I think a lot of people in Britain still imagine that Zimbabwe is a colonial outpost and that cricket is a relic of the past. Let me say right at the start that the game is loved and passionately pursued by thousands of black Zimbabweans. That's why I believe, if they are managed correctly, Zimbabwe could become a cricketing powerhouse. It was great to see them beat Bangladesh in their first Test after nearly six years away.
When I decided to play for the Mashonaland Eagles last winter, I didn't receive an enthusiastic response from friends and colleagues. I got a lot of odd looks and raised eyebrows when I let people know where I was going. I suppose this is understandable given the country's turbulent political past and for that matter, inflation-ridden present. But for me, with a mother who was born and raised in the old Rhodesia and with a Southern African upbringing of my own, the thought of going to Zimbabwe, a place I last visited on a family holiday in 1996, certainly appealed. I couldn't wait.
The idea of getting away from the English winter to flat wickets, sunshine, beer and wildlife meant it wasn't a hard decision. I found life in Harare very easy going, to the point that it surprised me that so much has been made of the political unrest. I did get a stark reminder of the recent past when I travelled with one of the white families to the farm they been brought up in. It was devastating to see a once fruitful tobacco farm now gone to waste.
Just like on that first holiday, some 15 years ago, when I arrived I got a taste of Zimbabwean officialdom but once I got through passport control I was struck by the unparalleled beauty of the place, a raw aesthetic that most people in the UK have no idea exists. I was hit by this suffocating dry African heat and a feeling of being in wide-open spaces. I chucked my bags in the back of a small bakkie and we were off, me groping for a non-existent seatbelt as we weaved around the succession of potholes that litter Harare's roads. "Ah!" I thought. "What freedom."
I had some great experiences playing for the Eagles. The standard of cricket was better than I expected, boosted by a few overseas players like myself. Winning the Twenty20 final at the home of Zimbabwean cricket – the Harare Sports Club – was a highlight in my career. The memory of Andrew Hall bowling a near perfect last over to the claxon sound of vuvuzelas in a tawny evening light was something that will always stay with me.
As I write about being back in Zimbabwe, one side of my computer screen has space for this article and the other is open on Cricinfo as I follow the progress of the Test against Bangladesh. While the situation in the country is far from perfect, judging by wicketkeeper Tatenda Taibu's recent comments, it was evident from my time there that there are enough resources and good people for Zimbabwean cricket to do well.
Looking at the Test against Bangladesh I've been impressed with Zimbabwe's new- ball bowling attack of Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis. The reignition of Hamilton Masakadza's career is also great to see. It looks like the batting coach, Grant Flower, has worked hard with Masakadza and renewed his verve for the game. I think the batting order needs to be moulded around him. Hamilton needs to consolidate and tighten his technique as the standard of opposition improves.
The difficulty is that from what I saw in domestic cricket, the wickets in Zimbabwe are too flat and slow, and there aren't enough quick bowlers to give the batsmen a real test of their technique. That's not to say the batting talent isn't there: the likes of Brendan Taylor and Vusi Sibanda have plenty of ability but they will have to adapt and improve. I was once told that you can play the best cover drives but if you can't defend against good bowling then it means nothing. I still believe this is the key to success for any batsman.
This Zimbabwean team certainly have a strong blend of youth and experience. Ray Price and Taibu provide a competitive edge and I think that Zimbabwe could cause a few upsets, especially against the weaker Test nations.
It's hard for me to know the exact ins and outs behind Taibu's critical comments of Zimbabwe Cricket. I can only agree with his sentiments. He's been through a lot with Zimbabwe and as a senior player he's in a position where he can speak on behalf of others. He's made some money outside of the game, which makes it easier for him to highlight the fact that the players still haven't been paid their match fees for the World Cup.
There were money disputes only a week into my arrival, players hadn't been paid for the previous years' competition and that provoked some disgruntlement in the team. As an outsider I can only say how fortunate we are in England to have the Professional Cricketers' Association looking after the welfare of players, and for the fact that it has such a strong relationship with the England and Wales Cricket Board. In Zimbabwe I felt that more honesty in communication was needed. A strong players' union would go along way to ensuring their happiness.
Zimbabwe Cricket needs to divide its tight budget equally between national, franchise and school coaching. While Brian Lara and a few others have commanded huge sums for playing a handful of games, we didn't even have enough balls to practise with at times. Some of our players for the Eagles hardly had the resources to travel to matches.
I now understand that contracted players have been cut to 10 per franchise. Some of the good friends I made have lost faith in the governing body. For me, it's simple: ZC needs to regain respect as a board. It needs to include players in the decision-making processes. It's the players who will determine the strength of Zimbabwean cricket and if the board expects the team to show commitment, unity and a strong work ethic, it needs to be the first to display those qualities. The administrators need to back the players and give them the respect they deserve.
My overriding concern is that Zimbabwe, in attempting to raise itself from the ashes, is in need of some wise heads to manage the money it receives from the International Cricket Council. Bringing in big names to play in domestic competitions won't do it. Zimbabwe have to look for former players who have a passionate belief in the country, people who have energy and are prepared to stretch their remit beyond their job specification.
Men like Flower and the former captain Heath Streak are already working hard to ensure that Zimbabwe don't just turn up for internationals but compete in them. It's not something you can do with a snap of the fingers. A lot of excellent cricketers have left the country, so the talent pool is a little shallow. It will take time and patience to grow a squad who have depth.
But the most important thing for the future is the terrific interest in cricket in the country. I mean real passion. I went to townships where I saw kids playing with big sticks and balls made of cowhide with stones stuffed inside. This is the stuff of grassroots in Zimbabwe and you'll find scenes like it across the country.
Published 8 August 2011