The job had been promised to one of two former Zimbabwe players who represented their country with distinction in their days.
But then came Alan Butcher, a 56-year-old Englishman who two years ago was sacked by county championship side Surrey, to display a powerpoint presentation demonstrating how a team that has made losing habitual can transform talent into results.
At this point everything changed: ZC had found their man.
Suddenly, a job that three years ago had no reputable takers was receiving the attention of prominent personalities from the leading cricket nations. Much of it was largely due to Zim cricket’s improvements on and off the field in recent months, as Butcher confirmed in an exclusive interview with IndependentSport yesterday, a day after he arrived in Harare to start a new life as an international coach.
“Well, the first thing was the appeal of coaching an international side, but also because of the involvement of people I have great respect for in cricket, people like Dave Houghton (Zim director of coaching),” Butcher says. “I’d been to Zimbabwe three to four times before and enjoyed the country and the people. It was just an exciting job.
“From talking to people it was clear that everyone was together and there was a lot of excitement about Zim cricket and the country as a whole. I saw it for myself when I came down for the interviews.”
Before coming to Zimbabwe, Butcher — who played one Test and one ODI for England — flew to the West Indies to watch the last three of Zimbabwe’s five ODIs recently.
His major task, as he might have observed in the Caribbean, is to eradicate a losing mentality in the team, especially from the more experienced players who often struggle to take responsibility in pressure situations. Butcher acknowledged the submissive performances on the tour, but was honest enough to say he doesn’t have immediate solutions.
“One of the first things I want to do is to find out why,” he says. “Maybe it’s a simple case of ability, or a psychological factor. I need to find out why and try to change things.
“In the short-term, my goal is to get to know the players because it’s very easy to come and demand things and not understand why the players behave in a certain way. I have a good opportunity to do that in the World Cup (ICC World Twenty20). I want to find out what makes them tick. There is little time before the World Cup to work out team dynamics. As for techniques, we will get stuck into that in the off-season.”
Butcher was however quick to say the players’ mindset was not a disaster.
“In the short space of time I was with the team, it was pleasing to note that the players are aware of the standards required of them. It’s now left to the coaches to make the figures improve,” he comments.
“I saw a good attitude. It was not easy; we were in the middle of three games in a space of five days. But I saw good commitment. I felt there was good atmosphere. The guys were very disappointed to let certain opportunities slip.”
While Zimbabwe relies more on team unity, under Butcher players will be asked to lift their individual game for the benefit of the team.
“I think everybody has a part to play,” he says. “I don’t like to single out individuals. The whole team must buy into team ethos. And in doing so, we will encourage individuals to drive the team forward. And then hopefully two to three will force themselves to become players who can lead us as the influential players.”
Pace bowling is an area of special concern to Butcher.
“I saw the two ODIs on TV while I was in England and the other three in the Caribbean,” says Butcher. “We had opportunities in all four games that we lost, but to be honest, that was mostly because West Indies played poor cricket. I know we have a healthy spin department, it’s one of our strongest points. We need to develop the seam bowling side to compete in different conditions.”
On when he hoped to see Zimbabwe seriously threaten the opposition with their pace, Butcher says: “Look, it could take five years, quick bowling happens just like that, it’s difficult to put a timeframe on it. I know there is currently a fast-bowling search going on around the country. Someone might come out of there.
“With batting it’s different because it tends to be a long-term thing. Look, no one expects us to be challenging the top six in the next six months. We hope to beat the sides that are closer to us in the championship. You cannot talk about beating the top teams when you can’t even compete with the lower sides.”
One of Butcher’s longer-term goals is guiding the team back into the Test arena. Houghton, the director of coaching, has spoken in favour of an immediate return, while two months ago selectors chairman Alistair Campbell proposed a comeback in 18 months.
“I think both are right,” Butcher says. “Dave is keen on getting back as soon as possible. Essentially, if you wait longer the players can still be the same in 18 months as they are now. If we play, we will know what is required. As of my take on that, I think I will have to hold it back until I see the players physically, mentally and technically.”
Butcher’s first assignment will be the ICC World Twenty20, starting on April 30 in the West Indies. Zimbabwe are in Group B with Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
“Well, I would say the draw could easily have been a lot worse,” he says. “Both sides are above us in the rankings. But on the day if we perform to the best of our ability, and others have an off day, we will do well. Being just 20 overs, you only need three or four overs for the game to swing your way. We really have nothing to lose, and when you have nothing to lose, you don’t fear anything.”
Butcher was sacked by Surrey in 2008 when the county was relegated from the top flight without a single win in the championship. He had been coaching second-string teams since then, which he says will help in his Zimbabwe job. “I think the experience will be important for me because it was all about developing young players, which is the nature of the Zimbabwe job,” he says.