for young people from all backgrounds across the UK and Caribbean because, in his own words, he feels indebted to the kindness of the people who enabled him to achieve his own cricket ambitions.

At 70 he remains as devoted to the game as any time in his life working as a Selector for the West Indies Men’s team – he watches every game through the pathways too – and as a patron of the ACE Programme Charity and as a director of the ground-breaking Barbados Royals Girls Cricket Club, which was launched during the tour.

All the players and staff were in attendance when Butcher was presented his pin badge during a training session at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad. The presentation was part of the England Men’s teams desire to connect with players who have worn the Three Lions badge before them, and to listen to and understand their different and diverse experiences to help establish a dressing-room culture based around three core values – Courage, Respect and Unity.

Afterwards we spoke to Butcher about his remarkable life, which has also seen him earn his coaching badges in football alongside Brendan Rodgers and employed in a scouting role for Arsenal and how the charity he was afforded after moving to England as a 13-year-old has inspired him to keep giving back to the game he loves.

Roland Butcher with his England badge after he was presented with it in Trinidad

Q: Firstly, many thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to join the team. Can you tell us what it means to be presented with your England pin badge?

It was a great honour and a privilege and something I wasn’t expecting. It is great to be remembered and recognised and I will certainly cherish this pin.

The team has been so welcoming, I’m obviously around international cricket a lot still, but it has been good to connect with the current England team. It was a nice touch to have Phil Salt, who spent a lot of time in Barbados, present me with the pin which was very touching.

I had a good chat with Jos (Buttler) during training – it’s been great to catch up him. I’ve spoken to Reece Topley too, whose father I played alongside. It has been really great to see the guys.”

Q: Can you reflect on your first England call-up?

Well, it’s not like it is now. It was strange. I had just finished training at Lord’s with Middlesex and my wife called me and asked if I had been selected for England. I said: ‘No, why are you asking me that?’

My boss then said he heard it on the radio but I hadn’t heard anything from Middlesex, the TCCB… nobody. So I forgot about it and went home and a 6 o’clock my father asked me the same question. I told him the same thing and then at nine o’clock the sports news came up on the BBC and that’s how I found out. No-one called me or sent a letter.

A similar situation happened when I got called up to the Test side. I took my family to Canada and didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I was in the middle of nowhere and the phone rang and a journalist asked me. I had no idea I had been called up, I still don’t know how the journalist tracked me down to get the number!

Q: Did you feel like a trailblazer when you got the call to make the step up to England?

At the time no, because like any other person who gets selected for their international journey it is about fulfilling an ambition you have had since you were a child. To be selected for England was great.

I guess later on you then understand the significance of that selection and you become a role model for others who want to emulate you. In the beginning not at all, but now I do recognise the role and the path that has played.

Q: For those who didn’t see you play, and I’m one of those sadly, all reports I have had is that you were a hard-hitting batter that would have fitted in nicely with the current England set-up?

“What I would say is that I would enjoy playing T20 cricket these days, for many reasons. The fact that you are playing with the white ball which after a couple of overs does absolutely nothing – I’d enjoy that.

“You have small boundaries and the bats are so superior to when we played. The fielding restrictions – there are so many advantages for the batter.”

Q: You have a long history of working with charities to help people – where does that instinct to help people come from?

I realise that I was given opportunities. People had to do things for me to give me those opportunities. I don’t believe that I can just decide – I think it is a duty for me to help wherever I can.

Cricket has been amazing to me – the people in the game have been amazing to me and I can tell you so many stories of the things people did for me in England that they didn’t have to that helped me on my journey.

I just do what I have to do and I’ll do it for as long as I can. The game for me means the same now as it did when I was 12 or 13. I don’t feel any different about it. Some people get fed up with the game but not me. I watch all cricket. I’ll always watch.

Here in the West Indies I’m not just the men’s senior selector I look at the youth teams as well. I watch U15s regional tournaments right through to U19s - and in between that I watch every Test match going on anywhere.

I can look back at my early cricket days when I was doing the same thing, I was influenced by great people like Cyril Hammond, who was like a father figure to me, and who showed me the value of doing things for others.

I had that at Arsenal too - Alan Sefton had only just retired from Arsenal now and his whole life was about charity work. I was a Lord’s Taverner from very early.

I do love it. I have just helped start the girls cricket club in Barbados, which we launched before the ODI there. It is the first girls club in Barbados - the Barbados Royals, which is run by Rajasthan Royals, and they have come on board to support it. Everyone is buying into that.

I am now getting calls from all over the region to do something similar. Girls cricket in the Caribbean needs that support. We have put together a really good team of people to run it – mainly women and that for me is vitally important. The advisory board is primarily women who have achieved and have the same feeling to promote the game.

