An attacking middle-order batsman, Butcher kicked off his cricketing career with Middlesex in 1974. Butcher earned numerous accolades for his match-winning knocks for the English club. And then the day came when he created history by becoming the first black cricketer to represent the England cricket team.
It was the result of his impressive domestic performances that earned Butcher his maiden international call-up for an ODI match against Australia at the Edgbaston Cricket Ground in 1980. Making his debut under the captaincy of England legend Ian Botham, Butcher came in to bat at No. 4 and smashed 52 runs off 38 balls against Australia. England won that match by 47 runs.
The next year (1981) Butcher received his Test cap for the tour of the Caribbean. The middle-order batsman was seen struggling against the short balls on the Caribbean tracks against the lethal West Indies pace attack. In the five-match series, Butcher played three Tests and managed scores of 19, 20 and 32 (71 runs in total). England lost the five-match series 0-2.
After England’s dismal show in the Caribbean, many questions were asked about the team’s performance, Botham’s captaincy and Butcher’s form after that series. Butcher returned to the domestic circuit again, but his career received another blow when he suffered an injury in his left eye while playing a short ball during a match.
With the anti racism movement becoming a focal point in international sport, Timesofindia.com caught up with the 66-year-old former England cricketer, the first black player to play for England, for an exclusive interview and asked him about his experiences of racism in cricket, George Floyd’s death that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, Darren Sammy’s experience of facing racism, which he was unaware of, in the IPL and much more…
What was the moment like when you became the first black cricketer to represent the England cricket team?
That was a great moment. But getting to Middlesex was also amazing. Middlesex, during the period of the late 70s and right up to the 90s, were very dominant. They had some great, fine players in the team. The team was led by the great Mike Brearley who has been one of the greatest captains the game has seen. The team had great top class players. They had Mike Gatting who was an England captain. Jeff Thomson, John Emburey and Phil Edmonds are the other names. I mean Middlesex was a phenomenal side. In most games, there used to be 11 internationals on the same field from Middlesex. So, it was a special time. Playing for England was great because it was a fulfillment of a career ambition to play international cricket. In the younger days, obviously it was for West Indies, but when the opportunity came to play for England, it was really recognition that someone felt that you were a good enough player to represent the country like England. There are lots of players in England and not everybody can play for England. So, the given opportunity was a great privilege for me. It didn’t really mean (much) to me that I was the first black. I wanted to play international cricket. That was something I wanted to do. But the significance of being the first black to represent England hit me later on.
Did you ever face racism in your career?
Not directly. People never abused me directly. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any racism. Obviously, people may have said things that you didn’t hear etc. etc. I did not encounter the sort of racism that some other people did. I know some other people were really abused and caught all sorts of things. I don’t know whether I was lucky or not, but fortunately, I didn’t face that sort of thing. Obviously, I was aware that racism was there. People were afraid of what they didn’t really understand. I’m sure there were a lot of good black cricketers before I came along, but I guess I got the opportunity throughout my career, particularly with Middlesex. Middlesex had a lot of black players. In the team, along with myself, there were many black cricketers. I can recall an incident. I was playing against Kent. As we walked through the crowd to get on to the field, there was someone in the stands saying ‘Hey, look there! they have got five of them!’. That chap referred to the five black cricketers, including me, in that match. Obviously, my three years at school in England, obviously you meet racism there too. School where I went had so many black. People don’t really know you when you’re new. At times, you didn’t really understand the racism and the things that people were saying. Obviously, later on, you got to understand. There is racism in England and there’s no question about that. And it is there in cricket too.
And if you look at the cricket, especially during my time, there were a lot of black players playing. I think the reason for that was also that the West Indies were so dominant in world cricket. So, the West Indies were the team people always looked up to in many senses. If you go through the first-class game in England right now, you’ve got very few black players in the first-class game. And when you look at the coaches and managers in first-class cricket, it really is a sad reflection on how the society views black players in that area.
It cannot be a question of ability because all the guys have gone through the same training, the same qualifications, etc etc. So, the fact they’re not selected, there has to be a different reason. I think what is happening now with the movement around the world ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’, started in England, the ECB and other board and clubs have now started to take notice of what people have been saying for years and years and years and I’m hoping that in the next few years, the big effort to encourage the black people in coaching and managing etc will be there.
There are many instances of racist slurs etc that are reported in England. Is it true that many English fans are racist?
