Roland Butcher: "We need ACE Programme to go on for 20, 30, 40 years" » EntornoInteligente

Roland Butcher: “We need ACE Programme to go on for 20, 30, 40 years”

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Entornointeligente.com / JEREMY BLACKMORE: Befitting a man who has spent his career breaking down barriers to inclusion, Butcher did not hesitate when Ebony Rainford-Brent asked him to become one of the first honorary patrons of the ACE Programme

Forty years on from his landmark Test debut as the first black cricketer to play for England, Roland Butcher still sees challenges preventing players from breaking through in the game.

After a year defined by the Black Lives Matter movement almost as much as the pandemic, the anniversary of Butcher’s first cap has been one to celebrate.

His debut in March 1981 was timely recognition for a talented batsman, but it also showed the passionate cricket-loving West Indian community in England that reaching the top echelon of the sport was within their grasp. He ultimately paved the way for other black players to follow him into the England team, several of them from his county side Middlesex.

In the last 20 years though, Butcher has become increasingly concerned that the trend has tapered off with an alarming 75 percent decline in participation.

Befitting a man who has spent his career breaking down barriers to inclusion, he did not hesitate when Ebony Rainford-Brent asked him to become one of the first honorary patrons of the ACE Programme, the charity she heads at Surrey to increase cricketing opportunities for members of the Black community.

Butcher is keen to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in. It is clear he does not intend to be merely a figurehead and has stern words for the game’s administrators, citing a lack of opportunities for black players.

“Thank God that Ebony was very forceful in trying to get the ACE Programme off the ground,” he says.

“I was only too pleased to get involved, because I can see the importance. We’ve all noticed over the years – certainly from the time when I played – the fall-off of black British players in the first-class game.

“So, that really has been a real concern. And not just the players. But when you look at the formation of committees and boards, [they’re] not very well represented in terms of diversity.

“It was very easy to get me to come along because I believe very much in those things as well. It’s a great honour and a privilege to be a patron of this very important charity.”

The ACE Programme has been set up to increase cricketing opportunities for African-Caribbean youngsters

He believes there are a number of factors behind the change, including the distance from the first wave of Caribbean migrants and their cricketing culture. The declining fortunes of the West Indies Test team have also played a part.

“Back in the 80s and 90s, there was a great interest in cricket, because the West Indies were at their dominant best,” says Butcher.

“A West Indies tour of England was eagerly awaited by people of West Indian heritage. So, in those days because of the successful West Indies team, it was really easy for black people to follow the game, even if they weren’t playing at a high level, but they still followed the game.

“What’s happened over the years, West Indies’ performances have dwindled and also I think the interest has dwindled because of that.

“You’ve also got further away from the black British people who would have been born in England and their kids born in England. There seems to be a bit of a distance now away from the Caribbean and from the Caribbean culture of cricket. It’s much more into football now.”

Butcher himself played football at semi-professional level for Stevenage and was the club’s first black player. He combined his football career with 17 seasons at Lord’s. While his Test career was ultimately short-lived, he was an important part of a hugely successful Middlesex side which lifted six Championships and six limited over trophies between 1974 and 1990.

Coach Don Bennett, who actively scouted the best local talent, was integral to that success. He signed a number of black players including Butcher, Norman Cowans, Wilf Slack, Neil Williams, and West Indian international Wayne Daniel playing during those years.

Contrasting Bennett’s approach, Butcher says the counties must take a share of the blame for the drop-off in participation and opportunities since.

“Because I don’t think they have been as hungry and determined to go and find these players as say back in my era.

“Don Bennett actually went off and found those players. And really what he wanted was to have the best players for Middlesex coming through in the future. I don’t think that level of commitment is there, right now.

“Because if you look at the teams, it tells you that. I don’t believe for one minute that there isn’t a lot of talent in all of these cities. There has to be, there’s no question about that.

“It just really needs somebody to get in there, make them feel welcome, let them know, anybody can do this, once you put in the hard work, etc. So, I think the counties have got a lot of work to do, because I think they’ve fallen off, certainly in recent times from what it used to be.”

Surrey took significant steps this past year to address the problem with the creation of the ACE Programme, which has since been set up as an independent charity after receiving significant backing from Sport England. At the helm is Rainford-Brent, who  spoke so powerfully about racism and bias in the game on Sky television  last summer and inspired the project’s initial creation.

Butcher first got to know Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to represent England, during commentary stints in Barbados during England’s tour of the Caribbean in early 2017 and has been impressed by her drive and passion for the project.

As one of the charity’s honorary patrons, he intends to bring his vast experience as a player, coach, and administrator in both cricket and football to bear.

“I don’t believe for one minute that there isn’t a lot of talent in all of these cities” “I’m not just going to be a figurehead and a name on a piece of paper. That is not for me, I am going to really try to get my hands dirty as much as possible and assist them in any way that I can to ensure that they’re successful.”

Butcher is particularly mindful of the need to raise funds to ensure that ACE can continue beyond the three years of support from Sport England.

