Dark days gone as Ian Butler serves again
It could so easily have been a mirage, the sight of Ian Butler striding confidently across a sun-drenched Seddon Park in his Black Caps training singlet.
Back in 2004 the tearaway fast bowler was told by a doctor he'd never bowl again. Then, last year, as he struggled through a season with Otago, he was within a pen stroke of signing his international cricketing future away and heading to England.
"I would have signed over there for a county side and used my British passport [via his mother] like Hamish Marshall and guys like that have," he recalled yesterday. So how close was he?
"On the dotted line, yeah, but I decided not to go. I didn't pull out but I was almost about to sign."
A sigh of relief and a chuckle suggests he's glad he made the right choice.
He'd played county cricket for Kent and Gloucestershire, and also league cricket in Birmingham, but always yearned for a return to the black cap.
His first one arrived early, when he was 20 on England's tour in 2002. A discovery of then-selector Richard Hadlee, Butler bowled fast and with Shane Bond formed New Zealand's quickest new ball duo in the subsequent series win in the West Indies.
He memorably ran through Pakistan at the Basin Reserve the following year, the haul of 6-46 still his best first-class figures.
But then the fairytale took a dark turn, and everything that could go wrong with his back, did go wrong. He emerged from a Melbourne one-dayer in 2004 with a bulging disc in his back.
"You'll never bowl again," were the fateful words from one surgeon.
Butler's response now? "You don't believe everything the medical profession tell you."
From a cautious comeback for Northern Districts as a batting all-rounder and medium pacer, he went on to Otago, where he rediscovered his mojo, and a recall to the national Twenty20 squad in 2009.
But his career stalled again and his previous international was a T20 against Pakistan in Hamilton in December 2010.
This season his form has been outstanding; leading wicket-taker in Plunket Shield with 36 at 23.52, and averaging 36 with the bat. And he played a starring role in guiding Otago home in the T20 final.
"International cricket's a ruthless environment and if you don't front up you get put to the side. The aim now is to not give people opportunities to drop me," Butler said.
"I don't think I've ever bowled as well as I have this year. It's certainly shown in four-day cricket that my stats are as good as I could hope for."
Particularly his most recent 10-111 for the match against Northern Districts in Queenstown, after which he got the summons from national coach Mike Hesson.
Butler still bowls hard into the wicket and gets it through in the 135kmh bracket, having been clocked at 150kmh in India in his early days.
He credits his turnaround with being given more licence to attack in Otago, with regular spearhead Neil Wagner away with the national side.
"That confidence comes from running in and bowling a heavy ball."
Now 31, Butler might have an 11-year span of international cricket behind him but he still feels like a youngster.
"I try to tell people that age is just a number. I don't feel 31. My body is 10 times better than it was when I was 23."
And the dark times, when cricket was his enemy, as recently as last year when thoughts of leaving Dunedin for England gnawed away.
"I learned with Otago, you have to enjoy your cricket. As soon as you start taking that enjoyment out of it, like last year I had a few issues off the field and got dropped from my domestic T20 side and I didn't even want to play cricket.
"I started looking at using my British passport in England and just stupid things like that. When you're playing in a team environment that you enjoy, and you enjoy playing for your mates and your country you shouldn't have to worry about what happens in the future."
So he's not looking too much further than this T20 series, which he's itching to take part in after being ruled out of Saturday's opener with an ankle injury suffered in the Whangarei warmup games.
Given his excellent Plunket Shield form, a test callup can't be far away, with no-one having adequately nailed down that all-rounder's spot.
He played the last of his eight tests in Dhaka in 2004, and the man himself couldn't do any more to play that suggestion down.
"Four-day cricket is my favourite form of the game. It's not something I've given up on, and I love playing it, but with the crop of bowlers we've got at the moment I'd imagine there's a few ahead of me."
After the rollercoaster he's been on, Butler will settle for any black cap, any time.
AT A GLANCE
Name: Ian Butler
Born: November 24, 1981, in Auckland
Playing style: Right-arm medium-fast bowler, right-hand batsman
Teams: Northern Districts, Otago
International career: Test (debut v England, March 2002): 8 matches, 24 wickets at 37
ODI (debut v England, February 2002): 26 matches, 28 wickets at 37, economy rate 5.6
T20 (debut v Australia, February 2009): 15 matches, 20 wickets at 20, economy rate 8.1.
The Dominion Post