I must say football is a lot better now than it used to be. I know in my time in England, football spectators were an absolute nightmare. As you know, football is a very terrible game. They never liked black players or supporters. Football has done a lot to clean up its act. Now when you go to the games, there’s much more control, the police are involved and the clubs keep a check on the instances of racism by people. The clubs have come down very hard on those people. Most people get banned from the stadium. So, football is working hard and they have had lots of protest actions over the years. They have been very proactive. For a number of years, cricket has not been. I think cricket has sat silently back and really said nothing. Things are just going on the way it has. But I think football has done a lot to clean this up. Obviously, it won’t be cleaned up completely, because you will still have people who have racist views. But I think generally, it is less tolerated in football than it is in cricket.
In your cricketing career, did any incident happen when someone else was given preference over you, despite your good form and you felt it was a racist decision?
Well…yeah. When things happen at the time you wonder whether this person has played before you because they think that the person will do better than you. So that’s your initial thoughts. There was only one incident when I wondered and looked for a reason. In 1980, I was in fantastic form during that year, playing really well. Got my call up for the One Day International. I did exceptionally well. But then the next game was the Centenary Ashes Test against Australia. I was left out. I was not picked for that. I believe that I should have been picked, because in cricketing terms, I had been doing more than others. As you know that the Centenary Test between England and Australia is very symbolic. I am not sure whether for an event like that they were ready for somebody like me.
How difficult is it to completely take out racism in sport?
It is difficult, but as I say if the clubs can really set the agenda and have a policy of not tolerating any form of racism. They have to show the way. They have to come forward and make this policy that they will select any player regardless of what colour he is. They have to also say that they will select a coach on the basis of his talent regardless of his colour whether he’s black, blue or green. We will select any manager, we will select any board members. The clubs have to show that first. They should have the policy within their club that we will not tolerate racism. If that happens, it will be controlled to a degree. But if you look around cricket, especially first-class cricket, you don’t see the blacks on the boards. You don’t see the managers, you don’t see the coaches. It is hard to remove racism from the sport.
Did you face racism within the team at any time in your playing days? How did you tackle it?
Within my team, not really. Because I was never really alone in the team. As I said, we had five black players in the team. So, you know, they made up literally half of the team. If I was the only one, it may have been a lot more difficult. But the fact that we had five black players. Middlesex didn’t really care whether you were black or blue. They always saw talent. They wanted the best players. And that’s the result, as the five of us were in the same team. Of those five, four played international cricket for England and one for West Indies. Apart from myself, there was Wilf Slack (opening batsman), Norman Cowans (fast bowler), Neil Williams (all rounder) and Wayne Daniel (fast bowler). So, there were five of us in the team. We always had a high percentage of blacks in that period. I started at the same time as Mike Gatting, John Emburey and Ian Gould. We all started at the same time. Those guys grew up around black people. We all started together as young players and we developed together. I would imagine that other teams may be more difficult with one player. But for us, we were very much strong as a group. We could always operate as a group. We didn’t have any problems. There was no racism with the team, whether it was Middlesex or England.
Darren Sammy, recently, raised some issues about racism he faced in the IPL. There was a particular word that was used even by teammates, the meaning of which he wasn’t completely aware of. Later on, when he found out, he spoke out against it. Your take on that…
I believe he got to listen to those words when he was playing with that IPL team. If someone is saying a word repeatedly and you don’t know what it means, then you should know about it right there. Sammy should have asked somebody years ago. He should have simply asked someone – What does this word mean? If I’m in a team, and you’re using the word to me all the time. I would ask somebody in the team, what does that mean? And get an understanding, but he didn’t do that. He just carried on. And now, years and years later, now he finds out what it means. So, I’m blaming him for that. Because he really should have inquired all those years ago what it meant. And if he found it offensive then, he could have confronted his teammates. I’m sure it would have been dealt with there and then. So, I’m blaming him. He should have asked and that escalated the matter right then and there against whosoever was the player.
Did you face anything similar in any way during your playing days?
I was never in that situation. I was playing with the players who could speak only English. That was a big positive for me. You understood what they said. In Sammy’s situation, he was playing with players who were from different countries. Sammy wasn’t aware of that local language.
Your take on George Floyd’s death and the world wide anti racism movement it sparked
It was really an unfortunate loss of life. It really awakens the consciousness of people around the world to the type of injustices that have been going on for a very long time. Injustices that people have spoken out about and nobody has taken any notice. For some reason, this particular incident has really awoken the consciousness of people around he world. No stretch of the imagination, everybody around the world is racist. You’ve got good or bad in everything. There’s no question about that. But I think what has happened over the years, people who perhaps have not been racist, but they just haven’t just spoken out. They remained silent. So, I guess it can be deemed as if you remain silent that you agree. In this case, those people who remained silent have suddenly spoken out. Both black and white and it has caught on around the world. Not just in America, people protested. That is something that has never happened before.