A happy team, and return of a ‘lion-hearted fighter’
ENOCK MUCHINJO IN BULAWAYO
GOOD banter was swirling around the conference area on Sunday after the second day of the first Test against the West Indies, when Zimbabwe left-arm spinner Wellington Masakadza came down to face the reporters.
Following two rain-affected days, not much had taken place for the hosts on the lifeless surface of Queens Sports Club, save of course for Windies double centurion Tagenarine Chanderpaul and fellow opener Kraig Brathwaite’s history-making first wicket stand for the Maroons.
So the local media, on day two, were keen on extracting something from Masakadza to file good copy back to newsrooms.
He gladly put on quite a show, all smiles – optimistic for the Test – a newfound spirit of sureness now a feature of this team under Dave Houghton.
It was however former England batsman Gary Ballance who grabbed the headlines for Zimbabwe in the drawn contest, with a century on Test debut, becoming the first player in the history of the game to hit a ton in the longest format for two different countries.
Ballance’s milestone aside, it was also the heroic return of Brandon Mavuta, who had last played Test cricket five years ago away in Bangladesh, amidst much hype over the young leg-spinner.
Taking a five-for when West Indies batted first, Mavuta would then go on to stake his first claim as an all-rounder with a crucial half-century that, alongside Ballance’s hundred, clawed Zimbabwe back into the match and put the host in a position to dare to dream.
Being on the sidelines for so long after a glorified debut has clearly made Mavuta want it even more and many in the Zimbabwe side, including assistant coach Stuart Matsikenyeri, reckons the 25-year-old from Kadoma will become a consistent performer in the side with both ball and bat.
“Brandon has always been a hard worker, he’s a fighter,” Matsikenyeri told reporters after the final day.
“His first job is to take wickets. We are just pleased that over the years he is a guy who has taken wickets and scored runs for the teams he has played for. It’s good to see him stand up when it matters most.”
Matsikenyeri knows Mavuta well, he has coached him on a training attachment in England as a teenager, and he is not the first person to call him a fighter.
Steven Mangongo, the legendary development stalwart, piled on the praise when a then 21-year-old Mavuta bowled admirably well on a receptive surface to take 4-21 on his debut as Zimbabwe beat Bangladesh by 151-runs in 2018 to record the Chevrons’ first away Test win in 17 years.
“This boy has the heart of a lion,” Mangongo said back in 2018. “When he captained the Under-19s in the World Cup (in 2016), he was always up for it and led from the front. There is a mature head on that youngster. Without a doubt, I expected Brandon to be a star performer sooner or later. He has instinctive fighting spirit, a born fighter. What was amazing back then was his desire to win.”
Mangongo, Zimbabwe’s coach in that Under-19 World Cup seven years ago, backed Mavuta to fine-tune his leg-spinning art as his career progresses.
“I’m sure he will get better and better,” said Mangongo. “He is a ripper, a genuine turner of the ball and he has a googly.”
A strict disciplinarian, Mangongo revealed backed then, following Mavuta’s winning Test debut in Bangladesh, that he used to show “tough love” to his protégé, who moved to Harare’s Kuwadzana township as a teen so that he could attend Churchill Boys High School.
“Brandon was always the first player at training, mind you he was coming all the way from Kuwadzana with kombis whilst the well-to-do kids would be dropped at Harare Sports Club by parents,” said Mangongo.
“Amazingly, being a Kadoma boy, he would forgo going home to see his parents during school holidays so that he could attend training. My guy, that’s commitment at that tender age. So his early success does not surprise me at all.”
Mavuta is being reunited in the Zimbabwe squad with Matsikenyeri, who was one of the coaches when a specially selected squad of young players – named Rising Stars Academy – spent months in the UK on a programme meant to acclimatise the emerging players to different conditions.
The trip was the brainchild of former Zimbabwe captain Tatenda Taibu, the country’s chief selector at the time.
“Like all the other (Rising Stars Academy) boys, the boy has talent,” Taibu remarked back then. “But with him, the biggest weakness was temper and the management team in the UK did well to make sure that it didn’t come in the way. I hope he is still doing well in that regard.”
On Monday, after his five-wicket haul on return to the Zimbabwe Test side, Mavuta, like fellow spinner Masakadza 24 hours earlier, was beaming with expectation when he addressed the scribes.
“It’s all about realising that it’s Test cricket,” he said. “It’s about patience and persistence, and today it paid off.”
Patience he has shown for the past five years, to come back and play the way he did in the first Test. Persistence is what will define his career from here on out.