I often think has there been a more influential player to have represented England than this month’s interviewee. He may have only played 3 Test matches for England – it should have been a lot more – but this was a player who opened the door for so many others to follow, former Middlesex and England batsman Roland Butcher.
Roland’s story is an incredible one and I suspect we won’t fully do it justice, but here’s our best shot.
It is a story that begun on the island of Barbados and as a relation to Basil Butcher, a former West Indian cricketer who the great Richie Benaud once described as ‘the most difficult of the West Indian batsmen to get out,’ it was little surprise that Roland would have cricket running through his blood.
“I was brought up in a very rural part of Barbados, on the eastern tip of the island,” remarked Roland. “The history and culture of cricket in the West Indies and Barbados meant that the game was played in every parish in Barbados, so cricket was the main sport you played. I also came from a family of people who played a lot of cricket and as I was growing up one of my relatives, Basil Butcher, was a member of the West Indian side.”
Basil Butcher played 44 Tests for the West Indies, averaging over 43, with a top score of 209 not out – so I guess it was little surprise that some of those batting genes made their way through the family to Roland.
But it wasn’t Basil who was the ultimate role-model for Roland, that honour fell to a South African…
“As a boy growing up in Barbados my role model and hero was Colin Bland from South Africa. What attracted me to Colin Brand was his exceptional fielding. And in many ways, I tried to model myself on him, despite never seeing him play. I just read so much about him in magazines of his exploits and Bland became my nickname growing up!”
At the age of 13 Roland, or should I say ‘Bland’, moved to England to be with his parents.
“As a 13-year-old it was difficult. My parents were in England, and I had brothers and sisters in England who I’d only ever seen pictures of. So, I didn’t know many people personally. I was also leaving a place of sunshine 365 days a year and a country like Barbados, where cricket was everywhere, to a country like England where football was the dominant sport.”
But Roland did settle quickly and although football did soon take centre stage, if it wasn’t for football, we might never have seen Roland play professional cricket.
“The more friends that I made the more those friends were playing football. Football became my new love. I really got into it. And it was thanks to football that I got back into cricket. We would often go to the local park at the weekends and play football for hours on end and I remember one Sunday in particular, when we finished playing and were about to head home to watch football on the TV, when some guys came on to the field and put some stumps up on the nearby cricket square. They wondered over to our group and said that they were a few guys short and would any of us like to play. Our immediate reaction was to say no – we’d just been playing football all morning and had an afternoon planned. Then one of my friends Graham Hopkins turned to me and said, ‘why don’t you play, you like cricket.’ He eventually persuaded me. So, I went home, grabbed a white shirt, and came back. I didn’t do anything fantastic. I took some catches and scored a dozen runs or something. I’m not sure if they saw something in me, or they were just short every week, but after the game they asked if I’d like to play every week. This was for Stevenage 3rd XI. The following week I played again, and it didn’t take me long to get the cricket bug once more and also gravitate very quickly into the 2nd XI. By the time I was 15 I was playing in the 1st team. But my love of cricket returned only through playing football.”
It wasn’t long before his talent was being noticed and the youngster soon got a county opportunity thanks to one of his Stevenage team-mates.
“One of the players at Stevenage was a guy called Cyril Hammond. He started working in the fund-raising department at Gloucestershire County Cricket Club and he recommended me to the county as a young talent that they should look at. I was invited down for some trials with the youth team. I spent two summers there, and the youth team would play literally every day. At the end of 1969 they felt they liked what they saw but that I was a bit young to go on to the full-time professional staff. So, they sent me up to Lord’s for a trial with the MCC Young Cricketers. The MCC offered me a two-year apprenticeship. I started there in 1970 alongside the likes of Ian Botham and Ian Gould. Now, because Middlesex were based at Lord’s it meant they always got to see the apprentice’s close-up. Middlesex offered me, and several others, a contract. Since being a kid all I wanted was to play professional cricket, it was all I knew. Middlesex offered me a 3-year contract. What I didn’t really realise at this time was that because Gloucestershire sent me down there, I really should have had an allegiance to them. In previous years to earn a first-class contract with Middlesex you had to have previously played for the 2nd XI – I didn’t have to do that. I was 17 with a contract offer, that I signed. Gloucestershire were not happy when they found out. And rightly so. But in the end the decision to sign for Middlesex was the right one for me. To rub salt into the wounds my first first-class hundred was of course then against Gloucestershire and I scored several others against them after that! But we remain friends and I always had, and have, a good feeling for Gloucestershire County Cricket Club.”