We have got great support from Bat For A Chance in the UK which is a charity that is doing some remarkable things too. It is providing free coaching to any girl. If you want to play cricket, just come and play and they will be facilitated with all the equipment – they don’t have to pay anything. Just come and play cricket. I enjoy doing that – seeing people having fun and progressing. It does make me smile.

Roland Butcher in action for England on his Test debut at Bridgetown, Barbados in 1981

Q: Can you tell us about how your own cricket journey began after you arrived in England and who influenced you?

Well, that wasn’t my choice to go to England actually. My parents had already gone to England. My father moved to England in 1955 so I was two when he left. Back then many people from the Caribbean were invited to England to make a new life, so my father went in 1955 and my mother went a couple of years later.

When I arrived in 1967 my father had tried previously to convince my grandmother to send me, but grandmothers are pretty protective. She was not happy for me to go as a young kid, but she relented when I was thirteen-and-a-half. I arrived to find I had two brothers born in England, plus two sisters. Myself and my older sister were in Barbados and so we went together.

We settled in Stevenage. In actual fact my father when he went to live in Stevenage, he started living there in 1957, he was the first black person who ever lived in Stevenage.

It was a very quiet place but it was a sport-mad place in terms of football particularly. They had a strong cricket background, but when I arrived I didn’t see cricket played in the streets. In Barbados cricket was king and you saw it everywhere but in England all I saw was football, so I quickly gravitated to that. I didn’t play cricket for a while. I really got back into the game by luck.

At weekends myself and my friends would go to the park and we would lay down our coats and play football for hours on end. On one particular Sunday we did that – we were there for about three hours and just about ready to go home when some guys came onto the field and put some stumps up.

They wandered over to our little group and said they were a few players short and would any of us like to play. The response was ‘no’ because we’d been there for three hours, but one of my friends said to me, ‘you like cricket, you’re always talking about cricket why don’t you play?’

At first I wasn’t happy to because I was tired, hungry and cold but he persuaded me to and I played. I think I scored about 12 runs and took a couple of catches but I guess that was enough for them to invite me to play the next week. This was for Stevenage Third XI – they either saw something in me or they thought they were going to be short again. More likely they were going to be short again, but I played and very quickly gravitated into the Second XI and by the time I was 15 I was playing in the First XI.

Again, I had a stroke of luck because one of the players in the team, Cyril Hammond who I mentioned earlier, he really did look after me like a father. He was also a big football fan and a manager for a semi-professional football club (Stevenage) which I eventually played for too. He got a job at Gloucestershire County Cricket Club as a chief fundraiser and when he went there he recommended me to the club as a young player that they should look at.

Gloucestershire invited me down during the summer and I would spend the entire summer there. The first year I stayed with Cyril Hammond and his family and they were fantastic. His wife did everything for me – cook, wash, clean, you name it. We spent the whole summer playing cricket as a youth. It was very enjoyable and the first example of how people went above and beyond to give me opportunities.

The first year I stayed with Cyril and the second year he said I should stay with the other Gloucestershire Youth players to become more part of the team. Back then the players would live in the dressing room at Bristol. The coach’s wife would come in in the morning and cook breakfast for everyone and then you would go off and play the games – that was the whole summer. It was fantastic.

Andy Stovold was part of that team and we remain good friends to this day – he was at the one-dayer in Barbados. For two years I did that.

John Emburey, Roland Butcher, Mike Gatting and wicketkeeper Paul Downton (L-R) of Middlesex in action during a County Championship match in 1984 at Lord's

Q: You were part of those amazing Middlesex teams of the 1970s and 1980s, so how did you go from joining Gloucestershire as a youth to moving to Middlesex?

Gloucestershire thought I was too young to be a part of the professional staff so they sent me up to Lord’s for a trial with the MCC Young Professionals. I went up to Lord’s with people like Ian Botham - he came at the same time as well. Other people like Ian Gould, Nigel Ross some guys from Glamorgan Barry Lloyd, Arthur Francis, some guys from Somerset.

I was just looking at a photograph just today that I got sent of that MCC Young Professionals team and seven of the 11 guys went on to have long first-class careers. I spent two years at Lord’s which prepared me for first-class cricket because before that you have no idea, you just want to play but you don’t know what a first-class cricketer does.

The coaches were like fathers to me and looked after me. Obviously being based at Lord’s then Middlesex got an opportunity to see me play and then they offered me a contract and I played for them.

Gloucestershire were not too pleased when they found out because it was their investment, but at the time as a young lad you don’t really understand and you jump at the opportunity. I think I probably made the right decision after what I achieved at Middlesex. As it turned out my first first-class hundred was against Gloucestershire at Bristol. The rest is history.

 Q: The rest is history! It’s fair to say you won a bit at Middlesex – six County Championships and six one-day titles in a period of dominance.

