As part of Felix White’s remarkable series of interviews exploring the new lives of former cricketers, Mark Butcher opens up to Felix White about coping with life both before and after retirement.
In my formative years of falling in love with the game, Mark Butcher is one of the clearest cricketers in my memory. So much so that I remember being painfully nervous for him facing his first ball as stand-in captain of the England team. A teammate of Jack Russell’s [also interviewed in this mega-feature] and a constant through England’s troubled if colourful Test side, a rare feat in itself, as well as Surrey’s all-conquering late 90s era, he played 71 Tests, averaging 34.58, and scored 17,870 first-class runs. Now a revered and travelled pundit, he is also a guitarist and songwriter, and due to make his next record with Paul Weller’s bass player. We meet in a pub in Croydon one afternoon where we have three pints and stop our two-hour chat occasionally to talk guitars and music. I leave insisting that he really should write a book about all of this.
I think I probably enjoy cricket more now that I don’t have a vested interest in who wins. It was probably one of the reasons that coaching and staying involved in dressing rooms didn’t appeal to me, I was tired of going home and kicking the cat because we’d not played well or I’d not played well and the team had lost. It became like that in the end, you take this monster home with you to an unsuspecting and undeserving wife, and I thought ‘I don’t really want to be doing that again for another 20 years’. For a start, playing for England in the Nineties, generally speaking we were losing. We went pretty much an entire decade without winning.
I had to change my personality. I had the most disastrous year. January 1999, my eldest daughter was born. I had an affair, got the lady pregnant, and December 1999, my second daughter was born. Got divorced back-end of 2000. I was dropped from the England team at the end of 2000. I went through a huge feeling of, ‘I’ve just f***ed everything, I’m going to quit playing, I’m going to drink bottles of red wine until I die’. I made myself sick. I woke up on the floor of some random person’s house screaming. I went to the doctor, who said, ‘You really ought to stop this’ [laughs].
So I called my dad and we hatched some plans about how to start again and work on batting. I told him to treat me like I’d never picked a bat up. I got picked to play for England again. I’m living in my mate’s spare room. I’d just bought a flat but the moving-in day was the Tuesday of the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. I get picked on Sunday. I’m speaking to the chairman of selectors and I say, ‘That’s great, but I’ve kind of bought a flat and I need to move in on Tuesday, do you mind if I turn up on the Wednesday?’ I’d made up my mind that I was going to do everything on my own terms. He was probably thinking, ‘Who’s this guy?’
That summer I got 170 and cemented my place. From that moment on, I decided I’m going to do this on my own terms. I virtually invented this complete dickhead who would do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, he’s going to have as much fun as he can playing cricket, outside of cricket, and if it lasts it’s going to last. Up until just before I got the injury, I was starting to get very tired of this character. It was a slight relief. The weird thing was, it ejected me out of being this kind of manic-depressive loser, and got my career back on track, but I started to fall off the other side of it and become exactly the same person, even though I was an England player and everything was supposedly very glamorous. It wasn’t good.
Bizarrely, my career ending was kind of a godsend. I met my wife. I settled down into being, kind of, normal again. Now I can vividly see all these minor decisions you make in terms of how you are going to treat people or how you are going to behave around people, or how you are going to allow people to be with you, and how they kind of either insulate you or f*** you over given the circumstances you’re in. When it finished, and by the end, I was OK with it. I didn’t have to play this role anymore. There were many other guys who could fit all the other bits of their life in and do what they needed to do. I could only do one thing at a time. I chose to play. It was good fun.
Sometimes I miss that guy, even if he probably wasn’t very cool in anyone else’s eyes. It was a three-year performance and it was the most successful period of my batting, I genuinely don’t think I could have done it otherwise. Maybe I wasn’t arrogant enough. I’m guessing in sport and other walks of life there are other characters who are exactly the same. If you allow your rational self or your caring self to rule the decisions you make, then it makes it more difficult for you to be a ruthless bastard on the stage that you set for yourself. There are some people whose drive overrides all of that. Whereas other people have to create a character. I decided: ‘If it means I’m gonna be a total c***, then that’s what I’ll do’. It was brilliant a lot of the time. I don’t know if I could have done it straight.
