GEORGE Tandi does not get so much as a second glance from staff and pupils alike in the corridors of township primary school Shiriyedenga, but this humble fellow could well have been turning heads with awe in some of world cricket’s more glamorous surroundings.
It has been 31 years since a trailblazing young express bowler from Glen Norah in Harare, just 16 years of age at that time, was selected into the Zimbabwe provisional squad for the county’s inaugural Test match, with touring India becoming the African nation’s historic opponent in October 1992.
The fresh-faced teenage boy with raw talent and street skills was Tandi. Together with Ethan Dube, five years his senior, they remarkably became – in extraordinary times – the first black cricketers to be included in a Zimbabwe Test squad, right at the beginning of the African country’s journey in the premier format of the sport.
As it transpired, Tandi and Dube would never play for Zimbabwe at the highest level, dropped for good – never to be seen again anywhere near the national side – despite the early flirtation with stardom.
History records that fellow pacer Henry Olonga would, slightly over two years later, become Zimbabwe’s first black international cricketer when he earned his first Test cap at home to Pakistan in January 1995.
Unlike Dube – a Bulawayo heartthrob who came from a more comfortable family background and had been schooled at Falcon College – Tandi’s life thereafter became a tale of bad luck and spiraling misfortune.
Life has simply not been kind for Tandi, who has fallen and risen along the way over the years.
In his better moments, he has groomed some of Zimbabwe’s best international cricketers of today, and in his worst moments, he has been seen leading a wandering unsettled life.
These days, 47-year-old Tandi has found a place of comfort and hope, at his old school, Shiriyedenga in Glen Norah, one of Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC)’s development centres in the capital city.
Identifying and fine-tuning young cricketers in the surrounding areas is his main preoccupation, on top of other duties assigned to him as a full-time development coach of Harare-based franchise Mashonaland Eagles.
It brings out the sentimental makings in Tandi, coming back home to Glen Norah, where he first learnt the game himself through an ambitious Zimbabwean cricket board grassroots drive in the high-density suburbs.
“There is no better feeling than that,” Tandi tells The NewsHawks this week. “Thank God, I’ve been developing, every day, as a coach. I’m now better now in terms of cricket intelligence. With God’s grace, I’d like to nurture these wonderful kids exceptionally. I enjoy it thoroughly inside the durawall. God permitting, with a long life, I’ll get some of these young guys from Glen Norah and the environs to play for Zimbabwe. Through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, that’s definitely something we can achieve.”
With a very good eye for talent, an eye that has spotted some of the Zimbabwe team’s present stars, it’s hard to ignore when somebody like Tandi enthusiastically mentions some of his present protégés by name. It’s quite a list, but for now mark these names for the future: Herbert Kaseke, and the aptly named Sachin Chitare, nephew of Tandi’s old teammate Moses Chitare.
Away from the joy of coaching dozens of receptive budding cricketers with whom he has chemistry and a strong bond, the Glen Norah homecoming hasn’t been a mostly pleasant one altogether.
“Like they say, ‘a prophet has no honour in his hometown’. You see it when the people in the community resist you,” says Tandi.
“It’s painful, but you learn to accept them as they are. The community is not as kind and respectful as you desire. There is so much negativity and gossiping. Some of the people don’t know you, so when they hear stuff about you, they go with it. Maybe one day they will get to understand and give back the love we give them.”
After being discovered at Shiriyedenga in the 80s, Tandi with other gifted youngsters were given ZCU scholarships to the renowned Prince Edward Boys High around the turn of the decade.
But Tandi was particularly special. He soon exploded onto the scene as a fearsome pace bowler whose presence in the Prince Edward line-up was dreaded by many a schoolboy batsmen across the country.
With his admired fast bowling armoury, he stood on the verge of being capped by Zimbabwe in the country’s maiden Test match a month before his 17th birthday.
Whilst that never happened, Tandi had the most memorable adventure of playing for the Zimbabwe Under-19 and Zimbabwe Schools sides – touring Australia, South Africa as well as England and Denmark.
