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Africa’s first black Test cricket umpire: ‘I was afraid of letting down a whole race’

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LEGENDARY Jamaican Steve Bucknor set the benchmark for cricket umpires of African heritage.

The man from the West Indies was a colossal figure in the game, umpiring a record 128 Test matches, in addition to 181 ODIs including five consecutive World Cups.

Back on the home continent, South Africans Rudi Koertzen, Dave Orchard and Marais Erasmus have been the big names on the world stage. Zimbabwe’s Russell Tiffin and Ian Robinson were also torchbearers. Combined, the five men stood in over 250 Tests since 1992.

Perhaps not surprising, not until 2021 had a black African umpired in Test cricket, the pinnacle of the game. History was made by Zimbabwean Langton Rusere (pictured), who captured the attention of the sporting world when he made his Test debut in a match between hosts Zimbabwe and Pakistan in Harare in April 2021. It was a massive personal achievement, but for the 37-year-old Rusere, the significance of this historic feat went beyond just himself.

“Being the first black African Test umpire scared me,” Rusere tells This Is Africa. “I was afraid of letting a whole race down if I didn’t perform well. If I had just been the first umpire in my neighbourhood, then messing up would be okay.”

But Rusere has not, of course, let anyone down in his umpiring career. The good life values that were instilled in him while growing up – honesty and integrity – have carried him from the bottom of Zimbabwe’s domestic leagues right through to the highest level of world cricket.

“I have always wanted to be a Test umpire,” he remarks. “This was a big deal. Obviously, I’m black and I’m proud. I’m proud to be Zimbabwean and proud to be African. I had so much pressure and pride in being the first black African to stand in a Test match.”

Like most young Africans of his age, cricket was not Rusere’s first contact with sport. But this game was something he perhaps could not escape from. Rusere was brought up in Zimbabwe’s oldest town, Masvingo, his birthplace, where the first game of cricket is said to have been played in the country 132 years ago. 

Members of the British South Africa Company’s Pioneer Column, who established the new colony of Rhodesia’s first urban settlement in 1890, were the first local cricketers. Masvingo was known as Fort Victoria from the colonial era through to two years into black rule in 1982. One of Fort Victoria’s most cherished institutions was Victoria High School, where the town’s finest teenagers were educated.

The town and school were named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom – a country that lays claim to having invented cricket. The town changed its name 40 years ago, but the school has kept it to this day. What has also been kept by Victoria High is the British sporting legacy of such disciplines as cricket and rugby. This is where Rusere learnt his cricket. “When I was at Vic High, respect was something that was instilled in us,” Rusere says. “You were either willing, or made willing. We were shaped into respectful young gentlemen – or at least I was! It’s something that’s helped me in my uprising.”

Rusere is incredibly grateful to a lot of people who encouraged him to take up cricket, and umpiring. Too many to mention. He would hate to leave out anybody, so he prefers not to single out any.  But when it comes to family, it is a bit different. “My dad was in the army,” he says, suggesting military discipline in his upbringing.

“My mother was a housewife who didn’t tolerate nonsense. And then to my parents, since I wasn’t on a cricket scholarship at Vic High, school needed to come first. At Vic, respect, honesty and hard work were big for them.  I was fortunate to be really bright at school. The same values that I learnt at home, at cricket and at school are pretty much the same values on the ICC PCT (International Cricket Council, Play Control Team) Code: accountability, honesty, leadership, and trust.”

Outside bilateral Tests, ODIs and T20Is, Rusere has been receiving lofty appointments, including at the Women’s T20 World Cup and the Caribbean Premier League.

How does it feel, as a groundbreaker, to be officiating in the world’s biggest cricket stadiums alongside the best umpires on the planet?

Not a very clever question, because Rusere can spend the whole day on it.

“How much time do you have!” he quips. “It’s amazing how I’m still quite inexperienced and have had lots of experiences. My first CPL match was a shock to me. I had never umpired in a packed stadium and still had to do a good job without making excuses. The 2020 Women’s T20 final was incredible. That’s the biggest crowd I’ve seen at a cricket match to date, 86 174 at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia)! Also ask me about my other early experiences! First ball of my first Test! I didn’t get time to get nervous. Appeal off the first ball!”

Rusere is well travelled, on duty, around the cricket-playing world. And he loves every bit of it.

“I’m incredibly blessed to have my job,” he says. “I get to watch cricket for free. Well, I get paid for it! It takes a bit of getting used adjusting to different conditions, but it’s amazing to learn about different cultures and see different places”.

“In my case, a lot of my colleagues have grown to be like brothers and sisters to me. What I truly love is the cultural cross-pollination. A lot of us have grown to understand a lot about different cultures and races due to umpiring.”

A black African umpire at the highest level of the game would have been unthinkable two decades ago, even as three countries on the continent were co-hosting the 2003 World Cup. It has happened now, and Rusere wants to see a continuation. “I hope that I can inspire someone to believe that they, too, can be all they dream of being,” remarks Rusere.

“If a little kid from the listed country, a poor kid from an average cricket-playing nation

can umpire with some of the best umpires in the world and officiate in some global events, what’s stopping them from going after their dreams? I remember being told to lower my expectations by some of my colleagues when I would say I wanted to umpire Tests. I’d say ‘never allow anybody to trim your dreams’. Dream big and work hard. If you persist, you’ll realise your dreams.”

From umpiring in Zimbabwean domestic cricket before a man and his dog, to officiating in front of over 80 000 in the final of a major international tournament, the man is indeed living his dream. – This Is Africa.

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