No replacement for knowledge

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WINSTON Weeks’ biggest claim to fame is probably sharing a surname with the great Sir Everton Weeks, an iconic former cricketer who, along with Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, formed, in the olden days, what was known as “The Three Ws” of West Indian cricket.

Sports Panorama with Enock Muchinjo

The two are not directly related, but just like the great man — a 93-year-old living legend of the game and outstanding batsman Test-capped 48 times by the West Indies — Winston Weeks also hails from the Caribbean island of Barbados, where cricket is the sporting heart-beat of the nation’s quarter-of-a-million inhabitants.

The lesser known Weeks — whose undying love for Zimbabwe emanates from coaching cricket in this country for four years in the 1980s — has permanently lived and played on the club circuit in England, his adopted homeland, since his early teenage years. 58 years old now, and having been a naturalised Englishman from the age of 13, Weeks’ love and knowledge of cricket has only deepened over the years.

Last year, a few months after we first made contact through a friend, Weeks was waxing lyrical, telling me how he was almost at a loss for words to adequately describe the depth of talent that had arrived in the United Kingdom from Zimbabwe in the English summer, courtesy of Rising Star Academy, a brainchild of former national team captain Tatenda Taibu.

Of course, Weeks was extremely impressed by the entire squad, but had a few individual favourites from among the young and raw Zimbabwean cricketers — and he told me of one very tall fast bowler named Blessing Muzarabani, who he said could generate good pace and bounce with devastating effect on responsive wickets.

Like most people, I had not seen much of the young unheralded fella at that time —Taibu had plucked him out of nowhere really — and for Weeks to go as far as drawing comparison with the great Curtly Ambrose appeared to me, back then, more metaphorical than anything.

Quite unfortunate for Zimbabwe, Muzarabani will, at least for the next three years, not be spearheading the country’s bowling attack, as predicted by Weeks a year ago. He has, in fact, at the age of 21, joined a special group of Zimbabweans who have played English county cricket on a full contract — no less top-class players from this country like Graeme Hick, Kevin Curran and Andy Flower. By joining Northamptonshire on a three-year contract, Muzarabani becomes the first black Zimbabwean to earn a Kolpak deal in that country.

It has been a privilege of mine over the years to interact with lots of very good guys who understand this sport well, delving into their knowledge of the game and learning all the time. From a guy like Weeks, who I have not even seen in person, I have learnt to appreciate, fully, the deep knowledge and experience within our own midst.

When Weeks told me back in 2017, in his exact words, that Taibu was “too precious” to Zimbabwe cricket — through such initiatives as the concept behind Rising Stars — it was with real conviction you could not stop envisaging a brighter future.

Looking back, and seeing what Taibu was trying to do, seeing now the early fruits of his efforts, the uncanny ability to spot talent — and then how they chucked him out of the system and hammered the final nail in the coffin of his project — is yet another sad chapter in Zimbabwean cricket post the 2004 madness.

Weeks told me in 2017, with unblinking confidence, that under Taibu’s wise guidance, one of the youngsters who had arrived in the United Kingdom with the academy, Brandon Mavuta, would grow into a Zimbabwean leg-spinner in the class of Paul Strang, Adam Huckle or Graeme Cremer.

I would hate to put unnecessary pressure on young Mavuta, but leg-spin is such a difficult art to master, so it is hard to totally supress excitement when a highly promising leggie emerges onto the scene.

And it all requires the right people to be in charge to manage this kind of talent and Weeks said in 2017 that he believed the combination of Taibu as chief selector, and fellow ex-captain Heath Streak as coach, was a partnership made in heaven for Zimbabwe.

Tomorrow in Sylhet, Zimbabwe plunge into the first of two Tests with hosts Bangladesh on the back of 16 straight defeats (10 One-Day Internationals and six Twenty20s), all coming in the aftermath of the World Cup qualification competition — which resulted in the sacking of Taibu, Streak and captain Graeme Cremer.

It is a difficult cycle to break, that kind of losing streak, particularly going into the more demanding format of the game.

Almost the same time last year, the Zimbabwe team was making good progress under the stewardship of Streak, with men such as Taibu along with South Africa greats Lance Klusener and Makhaya Ntini ably providing the support behind the scenes.

In October 2017, the team had shown real guts to save the second Test against the West Indies in Bulawayo, despite the series finishing 1-0 in favour of the visitors.
Four months prior, Zimbabwe posted a historic ODI series win in Sri Lanka, 3-2, and then fought gallantly in a losing cause in the single Test match to emerge with some reputation enhanced.

Few doubted that Zimbabwe, under the able leadership of these former internationals, was in very good hands and steady progress — from both the team and individual player point of view — was well underway.

Players were beginning to come into their own: Sikandar Raza and Craig Ervine’s solid hundreds in that Sri Lanka Test, in tough conditions, testified to that freedom and growth in confidence within the team environment.

But then came the purge of the post-World Cup Qualifiers, a senseless bloodbath that ought to have pointed, instead, at those pulling the trigger.
Best wishes to the guys in the Bangladesh Test series. A most heartening thing is to note that besides the multitudes of diehard local fans, a cross-section of people in the cricketing world, including Winston Weeks, still care for Zimbabwe from thousands of miles away, but are equally frustrated with the purges and lack of respect for the country’s best cricket brains.

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