Roland’s career at Middlesex begun just before the county became one of the dominant forces in county cricket; I asked Roland if at the time he realised just how much potential and strength were in that squad?
“I don’t think we really knew for sure. When I made my debut, we had some good players such as Fred Titmus, John Murray, John Price and Eric Russell who were all at the backend of their careers, but we also had a lot of youngsters coming through. Players like; John Emburey, Mike Gatting, Ian Gould, Clive Radley, Mike Selvey, Paul Downton, Graham Barlow, and others. Yes, we were fortunate to have them all come through at the same time. There is a lot of luck involved of course, but we also had a progressive captain in Mike Brearley.”
And what made that group so special?
“When I look back at those guys now, they were all very ambitious who wanted to go as far in the game as possible. It wasn’t an easy group. We had guys from different backgrounds. They thought differently. They had their own ideas. But one thing for sure was that once we crossed that white line everybody was together. Off the field, people did their own thing, but when it came to cricket at the business end, everyone was on the same page. And then there was the leadership of the captain, Mike Brearley. In those days you had a coach, but the captain was the one in charge. Our coach Don Bennett spent more time with the 2nd XI. His job was to bring those players through. So, when the 1st XI needed players his job was to say to Mike Brearley whoever is ready from the 2nd XI. Brearley was a great captain and someone who helped players get the best out of themselves.”
Whenever I speak to players who played under Mike Brearley, it becomes very easy to see just why he is the captain every emerging captain, even in today’s modern game, aspires to be.
“You know, he just did things simply. His greatest strength was the inclusion of the youngsters. When I joined Middlesex, they were no different to any other side. There were senior pros, and the juniors had no say. When Brearley would have first joined Middlesex there would have been some big names and he would likely have had to sit in the corner and as a youngster would have felt he couldn’t speak his mind. So, I guess those experiences would have informed his way when he became captain and that he was going to include everyone. I remember him going up to youngsters during the game, in the heat of the battle and asking them who they thought should replace Wayne Daniel in two overs time. For some, they were shocked and didn’t have an answer, but what it did was in the next game, when those young players would have been asked again, they would have had an answer and those players became more analytical about the game. As a youngster you were now thinking about much more than being a batsman or bowler. And that helped the team become what they did in the 80s and 90s. When Mike Gatting took over, he took over a settled squad, with the same players and the same mentality. Everybody knew their jobs.”
Two years after making his debut for Middlesex (1976) Roland and the side won the County Championship for the first time in nearly 30 years.
“That was really special. It created a hunger in us to want more. And the good thing is we were all young.”
Middlesex won 6 County Championships in Roland’s time with the club, an incredible record; not to mention several one day competitions, I was keen to hear from Roland just how tough winning the Championship was, especially in the era that he played.
“It’s tough. You have to play 17 or 18 games or whatever it was, in different conditions, up and down the country. And I remember in those days the tremendous amount of driving you had to do. We were up and down motorways all the time. When I think about it now its sheer madness. Here’s one crazy example… we were playing Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in the County Championship. We travelled to Nottingham on the Friday morning. We played against them on the Saturday. After play, we had to travel back to London on the Saturday night to play Nottinghamshire, the same team, at Lord’s on the Sunday in a Sunday League game. We finished that game and both teams had to drive back to Nottingham to continue the County Championship game on the Monday. I mean why we couldn’t play Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge on the Sunday I don’t know. It was madness. But that’s what it was like back then.”
But that wasn’t the only mad story.
“We played Yorkshire at Scarborough. We finished the game at night, and we were scheduled to play at Hove the following morning. I think we got to Hove at 2am. Grabbed a few hours’ sleep and then began the game. Honestly, it was madness. And what made it worse, was we’d always play Sussex in August. It was always the bank holiday game. The issue was that August was the month you played the most continuous number of days of cricket. So, in that example we’d played 21 days of continuous cricket!”
I asked Roland though, if in a funny way, did he prefer that over how the schedule is today in various blocks of the summer, with the championship pretty much book-ending the summer.
