‘Blessing will put Zim on the map’

FOR several cricketers from the West Indies coming to play and teach the game in Zimbabwe in the 1980s and early 90s, the experience of being in ancestral territory was emotional, thoroughly enjoyable and adventurous.

By Enock Muchinjo

Lifelong bonds and affinity with the country were created by many of the individuals who made the trips.

Perhaps few more so than Winston Weeks, a naturalised Englishman of Barbadian origin, who decided to extend his stay for the next four years after first arriving in the then thriving Southern African country in 1988 as captain of an outfit called Brixon West Indians.

The tourists’ name was inspired by Brixon, the name of a multi-ethnic district of south London, predominantly occupied by an Afro-Caribbean community.

So on the visit 30 years ago, Weeks captained a side of players with roots in Jamaica and Barbados, all resident in the United Kingdom.

In addition to playing against local clubs here, Brixon West Indians also gave stiff competition to select sides consisting of Zimbabwe’s best players such as Eddo Brandes, Peter Rawson, Grant Patterson, John Traicos, Andy Waller, Ali Shah, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, amongst others — men whose names were being put forward by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU) in making a strong case for the country’s application for Test status.

Zimbabwe was love at first sight for Weeks, and since then he has kept in contact with a lot of the people he met, played with, coached, and socialised with.

For Weeks, there has always been something special in Zimbabwean cricket, from among the black community, waiting to manifest itself.

So when a team of up-and-coming Zimbabwean cricketers arrived in England for a summer-long tour of England last year, Weeks was one of those that immediately took keen interest in the young players.

The brainchild of former Zimbabwe captain Tatenda Taibu, Rising Star Academy was made up of players who Taibu — then the country’s head of selectors – hoped would bridge the gap between Under-19s, first-class and international level.

Conspicuously tall, standing some two-metres, it was not difficult to notice from among squad members a 20-year-old fast bowler called Blessing Muzarabani — a player touted by academy founder Taibu and head coach Stuart Matsikenyeri as a real find of Zimbabwe.

And the lanky youngster from Harare’s Highfield township would soon prove he was not just about height. Virtually from nowhere, Muzarabani would be making his Test debut for Zimbabwe against South Africa in Port Elizabeth last December, a mere seven months after he had emerged into the spotlight.

On the face of it, Muzarabani’s rapid rise may not be viewed as so much of a startling statistic given Zimbabwe’s knee-jerk manner of selection, which stems from the country’s ever-diminishing player pool.

But just over a year later, 15 months to be precise, Muzarabani has written his own piece of history — aged 21 — by becoming the first black Zimbabwean to be signed on a full County Championship contract in England.

Weeks (not related to the great Sir Everton Weeks) had no doubt in his mind when he first laid eyes on the giant right-arm quickie in 2017 that he was seeing a genuine talent, so he involved himself in the early stages of the rookie fast bowler.

The now 58-year-old — who spent most of his playing career with clubs in England, Australia and New Zealand — revels in his role as a “mentor” for Muzarabani and was an influential figure in securing the young Zimbabwean’s three-year Kolpak deal with Northamptonshire last week.

“I first knew Blessing when he came with the academy a year ago,” Weeks told IndependentSport from England.

“It is interesting how things have worked out, man. Credit to Taibu. He picked the lad to come here. The kid stands out from everyone. I’m excited. I want him to succeed, man.
“When he played for the academy against Counties here, everyone was like ‘wow, this kid!’. He stood out by miles. I brought him to London to play some games. But the two most important people in his development are Taibu and Stuart. Without them ZC would not have come across this boy. Stuart worked with the players day-in-day-out, getting their skills right. This guy (Matsikenyeri) is amazing with young players. Taibu went to the players’ families and told them he wanted to take the boys to England. Taibu and Stuart have done a good job. They are remarkable young men.”

Former Zimbabwe coach Alan Butcher, who personally experienced the Zimbabwean players’ constant clashes with their board over money during his time here, was not surprised Muzarabani jumped at the opportunity of financial stability, than the ever-lingering uncertainty of an international contract with his country.

But the former England batsman, who guided Zimbabwe to a winning return to Test cricket in 2011, warned of the physical toll of the County circuit.

“It is a pity for Zimcricket, but great for Blessing although he will find the workload tough,” said Butcher, who also watched Muzarabani in the UK in 2017.

“He is never experienced as much cricket as he will play in England. I cannot blame him. He will get paid regularly and know when he’s playing cricket. It is a great learning opportunity.”

Weeks, though, has tipped Muzarabani to be a huge success, suggesting the young speedster will return to Zimbabwe an even more potent weapon.

“The boy has talent. There were five Counties that wanted him. This (Northamptonshire) was the best for him to go learn his trade. I’m impressed by the coach. I am impressed by the management. Before his contract starts in October he will go to Abu Dhabi with the team, or places like that, to get to know the (team) culture. They have also signed one of the Curran boys, Ben, and you know Ben’s father (late Kevin Curran) came from Zimbabwe. So Blessing and Ben are very highly rated youngsters here in England. They do not give people three years if they don’t believe in you big time. That is massive investment, man. Even the white players when they get these contracts, they know their lives are secure,” added Weeks.

“It was a hard decision to sign this contract. But think of the long-term future. When he comes back to Zimbabwe he is gonna be 10 times a better bowler. Look at the bowlers in South Africa, New Zealand. Where do they go learn? England. Zimbabwe will have a finished article. His skills will be amazing. Here he will play T20s, one-day cricket, four days: all formats regularly. It will be cricket, cricket, cricket.”

Muzarabani has been playing for Denton Cricket Club in the Manchester area and was actually preparing to fly back home to Zimbabwe to join his teammates in preparation for the September-November tours of South Africa and Bangladesh when he heard he could join a special group of Zimbabweans — Graeme Hick, Kevin Curran, Trevor Penney, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Murray Goodwin, Heath Streak, Sean Ervine, Greg Lamb, Brendan Taylor, Kyle Jarvis — who played on full contracts in the County Championship.
“As a coach myself I saw something in Blessing,” said Weeks.

“I then approached the right people. The decision was Zimbabwe or England. But in England he will be paid his money on time, there will be healthcare, pension benefits, labour leave, a car if he drives. It is up to him. I did not push him to sign a County contract. I am only a mentor. I only need to sit in my chair and watch him play cricket. All I want is his success. He can still call me anytime if he needs anything, and I will give him. My mum adores him, he can come to her place anytime. He is a member of the family. He is a son. And I do not need anything in return. Ask all the academy boys, they will tell you. I already have my money.”

Several young black Zimbabweans have been given the opportunity to play club cricket across leagues in the UK, making varying impressions on and off the field.

But the County Championship is the pinnacle, the real deal, and for a 21-year-old from the townships in Zimbabwe, much more than talent will be desperately required if a success story it to be written at the end of it all.

“He must stay humble, he must remember where he comes from,” said Weeks, who himself arrived in Britain from Barbados