When the choice is a simple one

Sports Panorama: Enock Muchinjo

YOU would not meet a great deal of people more passionate than Kevin Curran, a man immersed in his sport and deeply proud of his origins.

It has been five years since Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) broke the heart-wrenching news that the former national team all-rounder and coach, in charge of domestic side Mashonaland Eagles at the time, had passed away suddenly in Mutare ahead of a provincial game.

The abruptness and tragic circumstances of the death on that morning in October 2012 made it even harder to take — collapsing while taking a routine jog and a short while later pronounced dead — quite an ironic fate for a fitness freak like Kevin Curran, a guy that at 53 could challenge much younger men to the bleep test and beat them hands down.

Curran was a much-criticised figure during his time at the helm of Zimbabwe’s national team, his coaching philosophy often subject to intense scrutiny and cause of split opinion.

What everyone saw, though, was that fire inside Kevin Curran — as he was known to all — a burning passion that was felt by nearly all he came across during his lifetime.

Local cricket press corps will remember one incident in February 2007 after Bangladesh had beaten Zimbabwe in the third ODI in Harare to take a 2-1 lead in the four-match series.

The mandatory post-match press conference had to be delayed by at least an hour as updates trickled down to the deadline-fighting journalists that the coach was firing a real salvo at his players, some breaking into tears under the barrage of verbal onslaught.

Typical of Kevin Curran, he was not about to deny having a go at his players when he finally appeared in front of the inquisitive reporters.

Still frothing at the mouth and all, he told the hacks he had indeed laid into the team during the hour-long rant, chastening the players for lacking respect for the “flag and the badge.”

Kevin Curran was not, of course, going to miss the opportunity to remind his players how his generation of Zimbabwe players — amateurs as they were back then — knew what a privilege it was to pull over the red shirt and how guys did not forgive themselves when they felt they had not stretched the opposition, regardless of who it was.

Yet with fierce patriotism flowing in his veins, not even Kevin Curran himself would — in his rightful mind — fault his very gifted young sons, Tom and Curran, from pursuing international careers with England, as they have done.

Of course, a man of Kevin Curran’s sentiment would have been extremely proud to see his children represent the beloved homeland, just like himself and his own father Kevin Snr before.

But equally a proud dad he would be had he been still with us, seeing both his boys play on the same West Indies tour, for their adopted country, on a trip of mixed fortunes for the English so far.

Things have changed radically in world sport it will be foolish for anyone in this age to begrudge a professional sportsman for seeking greener pastures and a better working environment.

Without doubt, so much has changed since those olden days when Kevin Curran was rising through the then well-established structures of cricket in this country: from the rugged farming upbringing of Rusape, to Marondera High School, to Makoni Country Club right through to the national set-up and then becoming one of the most effective foreign players in English County cricket during the 1980s and 1990s.

Just try to imagine what would have become of the Curran boys had they remained in Zimbabwe, having spent a significant amount of their younger days in this country when their father was working here.

While our Zimbabwe players spend an entire career still trying to look like a reasonably comfortable international cricketer out in the middle, the youngest of England’s Curran brothers, Sam, was only 19 when his man-of-the-match heroics — in only his second Test appearance — spearheaded the Three Lions to victory over India.

Just as I was writing about the Currans for this week’s instalment, a platform I am part of sparked off a debate, with a regular participant, a cricket development stalwart, posing the big question:

“Why is it that so many Zimbabweans excel in foreign systems . . . yet at home they are mediocre? Maybe the system is breeding mediocrity.”

It is a no-brainer really, that, indeed, Zimbabwean sport right now, at national level, is a bad joke that keeps repeating itself.

It is not only cricket.

Among those to air their views on the platform was Cyprian Mandenge, a man whose opinion carries weight because he is an all-round sportsman of note: a former cricket administrator who rose to become a director of ZC, a martial artist and, most recently, a national team rugby coach.

I have known Cyprian for quite a lengthy time and, with familiarity, you discover something refreshing later — another side, perhaps a new side — of the people you thought you know well.

Mandenge was fired as Zimbabwe’s rugby coach in 2017 following a string of defeats, and replaced last year by none other than an All Blacks-conquering and Tri-Nations-winning Springbok coach in Peter de Villiers. We all know by now of the horrific first year endured under de Villiers in 2018 — an extended run of international defeats and a big World Cup dream shattered right before our eyes.

Now, the Mandenge of old — moreover in a private group with people he knows well enough to allow him to speak freely — would not have reacted so calmly under the circumstances in which he was sacked in favour of a former Springbok coach who, a fat paycheque and hype galore, failed spectacularly.

The Cyprian we used to know would have definitely gone to town, and he would have said “I told you so.”

But he was not tempted. Neither did he blame de Villiers, but a frail and flawed development system which he said can set-up any coach to fail.

Perhaps it comes from the maturity of working in a professional environment like Eaglesvale School, where Mandenge is the sports director and doing a hell of a good job, bringing back into sport a lot of kids at a school where cars, hip-hop and parties now appealed more than throwing themselves around a sports field.

Private schools and the parents of places like Eaglesvale, who have done well to preserve the tradition of sport amid changing times, deserve to be commended.

Last year, Bulawayo’s 27-year-old Petra, a mixed-sex school which means it has fewer boys to pick a formidable rugby team, defeated for the first time their more fancied city neighbours, Christian Brothers College (CBC). It sparked uproar from CBC parents.

Few days later, school authorities reacted promptly and hired one of the country’s best rugby brains, Brighton Chivandire, a decorated ex-international player and former national team coach.

Watch CBC this year and you will see a well-coached team, playing rugby with a sound structure.

But these are all private initiatives; the guys in offices of national associations are not in sync with the private players giving their all for the development of sport.

Thankfully, our football has been able to retain very good players like Knowledge Musona, Khama Billiat and Marvellous Nakamba, who were produced at private academies.

It should have taken quite some effort and national pride in those running the academies, and the players themselves, to see to it that guys come back home to represent the country.

Musona and Billiat were in their teens when they left Zimbabwe to play in South Africa. They had not even been capped by Zimbabwe.

Imagine, wildly maybe, if Aces Youth Academy and the two players themselves had found it worthy to wait, change nationality, and aim to play for South Africa.

With the quality of both Musona and Khama, you would not bet against any of them — at their very best — walking into that Bafana Bafana starting XI, just as England could not ignore Tom and Sam Curran for too long.

If the outstanding effort of private institutions like Eaglesvale, Petra, CBC, Aces Youth Academy and Bantu Academy are not complemented by the administrative competency of the be-suited bureaucrats at sports federation headquarters, more of our own top-class talent will continue to slip away and we should not blame them.