“Don’t get me wrong 21 days was a lot, but the fact is you could get on a roll and keep going. And if you’re doing well your energy levels were always up. To be honest because I didn’t know any different you just got on with it. Would I feel differently now having to play in blocks? Let’s just say, I certainly enjoyed it when I played. I loved playing at out grounds, you don’t get that now.”
Roland, as I mentioned earlier, won an incredible number of titles at Middlesex and I was keen to hear what he listed as his top personal highlights at the club.
“Definitely scoring my highest first-class score at Lord’s; 197 and then I was run out!! To be fair I knew Brearley was looking to declare, and we probably went for a single we shouldn’t have. Then I’d say the Gillette Cup final in 1980 which ensured we won the double that year. The Gillette Cup was special. You played cricket for those days. In the County Championship you only really got the big crowds in the out grounds, while a Lord’s final would always be the last game of the season in front of a full house. It was special.”
Now, in 1980 Roland was selected for England’s tour of the West Indies. It was special for a number of reasons; Roland returned to the country of his birth, and he became the first black player to represent England.
“1980 was a great year for me. It started off with me getting married. Then throughout the season I was in fantastic county form. I remember scored 150 not out against Hampshire, then in the next game at Scarborough I scored 179. I also scored a not out half century in the Gillette Cup final in a winning cause. I got picked for England scoring 52 on debut (off 35 balls!) which became the fastest ODI half century in the world by someone on debut, and that was only broken this year, so that record stood for 41 years! So, all that happened in 1980, it was a purple patch year. On top of all of that, I got selected for the West Indies tour.”
I asked Roland if at the time he realised the significance of his Test debut.
“I realised it’s significance, but I don’t think I realised THE significance. Initially you look at it as a fulfilment of an ambition as a kid. I wanted to play international cricket. To get the chance to play international cricket for England was fantastic. So, I think initially you think this is what I have been working my whole life for. But later, when people start speaking and writing and telling you about it, you realise and appreciate the bigger significance. It was not just me playing for England. It’s you as a black guy playing for England, where no one else has played before. Now I had to become a role model and show others that they can have the same ambition. But that comes later. At the time you’re too busy trying to become a success at your profession.”
And how much of an honour was it to make a Test debut back in the West Indies? “Getting picked for England in that era was an extremely proud moment. When I got picked in the ODI, Ian Botham was in that same team. We’d been together since those MCC days in 1970 and in the West Indies he was my captain. So, it was great to have two young MCC professionals in this team and one of them as captain. The other good thing was I had another Middlesex team mates – Mike Gatting, John Emburey and Paul Downton – in that team as well. To make my debut in the West Indies was just a dream.”
Roland played three Tests in that series; in Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica, against a fearsome bowling line up across those Tests that included Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall. Roland battled hard to get starts, never scoring less than 17 in any of his 1st innings.
“Good luck and bad luck are something you have to contend with all the time, especially in cricket. I didn’t play in the 1st Test match in Trinidad. We then moved to Guyana for an ODI and a Test match. In those days you had warm-up matches and matches in between Tests against the various islands. I put some scores together and I played in the ODI, and I was going to play in the Test match. In Trinidad, Bob Willis had got injured and had to go home. He was replaced by Robin Jackman. So, Robin came to Guyana. We were preparing for the Test match and two days before it they revoked Robin Jackman’s entry permit because at that time South Africa was still dominating the minds of people everywhere because of apartheid. In those days people who had been to South Africa were not welcomed and some people had brought that to the attention of the President of Guyana. They revoked Robin’s entry permit. Because Robin was there to represent England it then became a diplomatic row. The English cricket board and the Foreign Office got involved and the result of that was that if Robin had to leave, we’d all leave. So, the Test match was abandoned, and we moved to Barbados. If I’m honest I don’t think the players were too disappointed as it meant we arrived in Barbados two weeks early! But for me it meant my Test debut would then be in Barbados. Nobody could have written that script. It is just luck. But as it worked out, it was great, because it meant I was going to play on a ground I’d played on many times before for Barbados. I was born there, I had family there. I had friends there. It was going to be a grand occasion. Here was a Barbadian coming home to play against the West Indies in Barbados.”
It all started off well for Roland, but then on the second day of the Test, the side’s assistant manager Ken Barrington died of a heart attack. Barrington was an England legend. In 82 Test matches he averaged 58.67 and if you read or listen to anyone who played for England in the late 70s/early 80s, all will say just how popular he was as an assistant manager.
