Learning to chill

Two and a half months playing cricket in Zimbabwe and you know what, I can sense a change; both in myself and the local players in the Mashonaland Eagles team. I was watching us lose our last four-day Logan Cup game. And yet, despite this, I was pumped up by the way we lost. I thought, man, I’m really proud of what we achieved here. For the record Marc Mbofana, playing his first game since sitting on the sidelines for most of the season, scored his maiden first-class half-century and then followed it up with a hugely courageous and gritty 50 in the second innings. Had he had some more support perhaps we would have won. Sitting at the end of the day nine wickets down, and then watching our 10th wicket pairing put on 70 was really inspiring. The guts and determination not to give up even at that point was incredibly satisfying. Every ball ‘snake’ blocked and survived prompted a real loud concoction of Shona slang words of encouragement (to which I’m getting the hang of), the odd chuckle, a few claps and jeers.

He (and a couple of other batters) began showing attributes I hadn’t seen since arriving here; here was someone who was willing to spend a long time at the crease. I know from working with Marc how much time he’s spent on his game and to see it come into effect with this particular innings was brilliant. There’s real evidence that some lessons are beginning to filter through. The reason I mention all this is that when I arrived here I was, in retrospect, a bit impatient, even frustrated with matters cricketing. It didn’t help that there were certain conflicts in the change room (Elton Chigumbura, our so-called captain, decided to up and leave just before the T20 began, for example) but now I see that it was unfair for me to transpose the intensity of the English county scene on Zimbabwe. Since winning the T20 campaign I was on overdrive in my expectations. So, on returning to the four-day game, I noticed our side hadn’t won a match. And I wanted to change the immediacy of the pyjama game, as some call Twenty20 cricket, and adapt the intensity – and results - to the longer, more considered form.

I should have known better. So much of cricket is about being able to adapt and yet many of the local players were still playing rash shots and getting out when they shouldn’t have. As you all know – and I kept telling the lads this - the difference between success and failure on any given day is miniscule and given that there are so many ‘uncontrollables’ – the weather, umpiring, the wicket and, of course, the ‘jaffer’ – a lot lies outside your control. So technique is all-important as a batter or should I say ‘game plan’. Now, on the eve of my departure, I can see that the gelling and learning process is, in fact, taking hold. It just takes longer, especially in a composite side like the Mash Eagles. I began to think; yep, when you let things unfold naturally they have their own way of sorting themselves out.

Little did I know but Zimbabwe and its cricketing style was having an effect on me, too. Instead of getting uptight I, myself, started to chill a bit. I started to think more deliberately, become less paranoid about my own game and concentrate on things that have been worrying me. It’s amazing! After scoring a ton in our last 40-over game I felt as good as I have for some time and what more it was nice to be out there with one of our young players. I was able to discuss various options against spin and felt like we built a solid partnership. I interspersed my cricket with a couple of trips out of town, one being a four-day visit to Tiger Safaris in Churundu where I watched hippos wallow, elephants wander aimlessly and generally chilling. I found myself ebbing, simply watching animals in the languid process of their existence. Did this impact me and my game? I’m sure it did. After all, watching and being in nature is the best medicine for stress, furthermore it’s a great way to see how the natural order of things effortlessly fall into place. (No place better than here to experience it too.) You forget how intense you are until you go somewhere where nothing happens and beauty surrounds you.

I now really believe, sitting here in Knysna in South Africa for Christmas, that Zimbabwe has had a calming role on me. I’ve scored big (two hundreds, a 91 not out and was batsman of the T20 series) but it’s the way I’ve felt getting these runs that’s pleased me. The important thing is that on each of these occasions, I’ve had a stringent plan about how I was going to go about things. For example, if you’re going to walk across your stumps and look to work everything to the leg side then so be it. At least the plan is clear. When you don’t have a plan there is nothing for you to hold onto and the variables remain wide open. Ultimately am I going to get runs today or not remains the eternal question? In order to reduce this, you must try and find a clear strategy against spin, against the medium pacers and against the quicks. Then I think the fear of failure is reduced because you have something to focus on. I repeat. My own cricketing journey has, to be honest, been bugged my own quest for perfection. When I was offered this overseas Zimbabwe contract I realised it was a great opportunity to work on things, to spend hours in the nets facing bowlers and being out in the hot sun all day. Surely this has to be better than four inches of snow. I’m sorry to rub it in but the UK sounds horrendous.

Ultimately though, Africa has a different mood, it’s away from the hustle and bustle of county cricket and it’s worked for me. So as we head into Christmas I can truly say that I’m excited by what the talent in Zimbabwe. Seriously, guys, I implore you all to set your own standards despite what may or may not be available to you. It’s a great time to be playing cricket in an age where there is more money than ever and the opportunities to play globally are even more of an incentive. And thanks for what you have given me. I’ll be putting it to the test in Antigua in the next month with Somerset at the Caribbean T20. Merry Christmas

Published 22 December 2010