By Enock Muchinjo
FOR some very proud men in the world today, whose ancestors were hauled from Africa to the Caribbean as plantation slaves between the 15th and 19th century, the game of cricket became a lifelong passion, a legacy inherited from British colonialism.
Some 9 000 kilometres across the South Atlantic Ocean – where their forefathers survived the rough waters of the sea to reach the West Indies centuries ago – nestles an African country that holds a very special place in the hearts of these equally special folk I have decided to honour on this week’s blog.
When these gracious cricket chaps from the Caribbean speak of Zimbabwe, there is no mistaking the attachment to the country. Unfailingly, such kinship terms like “we, us, our team, our country”, are used effortlessly in reference to this beautiful but deeply troubled homeland of ours.
It cannot be difficult to see why such chemistry exists. The fact that Zimbabwe also plays cricket, and then the country’s predominantly indigenous population give our brothers from the West Indies perhaps their closest connection with their African heritage.
In the 1980s to early ‘90s, select teams from the best cricket-playing nations in the world, prefixed “Young…”, toured Zimbabwe to help the country with much-needed preparation for imminent granting of Test status.
One of those popular teams to visit – with black interest starting to rise in the new African nation – was the Young West Indies, a side whose sense of swagger created a lasting memory in locals who witnessed the matches.
What however particularly sticks out for me are fellows of West Indian origin who came individually to coach and play here, some by their own effort, and others at the invitation of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU).
For many years West Indies had been a dominant force in world cricket. So it was only fitting, at a time when the game in Zimbabwe was gearing towards racial integration, that the players of colour in those days drew inspiration from those they could relate to culturally.
Who else would have inspired even the finest of Zimbabwean players of that era than Sir Conrad Hunte of Barbados?
The former West Indies opener, one of the greatest batsmen of his generation, visited Zimbabwe in his post-playing days around the time the country entered the Test arena.
Hunte is best remembered for his excellent supporting innings of 260 runs against Pakistan in 1957-58 in the Windies’ world-record second wicket partnership of 446 alongside Sir Garfield Sobers (365 not out), a month before the Barbadian had cracked 142 on his Test debut against the same opposition.
The 44-time Test-capped ex-star, a devout Christian in his lifetime, passed away in Australia in 1999 at the age of 67.
Also bidding farewell in 1999 – from amongst the brothers from the Caribbean who had come to Zimbabwe with a mission to inspire a people – was Sylvester Oliver. Oliver preceded the great Sir Conrad by nine months, dying in his native Trinidad aged 70.
Sly, as he was known, never got to play international cricket. His modest career included just five first-class matches for Trinidad & Tobago. But arriving here in the 1980s to introduce cricket in townships when the game was still only popular in minority communities, Oliver’s influence on black cricket in Zimbabwe was something those that he encountered remember with fond memories and gratitude, to this day.
A passionate man, Oliver also played for Harare’s Bionics CC, Zimbabwe’s first post-Independence black-formed club, the forerunner of present-day Takashinga CC.
I have had the privilege, in much later years, of interacting with all the surviving West Indian friends of Zimbabwean cricket who came here and left a mark on the game and communities.
One of them, Guyanese-born Monte Lynch, played three ODIs for England in the late 80s, having migrated there with his family as a child.
Lynch arrived in Zimbabwe in the mid-90s at the invitation of the ZCU to provide grassroots coaching.
With Bionics having split to form quite a few more black clubs, Lynch particularly fell in love with the crème de la crème of these new teams, Old Winstonians, who played in the second league of the Mashonaland Cricket Association.
Playing for Winstonians, Lynch was a great source of inspiration for the club’s young players, who included a future household name in Tatenda Taibu (pictured), later to become Zimbabwe’s first black captain.
Many a time Lynch demolished opposition bowling attacks of the country’s established clubs whilst batting with youngsters like Taibu and Hamilton Masakadza, who then developed self-belief that black cricketers could be match-winners with the bat.
And then when Winstonians won its first major trophy, Mashonaland’s Vigne Cup, Lynch was the captain.
During a brief period of resurgence for Zimbabwean cricket from 2009 to around 2013, Lynch accepted an offer to coach Masvingo-based franchise Southern Rocks in a move that lifted the careers of the bulk of players who fell under his tutelage.
Winston Weekes, another great contact, played here as an overseas professional after he was first engaged by the ZCU in the ‘80s, tasked with the additional responsibilities of coaching and promoting the game in less privileged areas of the country.
A man who wears his heart on his sleeve, Weekes spent countless hours coaching in Harare’s high-density areas of Highfield, Glen Norah and Glen View – on nearly all occasions accompanied by his good pal and Zimbabwean cricket development stalwart Stephen Mangongo.
When Mangongo enrolled at the sporty Prince Edward Boys High School in 1988 as the first black recipient of a ZCU scholarship, it was Weekes who had strongly recommended the gifted young player from Glen Norah to the country’s cricket governing body.
Hailing from Barbados, Weekes’ family settled in England when he was aged 13, then spending his entire playing career on the club circuit there.
He professes an undying love for a country he calls a home away from home, maintaining a strong bond with Zimbabwe by arranging UK stints for local players every year.
In 2018, Weekes – supported by his loving family – was a central figure in Zimbabwe fast bowler Blessing Muzarabani’s big breakthrough into the English county system. He took Muzarabani under his wing as a father figure, during the Harare-born pacer’s stay with Northamptonshire.
All the while during the international hiatus, Weekes was consistent in his stance that the idea behind the county move was for Muzarabani to return to the Zimbabwe team “10-times a better bowler” at the expiry of his three-year Northamptonshire deal.
Weekes’ wish is being fulfilled. Following his early international comeback due to changes caused by Brexit, Muzarabani has brought some missing bite to Zimbabwe’s pace attack, justifying his hype as the country’s brightest prospect over the past four years.
Last month, respected website ESPNcricinfo included Muzarabani in its fantasy line-up of the best players in the world under the age of 25 expected to dominate the next decade of Test cricket.
For men like Weekes, who have done something to help, satisfaction comes from the smiles and hope such stories as Muzarabani’s bring to those that care about the wellbeing of cricket in Zimbabwe.
And then, of course, who can forget the big man from Trinidad & Tobago, whose coaching career took off here, and has gone on to become one of the most sought-after coaches in world cricket today.
Phil Simmons, the former West Indies opening batsman, headed Zimbabwe’s CFX Academy in the early 2000s before eventually being handed the national team reins in an eventful tenure in which he was hugely adored by his players but endured a frosty relationship with the board over his in-your-face approach.
An unceremonious end was therefore investable, but when you talk to the amiable Big Phil, there is no mistaking a strong bond with Zimbabwe, a country he became a popular figure in town and friend of many.
It is because of the goodwill of guys like these with a genuine affinity for a land so far away – a place of sentimental connection for them – that you feel Zimbabwe’s often troubled cricketing landscape will survive the test of times.