UNLESS you count the day in 1949 when Rhodesia famously beat the mighty All Blacks, Dave Houghton’s Test cricket double-century heroics just a stone’s throw away remains the greatest sporting achievement by anybody from this country on Bulawayo soil.
Hartsfield, historically Zimbabwe’s premier single-purpose rugby venue, and Queens Sports Club, are roughly 200 metres apart. But 45 years separate the two world-class feats.
Even these days, if the sporting gods decide to smile down on this nation and design a dream calendar on a single day, you may get to enjoy one of the most memorable times of your life in Zimbabwe’s beautiful second largest city.
In the morning, it means you could arrive at Queens to watch some of the world’s best bowlers run in to bowl real fast, or some of the world’s best batsmen clear the boundary with elegant stroke-play.
Then later in the afternoon – 15 minutes or so before kick-off if you like – you could then take a short walk to Hartsfield, just two streets across the neighbourhood, to witness one of the biggest crowds you will ever see at an international rugby match in Africa, and one of the most electrifying sporting atmospheres anywhere on the continent.
To a lot of people, there is something exotically deceiving about Bulawayo at first sight. For me, I would say the deceptive feature of this city stems from its outward serenity—a calmness that rather belies the rich sporting heritage of the place.
That 10-8 conquest of New Zealand at Hartsfield, 71 years ago, was a momentous occasion for a proud town that had only been established 55 years earlier.
That shock result made Bulawayo probably the smallest and newest town, or city, to ever play host to the defeat of the All Blacks, the best team in world rugby, and one of the most recognised names in global sport.
45 years later, Dave Houghton—befittingly so in his place of birth—would score the highest ever Test score by a Zimbabwean, 266 runs, against a strong Sri Lanka team in October 1994 at Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo.
Queens Sports Cub, on the outskirts of Bulawayo’s central business district, goes back about 90 years of colonial Rhodesia and 40 years of independent Zimbabwe.
Quite interestingly, history records that Queens, in fact, came into existence four years before the city itself was officially established.
The ground was named for Queen Victoria by early pioneer settlers, at much the same time in about 1890 as was the world famous Victoria Falls, some four-hour drive away from Bulawayo.
That year, 200 settlers and 300 police officers came up from Kimberly, South Africa, mainly seeking gold.
Queens probably used to have the most boisterous bar in the country and a nearby signpost gives distances to Cairo and to the Cape of Good Hope, at both ends of Africa.
I thoroughly enjoy covering international cricket at Queens. It is a charming little place to work and watch the game, a venue where the ground’s old structure has, in much later years, fitted harmoniously into the requirements of a modern-day international stadium.
Its cricket square is surrounded by the shade of indigenous trees along one side, and a rickety scoreboard that gives Queens the perfect vintage demeanour.
And then there are the “fall-down” practice nets in one corner.
Every Test-playing country has taken on Zimbabwe there since 1992 when the African nation attained five-day format status. Many a six have been smashed at Queens into the surrounding block of residential apartments, and many a century recorded.
The game of cricket has a very long and proud history in the city of Bulawayo.The Second Matabele War or the Matabeleland Rebellion—between 1896 and 1897—happened when cricket was already in full swing at Queens Sports Club.
There was also a danger to early cricketers, as sixes from hard-hitting batsmen mingled with the warriors’ assegais!Numerous magnificent innings have been seen at Queens across many different generations.
But none of this has stuck in modern memory quite like Bulawayo-born Houghton’s 266 against Sri Lanka, 26 years ago, which took him the best part of two days in an display of high-level concentration.
In defying a fearsome Sri Lanka bowling attack spearheaded by Muttiah Muralitharan, arguably the best spinner the world has seen, and speedster Chaminda Vaas, one of the finest new-ball bowlers of our time, Houghton wrote his name into Zimbabwean cricket lore with an innings filled with class, patience and sometimes aggression.
Class and records are synonymous with Bulawayo, when you consider also that it is the hometown of Peter Ndlovu—Zimbabwe’s best national team player in history—a man who holds the distinction of being the first African footballer to play in the modern-era English Premier League.
A nimble-footed forward with terrifying pace in his heyday, they fittingly nicknamed Ndlovu the Bulawayo Bullet. He indeed was dynamite in a small package, simply unstoppable when on song.
Then of course you have Bruce Grobbelaar, the legendary goalkeeper who despite being born in South African port city Durban, has strong roots in Bulawayo. The eccentric shot-stopper grew up there and initially played for the city’s heartbeat, Highlanders, Zimbabwe’s oldest football club.
Known as Jungleman across the footballing world, Grobbelaar is Zimbabwe’s greatest export in this sport, a winner of six league championships and a single European title with English giants Liverpool in the 1980s.
When you speak of noteworthy history-makers from that part of the country, you cannot forget Henry Olonga, Zimbabwe’s first black national team cricketer. Though born in a neighbouring country like Grobbelaar, the ex-fast bowler also calls Bulawayo his home, raised and taught all his sport there.
Bulawayo’s sporting genes are something which this city can be hugely proud of.
It cannot therefore be chance, or mere accident, that ex-Zimbabwe internationals like Peter Ndlovu, Heath Streak and Brendan Dawson—revered long-serving captains as well as record-breaking players in our country’s three main sporting disciplines—are all Bulawayo-born and bred.
In the same vein, it cannot also be coincidental, is it, that the four Zimbabwe footballers to have featured in the English Premiership—Grobbelaar, Ndlovu, Benjani Mwaruwari and Marvelous Nakamba—all have some connection to this place they call the City of Kings.
My attention was drawn this week to the city’s 126th anniversary, a milestone that means quite a lot to the folk of Skies—as Bulawayo is also fondly known. This week’s piece is my humble tribute to more than a century of a pleasant place’s sporting tradition!