Basil Fitzherbert Butcher was born on September 3, 1933 on a sugar estate near Port Mourant, Berbice in what was then British Guiana, the only English-speaking and cricket-playing country of the South American continent. Cricket has always had a special place everywhere in the British West Indies, but in Guyana, as it is now, and possibly because Guyana lacks, among other things, even such basic tropical distractions as sea-bathing and beaches, that place is very special indeed.
West Indies cricket began in Guyana. It was in Georgetown, the capital, that the first inter-Colonial tour and the first tour of England were organised. But Guyana has only recently organised its own cricket. In a country where distance is still measured in time, not miles, Port Mourant was farther away from Georgetown than Georgetown from London and half a century elapsed between that first England tour and Guyana's first inter-County tournament.
After leaving Corentyne High School, and between jobs as a school-teacher, a Public Works Department clerk, insurance salesman and Welfare Officer, Butcher joined the Port Mourant Sports Club. Joe Solomon welcomed him and two other new members and future internationals-- Rohan Kanhai and Ivan Madray. All four played for Berbice, under Robert Christiani's captaincy, in the inter-County Tournament of 1954. In 1955 Butcher made 64 and 32 in his debut for Guyana, against Barbados, but did not win a place for West Indies (that was the Weekes-Worrell-Walcott era) until 1958, when he made 28 and 64 not out against India in his Test debut at Bombay. He was the most notable omission from the great tour of Australia under Sir Frank Worrell and in 1962 joined Lowerhouse as a professional. (In 1964 he joined Bacup as a professional and now he is a public relations officer at Mackenzie, Demerara.)
He returned to the West Indies side for the memorable tour of England in 1963, and his 1,294 runs at an average of 44.6 and his average of 47.8 in Tests made him a fixture. And since Butcher has informed the West Indies Cricket Board that he will not be available for future tours we may perhaps note that he has career figures of 10,940 runs made in 248 first-class innings at an average of 49.72 and including 29 centuries. In his 44 Test matches he made 3,104 runs, seven centuries, average 43.11. The highest innings of Butcher's career was his 209 not out at Trent Bridge in the third Test in 1966. And thereby hangs a tale.
Richie Benaud rated Butcher as the most difficult of all West Indians to get out and, in fact, Butcher's grim, resolute approach to the game is typically Guyanese -- and even more typically Berbician. He has been known to smile during an innings, but rarely before the four-hundredth run.
At Trent Bridge in 1966 West Indies were 65 for two, still 25 runs behind England's first innings total, when Butcher joined his fellow-Berbician, Kanhai.
Two and a half hours later the score had been advanced by 73, England's rosy prospects of victory had faded and the Sunday sports pages were filled with sarcastic obituaries on the death of calypso cricket.
Butcher went on to the highest innings of his career; he shared in three successive century partnerships, reached 209 not out (twenty-two fours) and effectively won a match that had the appearance of being lost when he faced his first ball seven and a half hours earlier.
At Headingley in 1969, when West Indies needed 303 to win and square the series, Butcher went in at 69 for two to play the last Test innings of his career. A little more than two hours later West Indies were 224 for three,
Butcher 91 not out, seemingly irremoveable, and, with Sobers and Lloyd, among others, still to come, the match was as good as won.
Butcher played forward to Underwood, the ball lifted and turned and Butcher was adjudged caught behind. West Indies, all out for 272, lost the match and the rubber by 30 runs. (And Butcher blames nobody but himself: "Anybody who brings his bat down as I do is liable to get his shoulder in the way.")
Butcher himself rates the best innings of his life as his 133 (out of 226) at Lord's in 1963, in the second innings of what was perhaps the greatest Test match of all. And with good reason.
It was the third day of the match and just before leaving the hotel Butcher was handed a letter from his wife, the first letter from her since leaving a Guyana still smouldering with the threat of civil war.
His wife expecting their first baby.
For one reason and another Butcher did not open the letter until lunch -- by which time, Trueman having dismissed McMorris in the last over, West Indies were 15 for two and Butcher was next man in.
He opened the letter. The first paragraph told him his wife had had a miscarriage, and that was as far as he got.
"I was" said Basil, as much a master of understatement as any Englishman, "very upset."
In the next seventy minutes Butcher and Kanhai put on 49 runs.
One twenty-minute spell produced exactly one run.
A twenty-five minute spell with Sobers brought another.
Sobers reached eight, Solomon five and when Worrell joined Butcher shortly after tea West Indies were 104 for five.
Such was the quality of the bowling.
Then in what remained of the day's play Butcher and Worrell added 110, of which Worrell made 33.
Butcher reached his 100, made out of 154, and at the close West Indies were 214 for five, Butcher 129.
Typically, only four of Butcher's seventeen boundaries were made on the off-side. Equally typically, he was eventually out leg before.
It would surprise nobody, least of all Basil, to learn that he had been dismissed l.b.w. more often than not during his career. He attributes this, in his own sardonic fashion, to lack of coaching. "My bat comes down from somewhere about mid-off," he says, without a smile "so probably I am playing across a lot of the time. Maybe if I'd had a coach I'd only have been clean bowled."
Butcher has always been a batsman who bowled a bit. At fourteen, with Port Mourant C.C., he was an off-spinner. He changed into a bit of a leg-spinner. Perhaps more than a bit in view of his five England wickets for 34 (in a total of 414) in the first innings of the fourth Test match of 1968 in Port of Spain.
There must be a moral somewhere in the fact that Butcher is yet another in a seemingly endless line of great West Indian cricketers whose rich and infinite variety owes virtually nothing to coaching, however well meant and however dedicated. The record suggests that first-class coaches at all levels are no substitute for first-class pitches at any level. - J.S.B.
© John Wisden & Co