SOME consistently gutsy performances by Zimbabwe’s cricket team from the mid90s right through to the early
2000s gave its fans heartening assurance of a unit that was steadily coming of age as an international side.
For me, though, an even more positive sign that Zimbabwean cricket was headed in the right direction was when arguably the most talented group of young players from this country landed in New Zealand for the Under-19 World Cup in 2002 and left onlookers in doubt as of a bright future for the game in the Southern African country.
Stephen Mangongo runs out of superlatives when he attempts to describe the depth of talent in that 15- man squad.
Winless in the main competition of the World Cup, the young Zimbabweans regrouped to clinch the Plate Championship of the tournament, beating Nepal in the final after riding on a masterly century by Brendan Taylor,
then a Harare schoolboy who had turned 16 just three days before the match.
The Plate trophy aside, the biggest success story for Zimbabwe was the all-round heroics of captain Tatenda Taibu, who was duly named player-of-the-tournament after totalling 250 runs and even taking off his wicketkeeping gloves to take 12 wickets in that Youth World Cup.
To fully appreciate the prestige of that award, take a look at some of the future big names of world cricket eclipsed by Taibu for that gong in New Zealand 18 years ago: Shaun Marsh, Mashrafe Mortaza, Irfan Pathan, Ross Taylor, Umar Gul, Hashim Amla, Upul Tharanga, Farveez Maharoof, Dwayne Bravo, Ravi Rampaul, Darren Sammy. Co-coaches Mangongo and Englishman Steve Rhodes took a balanced squad to New Zealand, a multicultural outfit and merry band of teenagers who thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company away from the game.
For an Under-19 tournament, Zimbabwe’s squad also had some fairly young players, 15-year-olds, seriously talented kids too good to ignore.
One such 15-year-old was an all-rounder named Elton Chigumbura, hailing from Harare’s Highfield township. With all-rounder vice-captain Sean Ervine a certainty in the squad, Mangongo— who knew Chigumbura well, having introduced him to cricket at the age of nine— had quite a task to convince his fellow selectors to include
yet another three-dimensional player in the touring party.
Peterhouse College’s Paul Davies, who was also aware of the Churchill schoolboy’s talents, backed Mangongo’s choice and, with that, Chigumbura’s name was added.
This would prove to be the stepping stone into international cricket for Chigumbura, whose career is the subject of intense debate by those who have followed it from the beginning.
At his best, Chigumbura was a match winner. During the warm-up matches for the 2010 World Twenty20 in the
West Indies, power-hitting Chigumbura really smashed world-class bowling attacks as Zimbabwe defeated both
Australia and Pakistan to raise high hopes back home before the main event.
Mangongo was there in the Caribbean for that T20 World Cup, as the assistant coach to former England player Alan Butcher. For the emotional character that he is—as sixes rained from Chigumbura’s bat in St Lucia Mangongo must have wrapped himself up in some time bubble, harking back to the time his protégée was learning how to hold a bat under his watch as a skinny nine-year-old then and, how he had to fight for his inclusion in Zimbabwe’s Under-19 World Cup squad in 2002.
A prodigiously gifted batsman on his day, Chigumbura was however never able to reach his full potential outside the occasional aggressive innings. Following Zimbabwe’s just-ended tour of Pakistan, Chigumbura retired from all forms of cricket after a career that spanned 14 Tests, 213 ODIs and 55 T20 internationals.
As Chigumbura was exiting the scene in Pakistan, another student of Mangongo was announcing himself on the same tour as the future of the Zimbabwe team with mature performances beyond his young age.
Madhevere first made an impression in Bangladesh last year, where he made his international debut, but the Pakistan tour has been confirmation of what a truly special talent the 20-year-old from Chitungwiza is.
A batting average of 37.83 in three ODIs has gotten everybody excited, statistics which were boosted by twin scores of 33 in the three-match series in Pakistan.
Then there was the unbeaten 70 in the first T20 last week, an innings with the hallmark of the young batsman’s quality and confidence at the crease, the cover drive and the pull shot executed with the traits of some of the best batsmen in the world.
And, come to think of it, Mangongo—just like he did with Chigumbura 12 years earlier—was convinced he had unearthed a gem when he took a 15-year-old Madhevere to the 2016 Under-19 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Again, like the Chigumbura of old, Madhevere offers three dimensions to the team: a batter with an astonishing strike rate, electrifying fielder, and a bowler to boot.
Madhevere could not have received better mentorship in his formative years. After his talents were spotted during
the “Squads of Excellence” programme around 2013, the stylish right-hander worked closely with Mangongo, receiving a scholarship to South African school St Charles College in KwaZulu-Natal, and then averaging over 45
with the bat at the 2018 Under-19 World Cup.
Two other members of Zimbabwe’s 2016 Under-19 World Cup squad, Richard Ngarava and Milton Shumba, were also on the recent Pakistan tour, where they showed some promise.
Putting it into context, Zimbabwe’s team currently has four to five players aged 33 and above, in the twilight stages of their career.
Quite clearly now, Mangongo was onto something, and what we have seen with Madhevere and the others is vindication of the methods and vision he had beyond the present crop of national team players.
Pity, because of the organisational politics of Zimbabwean cricket, Mangongo— one of the country’s best technical brains — finds himself in the peripheries of influence.