“I really don’t know how we got through that game. It’s not like it was the case of you’ve heard a cricketer has passed away like last week or a couple of weeks ago or even back in England. We’d been sitting with Ken all day discussing cricket and he’d been guiding you because of his experience. Then he suddenly passes away and you’re expected to carry on and play a game of cricket; to go out there and give your best. It was tough. And that happened on day 2 of the Test match. We were already playing against a fantastic team that you needed to be at your best against, so it was rough, and we still had two more Test matches to play. I must commend the guys in that team because in the end we only ended up losing the series 2-0. Yet the performances of the guys during that Test series were fantastic, despite everything that had happened. Graham Gooch scored two centuries in the series. David Gower got a hundred in Jamaica and in the Tests after Barbados, Geoff Boycott and Peter Willey got hundreds. So, in the series, in those trying times, the guys scored five hundreds which was unheard of against that West Indies side.”
Following that tour, selectors made changes and Roland was never to play cricket for England again.
“That tour was always going to be the toughest tour ever. The West Indies were on the top of their game. To only have lost the series 2-0 was a very good result, given everything that happened, losing Bob Willis, the Jackman affair, the passing of Ken Barrington. But, come the start of 1981 for some reason all hell broke reason. Ian Botham was sacked as captain. Players were dropped including Mike Gatting and myself. So as good as 1980 was, 1981 was a nightmare. Everything changed. Then the next time I felt I was on the way back was 1983. I thought I seriously had a chance of playing for England again that year. I had been to Australia in the winter of 1982, as an overseas player with Michael Holding, where I played for Tasmania in the Sheffield Shield. It was Tasmania’s first year in the competition when they were allowed to play all 10 games. In the past, as a new team they were only allowed to play their 5 home games. But this was the first time they were allowed to play ten games and have two overseas players, which were Michael Holding and myself. That went well and I got back into good form. The 1983 season started in England and that year was an extremely wet year. By July we’d only played 6 weeks of cricket. But in those 6 weeks I had struck some rich form. I scored 700 runs and by that time of the season I had taken 36 catches and we still had July, August, and September to go. To put those catches into context, the Middlesex record for the season was 40 and I’d taken 36 with three months to go. But, then one fateful afternoon in July I missed a short ball from George Ferris, a West Indian friend who was playing for Leicestershire and I got struck in the eye.”
It was a bad injury that was to prove costly. And to add to this, Roland wasn’t a batter who wore a grill.
“That injury ended my season when I really felt I could get back in the England side. But what I didn’t realise at the time was that, that injury was really the end of my international career because the damage I suffered. I lost some sight in my left eye and I was out of the game until the middle of the next year. But I said to myself cricket is all you know. This is your career and I had to try and get back on the park and make the best of the situation.”
Roland’s battling spirit meant he was able to play on for another seven years, despite the reduced vision in his left eye.
“The issue was that for me the loss of vision was very noticeable. But in fact when I came back in 1984 the strange thing was that season was the best one, I had in county cricket. I scored 1,400 runs, which was my highest total ever. So maybe my desire to get back on the park and the adrenalin, triggered that but I knew internationally it was over, because your sight has to be 100%.”
Although it didn’t make up for not playing international cricket, success continued at county level. Roland went on to win two more County Championships with Middlesex and numerous one day titles.
“What that success did, was prove to me that despite the injury, I could still play professionally, which for me was very satisfying. I proved I could still perform at a certain level.”
Roland eventually retired from cricket in 1990, a decision he later realised was a premature one.
“Two years later I realised it was a premature decision. My contract didn’t expire until the end of 1991, so I still had another year to go. But I was tired and looking back I should have just taken a rest to recuperate and come again. I had a benefit in 1989 which meant that in 1988, as well as playing I had to organise benefit events for 1989. But not just organise mine, I had to shadow John Emburey who was having his benefit that year. So, I had to attend all his events. Then in 1989 I played the whole season and of course had to go to all my benefit events. I then played in 1990, but by the time 1990 finished I was absolutely knackered. What I should have done is gone away somewhere for the winter, taken some time out and just relax and come again. But because I was so mentally tired, I made the decision to retire. Two years later I realised it was not the wisest thing to do. I just needed a break.”
Post playing, Roland moved into coaching; but interesting, in a different sport.
