INCONSISTENT results aside; race is one area that can also potentially pose problems for someone coaching Zimbabwe’s culturally diverse cricket team. Alan Butcher, however, was probably better placed than most to deal with this potential minefield, given the playful Englishman’s background.
During the 1970s, the former England batsman had a stint playing league cricket in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) for a predominantly Asian club, Universals, where he became close friends with teammate Peter Chingoka, the only black player in the side those years. The two would meet again more than three decades later, much older, and now holding different positions in Zimbabwean cricket.
Chingoka, who sadly died last year at the age of 65, was at the helm of the game in the Southern African country as the national association’s board chairperson from the early 1990s up until 2014, while Butcher was Zimbabwe’s head coach between 2010 and 2013.
“I enjoyed my experience with Universals, and particularly with Peter Chingoka,” Butcher tells IndependentSport from his home in the United Kingdom. “We got on really well and he was very good to me. He (Chingoka) was a decent bowler with a big heart. When I later came to Zim to coach, the relationship was not as warm as I hoped it might be, although we had our moments in the Chairman’s Box when I was off duty. He never seemed very relaxed. I guess ZC (Zimbabwe Cricket) had taken toll!”
Butcher — Test-capped just once by England — spoke to us this week in a special interview in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has become a global rallying point following the death of an African-American man, George Floyd, who was murdered by a white police officer in the United States in May. Now 66, Butcher vows never to see someone’s colour in his life, a standpoint of his for as long as he can remember.
As a teenager growing up in south London, Butcher met a young beautiful black girl, fell in love and immediately asked her parents for her hand in marriage. He was barely 19 years old at the birth of their first child, Mark Butcher, the former England batting star who now plies his trade as a musician. The marriage of the British-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants to the local cricketing teen heartthrob did not last a lifetime, but it produced two more children — all now grown-ups.
“I can only surmise that my attitude towards race was determined before I married my first wife, otherwise it wouldn’t have happened!” laughs Butcher, who later remarried and bore twin daughters.
“I can honestly say I’ve never thought anything other than that everyone is equal and deserving of the same respect.”
Butcher says he feel deeply disturbed by the sad reality of racism in today’s world, almost half a century after an older generation like him gave hope of a non-racial society, going into a rare matrimony as he did at that very young age, and in an era considered less culturally tolerant. Exclaims Butcher: “After George Floyd’s shocking death, I tweeted that I married a black woman nearly 50 years ago, and it’s a disgrace that we’re still talking about the same stuff!”
Oftentimes, professional sportsmen tend to be more concerned about the prejudices they are likely to face within team environments and sporting set-ups, paying less attention to the flourishing stereotyping firmly rooted in the outside world. Butcher though is much older and more experienced to comprehend the magnitude of racial discrimination elsewhere in life.
“We both know it (racism) still exists and if you ask me how to change it, I really have no answers other than to keep calling it out,” says Butcher.
“Passing laws hasn’t changed people’s hearts, and we’ve seen in the UK a rise in racism as a result of Brexit.”
What about cricket? How is the level of racial tolerance in that sport? Butcher is perhaps one of the best people to answer that question.
“My gut feeling is that overt racism is not rampant in cricket, but if it exists in society, then it will exist in cricket,” replies Butcher.
“However, I say that in the full knowledge that I am white, and although I’m alert to racism because of my (mixed-race) kids and my past, my whiteness may make me miss things because they don’t affect me directly.”
Turning to Zimbabwe, Butcher confesses that he had arrived in the country to coach well aware of the racial mix of the team, remarking how he had deliberately targeted to unite the group if any differences existed. But he says he was pleasantly surprised with the team chemistry, though by his own admission, natural differences always show someway in a diversified set-up.
“I can’t think of any (racially motivated) instances within the team, but I would say that there were decisions made by people within ZC, outside the playing and coaching group, which brought up suspicions of favouring one race over another,” comments Butcher.
“I conducted meetings with all players at the start of my tenure and I was assured by all that any form of social engineering was unnecessary. There were times when the team divided along racial lines socially, and others when there was full integration. I never felt race was an issue that held us back within the team. But I was always conscious of its potential to do so.”
The Zimbabwe job has been Butcher’s only international appointment in his coaching career, but he is credited, in the three years he was in charge, for a revival in the fortunes of the African team after a lengthy period of turmoil.
“I’m pretty much retired now,” Butcher says. “I coach my local club and a couple of individuals, but I’ve taken a step back from cricket and I’m enjoying it.”
Four years ago, Butcher published a book — The Good Murungu: A Cricket Tale of the Unexpected — an enthralling insight into Zimbabwean cricket, as well as his experiences in the country, which he has a strong affinity to.