In those star-studded sides, teammates who became Zimbabwe internationals were Heath Streak, Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Gavin Rennie and Andy Whittall. Tandi was the only black player on the year-end tour of Australia in 1991. Bernard Pswarayi, Clive Chadhani and Darlington Matambanadzo would later join on separate occasions for the trips to Cape Town and Europe.
“We went to Australia and the Far East at the end of ’91, getting into ’92, and I was the most successful bowler with 14 wickets, Heath Streak had 13,” recalls Tandi.
“We beat the Hong Kong senior national team in two one-day matches. In the four weeks we were in Australia, we won nine matches out of 12 against state sides, a wonderful achievement. On the whole tour, we won 11 out of 14 games. On our way back we passed through London for five days, as a reward for doing well. Then in Cape Town, in a quadrangular series, we beat England and India. We just couldn’t reach the final because of an inferior run rate.”
Tandi, however, also remembers with a great deal of sadness the hostile reception he received within the Under-19 group, an experience that for many years sowed resentment in him and shaped a hardline stance on race relations.
“I wasn’t a bad guy, but they made it clearly known that they didn’t like me,” Tandi recollects.
“Actually, before we went to Australia in ’91 they accused me of stealing a watch that I didn’t even know how it looked like, so that they could justify dropping me from the tour. Fortunately for me, I had learnt my English early so I defended myself convincingly. If I was daft, I would not have gone on tour. I told the captain Jonathan Bourdillon that ‘where I come from, we might not have what you guys have, but I don’t come here to steal, I come to play cricket’. And I told them, ‘let this be the last time you call me a thief, because I’m not a thief and I don’t like to be called what I am not’. I stood up for myself at such a young age, and for that I’m forever proud.”
Tandi however feels that the anger isn’t there anymore, replaced by “maturity”. He has patched up with his old teammates in adult life.
“We talk, and we are now mature as people,” he comments. “Always when we met, we chat. Even when Streakey was the (Zimbabwe) coach, I used to give him my input. He listened and put what I said into practice. We’ve reconciled, we have much better relationships.”
But that Under-19 episode, coupled with the national team anti-climax when he had looked on course for a long and successful international career, did have adverse effect.
“That’s where all the problems started,” declares Tandi. “People say what they say. When that (playing international cricket) didn’t happen, that’s when I cracked and crumbled. It wasn’t drugs or anything, it was how I was treated, being selected and dumped. It got me to suffer from depression. For 25 years, I’ve been able to live with depression, overcome it, and live a normal life again.”
Tandi refuses to make excuses or blame others for his own actions, but accepts that being frozen out drastically changed the way he lived his life.
“I was too young and too immature to a level that I loved wine, and loved things that don’t matter in life,” he concedes.
Because of that, Tandi also plays the role of life coach to his young players.
“I don’t want kids to go through that. If they have to drink, they must do it wisely, not as if there is no tomorrow. I want them to be Christian from a young age. As a young man, I took one drink too many. I took one smoke too many. Fortunately I didn’t do drugs, but I suffered from what I did. If they have to do it, they must do it wisely without messing their future. For them to drink, they have to play cricket exceptionally well and get paid. Without playing exceptionally well, they can’t marry beautiful wives, they can’t buy beautiful cars.”
Born in Rusape in the Tandi chieftainship district, the ex-fast bowler has coached in his home province of Manicaland, in the city of Mutare – where he prides himself in the nurturing of Tendai Chatara, Donald Tiripano and Kevin Kasuza.
Back in Harare, other Zimbabwe players from the high-densities have also passed through his capable hands: Richard Ngarava, Tafadzwa Tsiga, Takudzwanashe Kaitano, Victor Nyauchi, Tinashe Kamunhukamwe.
Tandi sees a bright future in Zimbabwean cricket, and reckons the game’s administration has done a commendable job despite having to deal with widespread criticism over the past few years.
“They have built an environment where everybody has an opportunity,” says Tandi. “It’s a multi-racial environment of Zimbabwe cricket in which all children get the opportunity to progress. It takes somebody with wisdom, and they’ve done that. The good thing about the system is that it is picking the best players regardless of who you are, where you come from.”
For the emerging stars of Glen Norah and surrounding areas, that should be some very good news.