SEAN Ervine’s retirement last week from professional cricket was greeted with a fair amount of tributes among some of world cricket’s best-known personalities.
In his homeland, Zimbabwe, the announcement also prompted reactions of praises from fans and former teammates alike.
But then, there was something about those local reactions, depicting a kind of sadness over a fabulous international career that never was. The abrupt end, 14 years ago, of Ervine’s Zimbabwe career due to the unfortunate “rebel” saga of 2004, which cost the country an entire generation of cricketers in their prime, had perhaps the most negative impact on the future of a team that desperately needed a methodical blooding of young talent moving forward.
At 21, Ervine was the youngest of the “rebel” players, an epitome of the future of the Zimbabwe team.
Some 11 390 first-class runs and 280 wickets, 5 716 runs and 206 wickets in List A cricket — apart from 3000-plus T20 runs and 68 wickets — is, of course, a phenomenal County cricket record.
Ervine is hanging up his bat at the age of 35 after 14 fruitful seasons with Hampshire and an uncompleted loan spell at Derbyshire. But had circumstances been different and Ervine played international cricket for Zimbabwe throughout his career, his reputation and standing in world cricket might have been very different.
“Given the start he had, one can only assume greatness, especially the century he scored against India in the VB Series,” says former teammate Tatenda Taibu.
“In this day where it is difficult to get seam-bowling all-rounders, Ervine would have definitely marked his name forward in international cricket.”
The century Taibu refers to was against India in Australia in the VB Series early 2004, in which Ervine and fellow centurion Stuart Carlisle took Zimbabwe to the cusp of victory. Zimbabwe narrowly lost by three runs. That glorious innings, facing up to India’s two-pronged pace threat of Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan, would be Ervine’s first and last for Zimbabwe in an international career covering just three years — 42 ODIs and five Tests.
Former Zimbabwe captain and chief selector Alistair Campbell shares Taibu’s view on what Ervine stood to achieve as an all-rounder in international cricket had it not been for the player disturbances of 2004.
But Campbell opines that County cricket robbed Ervine of his genuine all-round capabilities.
“I think the grind of County cricket made him bowl within himself and, if he had played just international cricket, he would have been able to showcase his great ability with bat and ball,” says Campbell.
“He had a great set of hands as well which made him a very reliable fielder. If he had fulfilled his international career and stayed fit and hungry, I have no doubt he would have become Zimbabwe’s answer to the great Jacques Kallis.”
Anyone with the traits of Kallis is, quite obviously, a great deal of talent. Campbell puts Ervine in the same bracket as some of the finest all-rounders ever produced by Zimbabwe. “You would have to compare him to the all-rounders that Zimbabwe have had, (Duncan) Fletcher and (Kevin) Curran prior to Test status, then (Neil) Johnson. Also (Heath) Streak in the second half of his career,” remarks Campbell.
“There is (Elton) Chigumbura in recent times. But Johnson was the best for me. When he left, it would have been the perfect time for Sean to step in and take up the mantle as the all-rounder.”
The hint of greatness, as well as comparison to the South African great Jacques Kallis, is frequently and commonly referred to in description of Ervine’s talents.
Coaching stalwart Steve Mangongo, who knows Ervine since his age-group years in Zimbabwe, talks of the “rare quality” of the Harare-born all-rounder.
Ervine was Zimbabwe’s vice-captain at the 2002 Under-19 World Cup in Newland where the African side won the plate competition, and skipper Tatenda Taibu was the tournament’s best player.
“It’s a rare quality to have a classy cricketer with both bat and ball, so was Ervine,” says Mangongo, who jointly coached Zimbabwe at that Under-19 World Cup with former England wicketkeeper Steve Rhodes, now Bangladesh’s senior team coach.
“His potential was never fulfilled on the international arena. What a pity for Zimbabwe. He spent a decade churning out big runs on the County circuit, just to prove his calibre. For him to spend 10 years in international cricket is indicative of a serious cricketer. He had all the attributes of greatness from the few games he played at international level. He was a genuine impact player, genuine all-rounder. Maybe he would have been a Zimbabwe Jacques Kallis in the fullness of time.”