A place where champions are born

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THE last time I had been there, back in October, the sound and sights of the night did not resonate with the history of this iconic place.

Sports Panorama Enock Muchinjo

A marathon beer-fest had been taking place at Old Hararians (OH) since morning, bringing one hell of a party to this rather quiet outpost of Zimbabwean sport — a far cry from the serene suburban environment that it is by day. From a makeshift stage, Afro-fusion hotshot Jah Prayzah thrilled those among the bumper crowd still in control of their faculties.

Scores of intoxicated youths just dropped there on the ground, immobilised in drunken stupor, right there on the club’s hallowed cricket fields.

Five months later, last Sunday, Old Hararians looked a completely different place — how we have always known it and how it always should be — a charming little place to watch and play cricket.

The Cricket World Cup Qualifiers are well and truly underway in Zimbabwe and, with that, a rare opportunity for OH to stage international cricket. The outfield is in great shape, thanks in part to the rains.

With a pitch traditionally known to offer decent pace and bounce, then the shortened boundary, it means great entertainment and theatre for the fans and, boy, did Chris Gayle exploit the conditions on Tuesday!

Ireland and Netherlands opened OH’s tournament account on Sunday, and in addition to an appreciative crowd, what you could not also help but notice was a proud club reliving the good old days where some very good cricket was played by some very good cricketers on this hidden corner of our nation’s capital city.

For me, memories flooded back at OH on Sunday in a very special way, bumping into a good mate in lawyer Jerome Madondo, no slouch at sport himself growing up, but certainly not a chip off the old block in comparison with his highly gifted older brother.

Trevor Madondo’s prodigious talents came to the fore at OH around the mid-1990s, scoring freely and elegantly for the club, bags of batting ability not seen before in Zimbabwe from among the black cricket community.

By the time Madondo made his international debut in 1998, the first black Zimbabwean cricketer to be selected as a batsman, few doubted, at that time, that cricket in this country had unearthed its next biggest thing. Of course, his early international career was not mind-boggling, but he was really beginning to take off in earnest at the turn of the millennium, exhibited by a well-constructed 74 not out in New Zealand in 2000 when him and Andy Flower played superbly in the first innings to help Zimbabwe save the lone Test match in Wellington.

Surely, Madondo had arrived as a batsman of international repute and Zimbabwe’s racial integration drive, towards a national team truly representative of our country, was on the right track. Alas, six months after that innings in New Zealand, Madondo’s life was brutally cut short, succumbing to cerebral malaria at the age of 24.

Cricket is a game that polarises opinion. This is, in no small measure, because several barometers are used in this game to measure players. Take for instance that in the eyes of some sections, despite his undisputable statistical achievements, the great Andy Flower falls behind some of his old teammates in terms of natural talent — with the likes of Alistair Campbell, even Craig Wishart, being put ahead of this country’s first real cricket superstar. For me, had Madondo lived longer, there would have been little debate over the different aspects of his game. Madondo was going to score plenty of runs, he was going to entertain, he was going to knuckle down, he was going to post big scores and he was going to win games — an emerging Zimbabwe kingpin in the mould of David Houghton, Flower, Brendan Taylor and now the increasingly talismanic Sikandar Raza.

This was the greatest tragedy of Madondo’s death, in the words of his namesake, the former OH player and one-time coach — Trevor Penney.

On Sunday, I had a scheduled interview with this OH club legend, and it turned out to be a really nice relaxed chat, soaking in the deep knowledge of this humble, yet much-respected figure in world cricket coaching circles.

The 49-year-old Penney has travelled back home to Zimbabwe as coaching consultant for the Netherlands, one of his several freelance jobs nowadays, on top of his other roles in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Big Bash and USA Cricket.

His previous jobs as Sri Lanka’s assistant coach and India’s fielding coach, having also helped out with the England side, speak volumes of the esteem with which Penney is held across the world.

In our lengthy chat during the Dutch’s defeat to Ireland, Penney went down memory lane, reminiscing on the brilliant talent that was Madondo, how inspirational it was to see young gifted black players come through the ranks of the club in the early to mid-1990s.

As we strode up and down the fields where his entire family played sport decades ago, Penney chronicled the history of a club he still calls home. He spoke reflectively of sports stars from across the different disciplines of the club, brilliant athletes he watched and played alongside back in the days. Among them was Duncan Fletcher, a certainty on Old Hararians’ hall of fame, if there ever was one — so rewarding a coaching career he was conferred with an OBE after guiding England to its first Ashes victory in 18 years.

Also from those OH grounds, Penney has great memories of Fletcher’s sister, Ann Grant, who famously captained the new nation of Zimbabwe to women’s field hockey gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

A lot has changed in Zimbabwe throughout the years, and so has sport and places like Old Hararians. It is heartening though to see some very good guys working tirelessly there, making boundless self-sacrifices, to maintain the legacy of excellence at this old conveyor belt of sporting talent for Zimbabwe.

One of them is the Pakistani-born Saad Khan, first team captain but pretty much “Mr OH Cricket” for quite a while now, the guy who runs the show there and like another great Pakistanis living his Zimbabwean dream with the Chevrons — loves both cricket and his adopted country to bits.

With such people around, the legacy of Old Hararians will not die.

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