The ego is an incredible thing, the way that it shapes you. I never rode trains or tubes while I was playing, which. Living in London, is ridiculous. It would have shaved hours and hours off my life waiting in traffic. It was a bit like, ‘Well, everyone else is getting on that, I’m not getting on that’. It wasn’t about getting recognised. It was more about separating yourself from people. You’d get in the car with a skinful on board, it used to happen all the time. It was disgraceful.
I remember getting in my car after an Oval game after a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a load of beers and driving back to Canary Wharf, I was f***ing blind. Nothing happened, thank God. Someone was going to tell me I couldn’t? No one would. It was that attitude of, ‘I’ll do what I want, and that’s all ego, nothing more/nothing less’. It’s, ‘Hello, I’m a cricketer, the next 10 minutes is up to you’. Are you going to shut them off, are you going to engage? It’s pretty cool and also pretty crap.
The thing that really stung when I finished was not the fact I wasn’t playing for England anymore, it was more that you are moved on so quickly. The guys that were in the side, the team leading up to 2005, we beat everyone barring Australia in a two-and-a-half year period. Everything was on this upward trajectory and then, bang, I get injured and the operation to repair it goes completely wrong so that’s it, I’m done, and we win the Ashes in the meantime. That’s it, you’re gone, you are completely and utterly forgotten about.
Two things stung me about it. The first was seeing them all on Trafalgar Square pissed out of their heads. That was my ambition, to be in the side that beat Australia. I watched the whole series without a hint of regret, I’d been watching it all. It only really dawned on me when I saw that parade. The other thing was leaving the tour mid-series after the Cape Town Test match. It’s 1-1 and I get this injury and I have to go home. I will never forget that Simon Jones was the only person who came to say goodbye to me on the way off. So, ostensibly, he was the only person that I saw out of that team that recognised it was happening. That hurt a bit. He was the only one that came down in the morning and said, ‘Mate, good luck’. Rationalising it all this time later, a bit like the band, it wasn’t personal on anyone’s front. The only person it was an occasion to was me.
I think it used to be a real shock [retirement]. I don’t think it is so much anymore. The PCA are an incredible organisation now in that the preparation for people post-career is so much more available and the awareness that you are going to need something is so much more prominent than it was for the generation before mine. But the bloke whose career is over at 22 because his back’s gone, that’s pretty devastating. There isn’t any amount of preparation you can do to get over that. There’s not much financial support, you’re done.
Someone else is organising your life for you, you have a salary, your diary is arranged. It can be reasonably terrifying when someone’s telling you what to wear, and then suddenly it’s done. Not setting myself apart, but on England tours you don’t even have to have your passport on you, you get whisked straight through, but I used to always be bothered by people picking my bags up for me and stuff like that. Number one, because I had an impatience that couldn’t wait for someone to decide when the right time to leave was, I used to think ‘Well, I’m not doing anything right now, why don’t I pick up the phone and make the arrangements for a flight or do my washing or make sure my bags get up from the concierge?’ I didn’t need someone to run around after me. You spend so much time hanging around waiting to do the thing you’re meant to do. That’s the musician’s life and the cricketer’s life. You are on stage for 10 per cent of the time you are there. The rest of the time you have to work out what the hell you’re going to do with yourself. I played, I read, I wrote.
I read an enormous amount on England tours. One thing I took away from my school days was a love of reading. I read anything and everything. Graham Greene. Mike Atherton used to throw books at me. On tour of South Africa he once gave me Cry, The Beloved Country which is an extraordinary book. All kinds of things.
With life after retirement, there’s an element of not being qualified enough to do anything else. I left sixth form midway through a failed attempt at A-Levels and signed a contract with Surrey at 17. I’d set my sights on being a professional cricket player and nothing else really held any interest for any length of time. Fortune plays an enormous hand in what people do, or misfortune for that matter, and the fortune for me was I’d done quite a bit of work TV-wise before I’d finished. So as far back as 1999 I’d been doing some studio work for Sky.
The television side of it was appealing as it’s something I’ve lived my life doing it, so there’s no element of surprise; however, I’ve always viewed it as something I know nothing about and I’m learning again. If you go at it from the angle of, ‘Oh, I used to play cricket, this is easy’, you are perhaps missing the point. Commentating can be very unforgiving. You have to be interesting. Having life and some knowledge of things outside of cricket is incredibly important on the radio for example, because people can’t see it, there are gaps that need filling, you need to be interested and able to talk about all kinds of things and if you’re not then it’s going to get really painful.
