From Takashinga to Northants: The hunger of Blessing Muzarabani

James Richardson

It was at Takashinga Cricket Club that Blessing Muzarabani met the man who would grant him passage into international cricket — and help mould him into Zimbabwe’s quickest bowler. As it turns out, that meeting would also pave the way for a young paceman to quit international cricket in favour of a career in English county cricket.

Two metres tall, Muzarabani stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb for Tatenda Taibu, the diminutive former Zimbabwe wicketkeeper who was, at the time, convener of selectors.
Takashinga is nestled in the Highfield suburb of Harare and has produced a string of Zimbabwe stars — Taibu included. But the surrounding neighbourhoods are among the poorest in the city and Muzarabani, like many of his peers, was malnourished. Taibu has proven himself no shrinking violet over the years, and initially thought that the youngster might lack the confidence to play international cricket. He soon discovered that Muzarabani was hungry in more than just the physical sense.

“It goes without saying, his height made me think: ‘Pace and bounce,'” Taibu recalls of the meeting. “As a young man, he was almost too quiet and a bit on the shy side. Ability wise, he wasn’t the best of the group but one thing which I picked up after about a month was his hunger to change his life situation. Whatever he has gone through in life, he doesn’t want to experience that again.”

Muzarabani proved to be the brightest of Taibu’s young charges that he chose for the 2017 Rising Stars Academy, who spent three months in England last summer. Taibu initiated the academy to try to bridge the gap between club cricket and the various national teams. The tour would propel Muzarabani from the Under-19 squad into the Test team by the end of the year. He impressed in his only Test against South Africa, despite not taking a wicket with the pink ball. By the end of the World Cup Qualifiers he was Zimbabwe’s first-choice white-ball bowler, and appeared to be on the path to becoming the best quick the country has produced.

While he may yet achieve that label, Muzarabani will not be plying his trade for the national team any time soon after signing a Kolpak deal with Northamptonshire. It was not a straightforward decision — or process.

Another influential figure in Muzarabani’s career, former Rising Stars Academy tour manager Nick Gordon, tried to dissuade the quick from accepting a Kolpak deal. Gordon had been acting as the fast bowler’s representative and says that he had a solid offer from another county to play as an overseas professional.

“Blessing was very keen to come to the UK this summer and I arranged a club deal for him in the Greater Manchester ECB Premier League,” says Gordon. “The idea was we would get him over and then look to arrange some county trials. At the time I wasn’t sure it would lead anywhere, but he was determined, and I admired his ambition and passion. After a few calls, one county agreed to have a look at him and within days they were calling me offering a long-term contract as an overseas player.

“This was still quite early in the season and I wanted to see what other options were out there. But around this time, I noticed a change. He was more difficult to get hold of and when we did speak, he started asking about Kolpak deals. It was clear there were other influences at play and ultimately he trialled with Northamptonshire via another agent, where they eventually signed him on a Kolpak.

“Why he decided to go down that route it’s not for me to say — you would have to ask Blessing — but my advice to him was clear: don’t take a Kolpak. I always speak honestly, and I just didn’t see the value in retiring from international cricket when another county was offering the best of both worlds, but it appears he did not share my view and I suppose that ultimately led to the parting of ways.

“I think it’s a huge loss for Zimbabwe cricket and maybe a result of the desperate state of cricket in his homeland that a 21-year-old fast bowler, with the world at his feet, chooses to retire from international cricket.”

Zimbabwe Cricket have claimed that Taibu persuaded Muzarabani to quit international cricket, a suggestion that is strongly denied by the player, Taibu and Gordon.

“I last spoke to Blessing in May this year,” said Taibu. “We never discussed that. He talked about trying to get a couple of trials, that’s all.”

Speaking to Cricbuzz, Muzarabani revealed that few people knew of his intention to sign a Kolpak deal, insisting the deal came about through his new agent.

“When I engaged my first proper agent, Rob Humphries from World Sports Xchange, on recommendation from a number of people, we had a couple of days discussing the options I had long-term with my cricket,” he explained. “When I said I was keen to play county cricket he arranged for me to have a trial game with Northants against Durham up at the Riverside. I got 4 for 40 and the feedback we got was really positive.”

Muzarabani did not want to discuss the rough past that Taibu had alluded to, but he conceded that the recent pay dispute and financial crisis at Zimbabwe Cricket played a factor in his decision.

“It’s difficult to make plans with a lot of uncertainty about not just money but with administration and scheduling of domestic cricket, so, yes, it played a part in my decision,” he said. “I think the best thing for me to develop as a cricketer and a person is to have a stable environment to do that in, and Northants can give me that stability. I want to repay them for the opportunity they’ve given me.”

Zimbabwe teammates Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis have both previously taken up Kolpak deals before returning to the international fold, but Muzarabani says that he did not consult with them ahead of signing for Northants.

“It was a decision I was comfortable to make on my own. A few players reached out to offer advice but for me, I needed to be clear in my own head that this is what I wanted,” he said. “I’ve thought long and hard about the decision before I made it and, for me, establishing myself long-term in the county game with Northants is what I want.”

The 21-year-old lists Taibu as one of the men he respects and looks up to in the game, and the former Zimbabwe captain has urged the young man to keep all his options open and stay hungry to learn. Taibu would not offer an opinion of the Kolpak deal other than saying it was indicative of the financial problems within cricket in the country.

“He is young and doesn’t understand a lot about Kolpak and about life in general,” Taibu added. “I think he must take every opportunity to keep learning about his game and the sport, but most important to remain humble and learn some life skills to end up being a better man at the end of it all.”

When Kyle Abbott announced that he had taken a Kolpak deal in 2017, he rankled at the suggestion that he had abandoned his country and asked journalists if they would buy his family groceries if he stayed. In Abbott’s case this may have been hyperbole, since franchise cricketers in South Africa can afford a decent standard of living, but in Muzarabani’s case it is closer to the truth than most are comfortable admitting. Takashinga Cricket Club has always framed itself as an idealistic club that promotes black excellence in Zimbabwe cricket, but even they would have to concede that if a player’s basic needs are not being met then patriotism is a difficult facade to maintain.

It is apparent that Muzarabani was not so much seduced by a lucrative county deal as driven to a safer, more stable career option by an employer who has continually disregarded the well-being of its employees. Cricket was an escape from poverty, and when Zimbabwe Cricket’s financial problems threatened that escape he rushed into the safety of a Kolpak deal. – Cricbuzz.