“There’s no point in this programme finishing after three years. It makes no sense. We need this to go on 20, 30, 40 years. So really, the patrons are going to have to come up and work really hard to ensure that we can sustain this programme. So, that’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Butcher is able to identify with another young Barbadian making his way in international cricket for England, just as he did four decades ago. He took a keen interest in Jofra Archer’s development as a youngster, recognizing him as a boy of immense talent. He believes Archer can be a real role model for black players in England.

“I think his rapid rise really has been the surprising thing, just how quickly it has happened for him. But it seems that whatever situation he gets into, he’s able to do very well. He got into the IPL and Big Bash, very early in his career, and has made tremendous success of it. He got into the England side, made a great success of both Tests and one-day cricket. So, right now the stars are nicely lined up. He’s got a good career ahead of him.

“I think, he could be if he wants to be a good role model for certainly black players in England who want to play for England. If he carries himself well and performs as well, I think he could have a real impact, particularly with a lot of the kids that I’m going to be involved with the ACE Programme. He’s got that role to play as a current player.”

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Butcher grew up in Stevenage, moving to England from his native Barbados aged 13, and was struck by his adopted country’s obsession with another sport.

“When I arrived, I didn’t really see kids in the streets or on the greens playing cricket, like I would see in Barbados. They would play football. But kids are very resilient. So, you adapt very quickly. And I really got into that, took on a passion also for football at that point. I still have it to this day.”

Ironically, he fell back in love with cricket after a game of football on the multi-use sports fields in Stevenage when he was asked to make up the numbers for Stevenage CC’s third XI. It was there that his talents were spotted and opportunities opened up, first with the Gloucestershire youth team and then with MCC Young Professionals (alongside Ian Botham) before he signed for Middlesex.

His first game for England was a one-day international at Edgbaston in the summer of 1980 against the touring Australians. He scored a half-century against Lillee and Thomson in an England victory and duly earned selection for that winter’s tour of the Caribbean.

Butcher became England’s first black cricketer when he made his debut in 1980

Butcher’s Test debut came at Kensington Oval in Barbados where he had watched his first Test cricket as a youngster. As for most debutants, it was simply the realization of a boyhood dream.

The wider significance did not strike him until later.

“At the time for me personally, it really didn’t seem a big deal significantly from a West Indian point of view. For me, it was a realization of an ambition to play international cricket. I’d been playing county cricket for a number of years and suddenly, you’ve got the opportunity to play for England, to play international cricket, to play against the best players in the world, and to be on a different stage and to test yourself.

“So, for me, it was a case of just really trying to do as well as possible and to stay at that level as long as possible. I guess the significance of that breakthrough came later. Obviously, for some people right from the beginning, they would have recognized the significance, but from a playing point of view, I certainly didn’t.”

He thinks in the Caribbean many people were extremely proud that a fellow West Indian had won a place in an England side.

“I think also it was a lot of pride for black Caribbean people in England as well, who suddenly felt, well maybe with some hard work we also got a chance and it certainly helped the likes of Devon Malcolm, Wilf Slack, Norman Cowans, Chris Lewis, Gladstone Small, Phil DeFreitas. All of those guys, I guess suddenly felt energized and felt that you know, if he can do it, I can do it as well. That was the significance.”

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Butcher’s coaching career began in football, a game that he loved with the same passion as cricket. He had been a school coach at Arsenal and was keen to move forward in the game.

It was the current Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers who recruited Butcher as part of his coaching set-up at the Reading academy. The pair had completed their UEFA licenses together and forged a strong friendship.

When Rodgers departed to work with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea though, Butcher considered his future in football. It brought a stark realization that opportunities were severely limited for black managers.

“I started to recognize that it would be very difficult for me to make it into the professional game. Because you’ve had so many ex-players who are finding it difficult, both black and white players, particularly more so the black players who were finding it extremely difficult.

“I’d got to know the likes of John Barnes and those guys very, very well. So, I was of the view that if those guys – who played for England, played for the major football clubs in England and been extremely successful – are finding it hard to make it in the football arena, then certainly, someone who hadn’t played at that level would have the same challenges.”

Instead, he returned to cricket as head coach of Bermuda before returning to England as head cricket and football coach first at Westminster School in London and later St Edwards in Oxford.

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His journey went full circle in 2004 with a return to Barbados and the role as director of sports at the University of West Indies.

Over the next 15 years, he developed and professionalized the university’s sports programme and facilities. Scouting the Caribbean, he identified young talent to join the university on scholarships and sought out serious competition pathways for those players. That many of those youngsters have since represented the West Indies or their own national sides has been immensely satisfying.

He has sought other opportunities to get involved with the development of West Indies cricket as director of the Barbados Cricket Association. He sits on the West Indies Cricket Committee and chairs the Sir Everton Weekes Centre of Excellence, the main player development pathway for Barbados cricket.

Few have a better view of the strength of developing cricketers in the region and while he warns there is no easy route back to the top for the West Indies, he is in no doubt the talent is there in abundance.

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LINK ORIGINAL: Dominica Vibes News

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