The trick on television is to shut up, and on radio it’s about describing it beautifully. I like doing them both equally. I’ve had a go at everything now, and the commentary part is the most fun. I’ve presented twice in two rain-affected T20s, so it was carnage. Very typical of me, I had a fantastic first night, didn’t put a foot wrong, huge crowd at Lord’s, I patted myself on the back to such an extent that on the second one I was f***ing useless!
Last summer, it’s raining, and I’m sat in the back of the box, thinking, ‘I need to come up with something’, so I came up with this idea about a documentary about the Nineties and they said, ‘Go on, go and do it’. I loved that. The research bit was long and arduous, obviously it helped a fair bit that I was there for a lot of it, but you get that out of the way. The premise was: ‘How bad were the Nineties?’. So I interviewed people, got all the transcripts in, and built it from there. You can then mess around with the soundtracks and edit suites, I loved it. There was a bit in the beginning where we had a bit of a fight in the edit suite. There were three of us doing it. There was a small clip of David Gower walking into a press conference with a can of XXXX. We were getting spanked by Australia in 1989. They weren’t sure they wanted it, but I was like, ‘This is the essence of the story, it’s gold’. He walks in swigging a can of XXXX, says: ‘I’ve said everything I’ve got to say, I’m off to the theatre’ and f***s off! People loved these guys, they remember all the stupid collapses and stuff like that.
I played guitar and wrote songs up until I was 17/18, but cricket totally took over. I took a beautiful Gibson acoustic on a tour of the West Indies once and it just got battered, so I never did it again. Playing and writing started back again when Ben Hollioake was killed. I can’t remember whether I wrote that song when we were there or when we came back but it was pretty much immediately after. We did it at a memorial service at Southwark. I played the song. It was the catalyst for playing again, I got involved with some musicians who are friends to this day.
The Test match was in mid-flow, we must have batted first, I got out and walked back into the dressing room. Took my pads off, and I was the only person in the dressing room. The TV was on with the sound down and there’s this banner headline ‘Ben Hollioake killed in a car crash, Perth’. I’m looking at it thinking ‘That can’t be right, that’s bullshit’. So I took my gear off and went up to the viewing area where the team were and I flung the door open and the manager must have seen my face and came flying out, I said ‘…What the f*** …do you know about this? ….. is that right?’. He said, ‘Yeah, but we haven’t told anybody because the game’s on’. Anyway, the news breaks and they tell everyone at lunch. We all turn up the following day and there’s the flag at half mast and they’re playing the anthems and we’re standing there in a line, in black armbands, the camera is right in our faces and we’re all balling our eyes out. And then it’s: right, go on, go off and field. And the game went on. Unbelievable. I’ll never forget that. It was so surreal, the rest of the game. It was like a practice match at the end, the Kiwis kind of realised and took their foot off the pedal… That tour was a complete waste of time after that. We drank our way through it. Myself, Thorpe, Flintoff had grown up with him. We got hammered pretty much from that moment onwards. The game didn’t matter. There wasn’t any real help, not that it’s a complaint, it was just the way things were at the time.
We had an album that came out in 2009, the year after I retired. We toured it a little bit but it was nothing concerted. I put it out with a good friend of mine, who produced it, there was a bit of a lack of cohesion with it. It got out but the distribution was average to say the least. I don’t know whether it was absolutely in my heart that I was going to get out and give my life over to it. I think I probably dodged the reality of that, knowing that I had a family and had to make money and the best thing to do was to stay with the cricket stuff, which demanded more of my time than I could have ever imagined. I look back and wouldn’t do it differently.
I recorded another album in January. It was something Acid Jazz records wanted me to do. I sent this guy the demos and he was totally blown away by it, couldn’t believe it was me, played it to everyone in the office. And I get a phone call saying, ‘Go for it, I’m going to put you in touch with this producer’, who happens to be Weller’s bass player up till this time. We recorded 15 tracks, and it has elements of a soul, R’n’B record.
In terms of my playing career, I finished in 2004 when I had my wrist injury and didn’t play for England again. So that was the end of my international career, although I never actually officially retired, so I’m still available.
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