Roland Butcher: The Barbadian who became England's first black Test cricketer
Roland Butcher is the latest pioneer featured in our Hidden Figures online series, running in Black History Month, bringing to life stories of sportsmen and women
By Roger Clarke
Last Updated: 21/10/20 5:18pm
As a young boy growing up in Barbados, it was only natural that Roland Butcher should dream of one day striding out at the Kensington Oval to play Test cricket.
In 1981, he achieved that dream, but with a twist. The man who had first picked up a bat in the rural parish of St Phillip in Barbados wasn't wearing the maroon cap of the West Indies, he was playing against them. And in doing so, he made history - the first black cricketer to play in a Test match for England.
"International cricket was always in my mind from a boy in the West Indies," Butcher told Sky Sports News.
"My vision was always to be a professional and international cricketer but at the time, obviously, you thought it would be for the West Indies because you had no idea how your life would pan out. While I was in England, I still maintained the ambition to play international cricket.
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"When the opportunity came to play for England, it was a straightforward decision because by that time I'd settled in England, I was married, I had a son. My future was very much in England and obviously the opportunity to play international cricket was something I'd wanted for so long. Naturally I took the opportunity."
Butcher arrived in the UK aged 13 in 1967 and his path towards international cricket could have been derailed when he was introduced to his other great sporting passion, football. But after being asked to make up the numbers when Stevenage Cricket Club's third XI found themselves short, he was soon back on track.
"I reluctantly played. I didn't do a great deal. Scored about a dozen runs and took a couple of catches but they obviously saw something to ask me to play again the next week," he said.
Butcher was in the first team just a few weeks later before he'd even turned 15 and spent the next two summers with Gloucestershire's youth squad. It was when he was invited to join the MCC's young professionals programme in 1970 that he first came to the attention of Middlesex. He signed a professional contract with the county in 1974 and stayed there for his entire professional career.
As he steadily built a reputation as an attacking middle order batsman on the county circuit, he caught the eye of the England selectors. The call eventually came for the One-Day series against Australia in 1980, though it seems he was the last to know.
"On the day of the selection, I was at Lord's practicing. Nothing was said to me," Butcher explained.
"After we finished training, I'd gone to lunch and received a call from my wife and she said 'is it true you've been selected for England?' I said 'no, I haven't heard anything'. She said 'my boss has told me he's heard on the news that you've been selected to play for England'.
"I got home and my father called and said 'congratulations, I heard you're playing for England'. Again I said I haven't been told and it was only at about 9 o'clock at night when the news came on television that I actually saw that I had been selected."
Finally confirmed that he would be England's first black international, the significance didn't hit home at the time.
"To me it was just what cricketers go through but to everyone else it seemed a big deal because it was pushed out there that I was the first black player and black people felt very proud about that. It was only much later that I fully understood the significance of that selection.
"The likes of Wilf Slack, Norman Cowans, Neil Williams, Gladstone Small, Devon Malcolm, Chris Lewis, all those guys felt empowered and eventually all those guys did play for England so that was the significance."
Butcher says the public response to his selection was mixed. Mostly positive, but with some exceptions. He still keeps a letter sent to him by one West Indian cricket fan who objected to him playing for England, that read: "Dear Butcher. You have now taken black people back to the days of slavery. Judas received 30 pieces of silver. How many are you going to receive?"
Undeterred, he took his selection in his stride, making 52 on debut against an Australian attack featuring Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. The half century came from just 36 balls, at the time the fastest ODI 50 ever scored. And although he was unable to repeat that performance in the next two matches, he'd done enough to earn a place on the tour to the West Indies the following year.
Butcher received a warm welcome on his return to the Caribbean, even if it was in England colours. "Our boy, their bat" ran the local headline. In fact, he says it might have been better for him had there been a little hostility which he feels might have given him an extra edge.
Against an all-conquering West Indies team, Butcher managed only 71 runs in five innings with a top score of 32 in Barbados. And in a tumultuous period for English cricket, it would spell the end of his international career.
"I thought I deserved a longer run," he said.
"At the time, West Indies were by far and away the most dominant team in world cricket and were beating everyone. It was always going to be a tough call. In 1981, England made so many changes - they had four different captains - so I happened to be part of that change. I would have liked to have had more opportunities."
A recall could have been on the cards in 1983 with Butcher in fine form, but he suffered a serious eye injury when he was struck by a bouncer in a county match against Leicestershire which put him out for a year and caused permanent damage.
"I was never the same after that," he admitted, although he managed to play for Middlesex for another seven seasons.
He did get a call-up for another tour in 1989, though this one was more controversial. He initially agreed to join the rebel squad to travel to South Africa, which was at the time still under Apartheid. Approaching the end of his career, it was an opportunity to earn a nice little retirement fund but he soon decided some things were more important than money.
"The club didn't want us to go, the supporters didn't want us to go, friends didn't want us to go," he said.
"The ANC came from South Africa to see me, tried to educate me about how things were in South Africa. Finally I made the decision that it was in my best interests and the best interests of the people in South Africa that I didn't go."
Since retiring from playing, Butcher has coached the Bermuda national side and put together a high-performance sports programme at the University of the West Indies.
He also pursued his love of football, which he had continued to play even as a professional cricketer. In another sporting first, Butcher was the first black footballer to play for Stevenage and he also turned out alongside the likes of Paul Davis and Pat Rice in an Arsenal Legends team.
It led him into coaching and he took his UEFA B licence alongside Brendan Rodgers, worked with the Leicester manager during his time at Reading.
"We're still very much in touch," Butcher added. "I'm delighted with the way his career has gone because from a young man you could see the passion for coaching and the desire was there."
Butcher's own coaching path took a different route after he saw another good friend, former England international John Barnes, struggling to get opportunities.
"If the likes of Barnes are going to have that difficulty getting a job in professional football, it's going to be extremely difficult for myself," he said.
Butcher remains committed to helping emerging talent break though, and even wrote a coaching manual called Achieving Excellence in the hope of developing young players throughout the Caribbean.
In terms of cricket, there is disappointment that there are not more homegrown black British players coming through, an issue he believes cricket's authorities are only now waking up to as a result of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. But there is also a degree of pleasure too in seeing Jofra Archer, who he coached as a youngster, travelling the same trail Butcher blazed all those years ago, from Barbados to international Test cricket with England.