“Cricket coaching was not something I wanted to do. When I played the role of the coach was not what I wanted the role of the coach to be. I didn’t want to be a second team coach. I wouldn’t have minded being a modern-day coach, who with the captain runs the ship. Instead, I got involved in football. Football was always a love of mine and I would play in the winter months at semi-professional level. While I was playing cricket I I undertook my football coaching badges. So, I ended up thinking more about a career in football than coaching in cricket.”
And this wasn’t just any coaching badge. Roland achieved his UEFA B coaching license, a course he took with current Leicester City manager Brendon Rogers – someone he has remained good friends with.
“Brendon and I got on really well on that course. We spent three months together and found we had had similar views on how the game should be played. The course finished and we went our separate ways. But sometime later I received a call from Brendon, and he informed me that he had just been appointed as Academy Director at Reading Football Club and that he wanted me to come and work with him. I obviously said yes. So, I worked as an Academy Coach at Reading and ran my own team there. Jose Mourinho admired Brendon’s work and eventually poached him and took him to Chelsea. After that I realised it wasn’t easy for a black guy to get into football coaching, professionally. Particularly if you hadn’t played at the highest level. I was close friends with people like John Barnes and Garth Crooks and those guys were having a hard time getting coaching positions so I figured that if they are having problems, my problems would be ten times worse. So, after Brendon went, I decided I should try and get back into cricket. I went overseas and became national cricket coach of Bermuda and pretty much stayed with cricket after that. But I really did consider a professional career in football.”
And to this day Roland and Brendon keep in touch. “We drop each other a line from time to time and he’s doing phenomenally well.”
I felt I couldn’t not discuss the decline of black players playing cricket professionally in England and wanted to get Roland’s honest assessment. One figure being quoted is that there’s been a 75% decline in the number of black professional players, playing our sport. What were the reasons?
“I think there are many. When I played you had a lot of black players playing in county cricket who, like myself, were born outside of England, but who were England qualified. There were also many West Indian internationals playing county cricket. So, there was a lot of West Indian heritage. If you add to that, that the West Indies dominated world cricket in the 70s and 80s. Kids were supporting the West Indies – there heroes played cricket. Their parents were supporting the West Indies. If you think back to when the West Indies played England in England, there would be thousands of black people at Lord’s and the Oval. What has happened since then is my era and the ones after that have virtually died away. You then have the decline of the West Indies team. Interest by ex-people from the Caribbean has waned. You also now have a generation of black kids who have all been born in England and into a culture more suited to football, because it’s easier to play football than it is cricket. And, let’s be honest, cricket in the last 20 years has become more of an elitist sport. There has been much more emphasis on public schools to produce players and the academies etc. In many ways a lot of black kids are excluded because not many would go to public schools where the quality coaching and facilities are. When I was playing, Don Bennett would go into all kinds of areas to find talent. Talent is now found in the public schools. In inner cities there is limited playing space and then you throw in there hasn’t been the free to air cricket on television. It’s all played a part. But there is so much natural talent that still exists out there.”
One initiative that Roland is involved in to rectify this, is the ACE (Afro Caribbean Enhancement) programme, founded by former England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent, for whom he is patron. It’s a programme that Roland is confident will reverse this trend and give talented black cricketers a much-needed chance and opportunity.
“This programme started at Surrey. They invited black kids from within the local area to a day’s trial and they were shocked that over 100 kids turned up. But it wasn’t just the number, but the level of ability these kids had, that shocked them. So much so, Surrey immediately signed a handful up to their academy. At the end of the trial day, Ebony asked the kids why they came along. Their feedback was that they’d never received any coaching. None of them played for a club. And there was nowhere near them to play the game. There really is so much talent that is out there, that are just not being given a chance. The ACE programme has now become a proper charity and mid last year received grants from Sport England and the ECB and now a proper academy, with 25 talented kids, has been set up at The Oval. Warwickshire have also come on board and the same thing is now happening for black kids in Birmingham and since Warwickshire, Gloucestershire have come on board. So, the intention is now to set these programmes up in Reading and other places around the UK where there are large concentrations of black kids.”
You can learn more about the ACE programme her: https://aceprogramme.com/
It does make you think just how much talent we as a country are missing out on all through kids just not being given a chance. A chance they all crave. Initiatives like the ACE programme will be a god send.
And if these kids can enjoy just half of the career Roland enjoyed, English cricket will be in a far, far, stronger place.