There were five black players in the team and four of those actually played for England – there was myself, Wilf Slack, Neil Williams, Norman Cowans and the fifth one was Wayne Daniel who played for West Indies.

Winning trophies was a bonus. We did have a good team there was no doubt about that. We had some very good players like (Mike) Gatting, (John) Emburey, (Mike) Brearley, (Philippe) Edmunds – we had a very strong team.

Q: Were you close to being a footballer rather than being a cricketer.

I never played football before I went to England. Once I got into it I loved it. When I started you could play cricket half the year and football the other half of the year.

I was at Arsenal and a very good friend of mine Alan Sefton helped to prepare me training-wise for the West Indies tour. After that tour I kept on with him. Arsenal also had a charity team so I started playing for them all over the country every Sunday and he kept pushing me to take my coaching qualifications.

So I did that and so I started doing more and more works with Arsenal. When I finished at Arsenal I was looking after areas like Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire in terms of the area. I used to look after all the soccer schools in those areas, and I had about 30 coaches working with me. There was a lot of travelling and we did a lot of stuff overseas – I even set up a soccer school in Cyprus with the air force and the army.

The first-team players did their role too – like David Platt and Martin Keown. They’d come to the soccer schools after training. Train in the morning and do the social stuff after lunch.

Roland Butcher displays the back of the England pin badge awarded to him during the white-ball tour of the Caribbean

Q: That work you did at Arsenal and developing and finding players, there are some similarities with how the ACE Programme works to go out and find players. I’m guessing that is something close to your heart too?

I straight away got involved with that as a patron and I assist them in any way that I can.

Yes I do enjoy it. Back in the day I used to be a part of what existed before the Harringay Cricket Club. That really was something good. That produced a dozen or so first-class cricketers out of that little programme which was funded by the local government in Harringay. People like Keith Piper and Mark Alleyne came out of that programme and I was involved back then.

When Ebony Rainford-Brent got the ACE Programme up and running, I was only too happy to help. I know from the 70s, 80s and 90s – the amount of kids from West Indian heritage who were playing in first-class cricket – there was a huge number compared to now. That’s for many reasons – I think the fact that state schools stopped playing cricket and there was a point when they sold all the playing fields. But for whatever reason it stopped happening.

You also had the rise of the public school, which has been a good thing, but it changed the way you find players now.

When I played people like Wilf Slack, Mike Gatting, Ian Gould or myself we didn’t just turn up at Middlesex. Don Bennett, our coach, found those guys all over the place. He had to go looking. He found some of these guys in the most unlikely places, which nowadays they don’t have to do.

The coaches role has changed because they’re now more involved with the team and the coaching. It used to be that the captain did all that and the coach would go out and find all the talent. 

Coaches now have to be throwing balls, they have all types of different jobs. They don’t have time to be going in all kinds of places.

The last 10-15 years the majority of players come through the private school system because they have good access to facilities, training and coaching. That becomes the net and once you’re in the net it is very good at developing talent and sharing that information. If I’m a coach it makes sense to ask my friend at a private school who I’ve played and worked with before about the talent they have.

The ACE Programme is good because it is providing another channel for players and provides them with support. It is going out and finding those players because the structure has changed. Things are being done differently and so we’re doing it differently so we can find this talent and then give the young players opportunities and support just like I had.

Q: You watch a lot of cricket at all levels - what is the talent like that you have seen coming through the ACE Programme?

While I was in England in the past couple of summers I have taken the time watch some of the games. There’s a lot of talent coming through and a lot of counties are taking pros.

We have an interesting programme in Bristol – for this last year in their Under-13s in the programme there I think Gloucestershire took 12 players out of that in Bristol – they got into the set-up.

That’s how these guys are getting into the pathway. As I say, the coaches didn’t have time to look for individual players. Now we have a better connection with the counties – they now know they have a connection.

It is another resource for them to connect with more players. I’ve seen some kids come through and the talent is there. The thing that convinced Surrey to do this is when they did the first training, they just invited kids to come and play - 100 kids turned up at The Oval. The standard was so high that Surrey immediately took six of them. The interesting thing was that when they interviewed these kids none of them had a club, or a coach and they had nowhere to play. It was just pure natural talent – that was something we grabbed onto.

If kids can come here and be this good when they’ve had nothing it’s worth doing. It started at the Oval and now it’s spreading which has to be good for English cricket. They’re doing some good work.

Q: That must bring a smile to your face to see young kids getting the opportunities you first got and knowing what cricket can offer to them. I know you said you said you didn’t think you were a trailblazer back then, but everything you’ve done has created those chances.

Yes, maybe. It is just who I am I suppose and cricket gave me a path. I just feel that if I could help people out then I would. Still until this day I am doing it. I don’t see why I should stop.