‘I fear for ODI cricket’

DAVE Houghton’s personal email address has three conspicuous features of special sentimental value to him: the name of a country, his name, and a number.
The country, as you’d expect, is Zimbabwe, his homeland. Then there is also his first name, David, as well as the digits 266.

ENOCK MUCHINJO

266 runs is the highest ever Test cricket score by a Zimbabwean, a record set by the African side’s former batting kingpin Houghton against Sri Lanka in Bulawayo back in October 1994.

But, much as Houghton pinpoints that flawless innings nearly 26 years ago as “the proudest moment of my career”, the legendary Zimbabwe cricketer modestly reveals typical reluctance to dwell too much on his own personal achievement.

The 62-year-old Houghton — now head coach of English county championship team Derbyshire — says that gusty knock more than two decades ago in the drawn match at Queens, splendidly defying a quality Sri Lanka bowling attack fronted by the great Muttiah Muralitharan’s spin wizardry, does not even form part of his pep-talk to players in his professional coaching career.

“When I coach I don’t make reference to my own game,” Houghton tells IndependentSport this week.“It’s only when I talk to youngsters about batting long sessions, concentration at the crease and shot selection, that I give an example of that innings of mine.”

Houghton, in fact, feels compatriot and fellow Zimbabwe great Andy Flower was well poised to surpass his record score had it not been for an unselfish decision to end the visitors’ innings away to India in 2000.

In that match at Nagpur, Flower grafted to 232 not out, the highest ever score by a wicketkeeper-batsman in Test cricket history. The famous innings by Flower — who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Tuesday — helped the African underdogs resist the hosts’ star-studded line-up to salvage a gallant draw in fortress India.

“Records and statistics are there to be beaten,” Houghton says. “Few years after I’d retired, Andy Flower should have broken my record, but he declared. So, like I’ve said, records are there to be broken. It’s a challenge for somebody to achieve.”

So far, though, nobody has bettered the long-standing feat, and Houghton has every right to savour it while it still lasts.
“I remember being tired, it took me two days,” Houghton reminisces over the innings.

“It was very tiring. But it was my best ever innings because I didn’t make a mistake, got dropped or anything like that. I faced a big challenge with Muralitharan. He was a fantastic off-spinner, one of the greatest ever. I had to use a lot of reverse-sweeps to score against him on the off-side. Besides him, they also had other very good bowlers, particularly Chaminda Vaas. And then another very good seamer in (Pramodya) Wickramasinghe as well as the other off-spinner who is now an umpire, (Kumar) Dharmasena.”

Bulawayo-born Houghton is currently holed up in Zimbabwe. When Derbyshire and fellow county side Durham were forced to cut short their pre-season tour of Zimbabwe in March following the coronavirus outbreak, Houghton decided to stay on in the country to see friends and family.

“I’m at home in Harare, still waiting for a plane to go to England,” he says. “There is not a lot you can do about that. It doesn’t really affect my work though because everything else is on lockdown in England at the moment.”

The milestone trip here by the two county teams was lauded as a sign of improvement in the strained relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain, a standoff that adversely affected cricketing ties between the nations.

Worcestershire had been the last county side to travel here in 1997, while England’s national team last visited in 2004.

Houghton is hopeful the arrival of Derbyshire and Durham in March represented a major step in normalising relations, as well as exposing Zimbabwe’s game-time starved cricketers to quality competition.

“I was involved from day one (in organising the trip),” Houghton says. “It was definitely helpful for Zimbabwean cricket to play against these sides. For me, this is how I grew up as a player, playing against these county sides and the ‘A’ sides of the different nations. It’s priceless. For these county teams, it was the perfect pre-season tour, and I can tell you that between me and Durham, we’ve decided to come back next year in March. I was very disappointed not to play on this trip, but not as disappointed as the players. When we were asked to return to England, there were players who didn’t want to go back, they wanted to stay and play. Everybody was looking forward to the matches.”

While county tours naturally have the blessings of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Houghton agrees to the fact that convincing the ECB and the British political authorities to finally allow England’s national team to travel to Zimbabwe may present a different set of challenges both in the boardroom and scheduling, more so with the introduction of the World Test Championship, which pushes a side like Zimbabwe further into the peripheries.

Given this scenario, Houghton says Zimbabwe should concentrate on what it can control, for now, such as inviting county sides and some of the UK’s top cricket-playing schools, in addition to exchanging players during the domestic seasons.

“I’m trying to get two or three of the county players to play in the domestic system here for the local franchises, then get one or two guys from here to play second-division county cricket. The most important thing is to have links first. Zimbabwe is always in my heart. This country gave me a fantastic life, playing cricket at the top. If there is anything I can do to help us get back to where we used to be, I will offer it,” says Houghton.

Houghton has maintained a close relationship with Zimbabwean cricket and knows a quite a lot of the players well, having coached local franchise side Matabeleland Tuskers in more recent times.

A few days after the county sides’ tour abandonment in March, Derbyshire had played and won by 48 runs a single Twenty20 match against a Zimbabwe Select outfit in Bulawayo.
Opining what Zimbabwe should do to be consistently competitive in the five-day format, and if he rates any of the currently active players to one day perform heroics and break his 266-run Test record, Houghton made mention to the country’s premier players and two who faced Derbyshire in March.

“Hamilton (Masakadza) and Tatenda (Taibu) had a few chances, but they’re both retired now,” Houghton says.

“I’m sorry not to refer to names, but there is one youngster (Wesley Madhevere) who played the T20 against us in Bulawayo, he was on the Bangladesh tour (early this year) where he showed a lot of promise. He’s definitely one for the future. Brian Chari always looks good (Madhevere scored 33 and Chari 42 in that game). Problem is guys always look good until 30, 40. If you want to compete and win Test games, you have to look to get 150. Brendan (Taylor) had done that a few times. Sean (Williams) has done that a few times. But you have to learn to get these scores once every four to five matches.”
On his thoughts about cricket’s post-coronavirus future, Houghton says: “That’s the hardest question, and I don’t think anybody in the world is qualified to answer it.”

The former Zimbabwe captain goes on to reveal his fear over the future of One-Day International (ODI) cricket, which he says is now stuck between the other two formats and battling for relevance in a congested calendar.

“You have to understand that prior to this pandemic, world cricket was already changing,” Houghton says. “Most of the money was coming from the shortest version. All these T20 tournaments taking place around the world. And you also had England launching the 100-ball competition this year. The side that I fear for is 50-over cricket. There will still be a strong appetite for Test cricket. Perhaps not as much as before. But I think the game that will suffer is 50-over cricket. You can judge by the crowds. Years ago if you played one-day cricket in coloured clothing, you got a full house. You don’t have 50-over games being sold out anymore.”

Living in the UK, Houghton is also close to Zimbabwean fast bowler Blessing Muzarabani, who put on hold his international career at the end of 2018 to sign a three-year Kolpak contract with county championship side Northamptonshire.

However, with the UK’S withdrawal from the European Union, rules on foreign player signings have also been affected. Brexit is set to nullify Kolpak deals by the end of 2020, with a year still left on the 23-year-old Muzarabani’s Northants contract.

“Guys that will be affected are the South African, West Indian and Zimbabwean players, including Blessing,” remarks Houghton.

“Unless if you try to naturalise and become English. But even that takes five years. You have to give up five to seven years of your international career to try qualify for a British passport and possibly play for England. I don’t see a way around it. When it’s (the Kolpak pact) finished, it’s finished. The nice thing about Blessing is that he’s gained a couple of years of grounding in a very good set-up, and he will return to be a big player for Zimbabwe again.”

Top