July 29, 2010

No Dizzy heights

But Jason Gillespie's first full-time coaching job shows his commitment to his new field

Jason Gillespie's coaching credentials haven't been tested at first-class level but as he prepares for his first senior position there can be no doubt about his desire. In two weeks Gillespie, Australia's sixth-most successful Test bowler, will move to Zimbabwe to guide the Mid-West Rhinos provincial side, whose home ground at Kwekwe is halfway between Harare and Bulawayo.

Just mentioning Zimbabwe is enough to send some cricket supporters into indignant monologues about the state of the game in the country. It is where Australia refused to tour in 2007, a decision that last month contributed to John Howard's knock-back as the ICC vice-president, and where Robert Mugabe has ruled and cruelled over for 30 years.

Encouraging reports of change have been emerging and Gillespie, 35, feels comfortable relocating his family - his wife Anna and three boys under five, including a six-week-old - for the cricket season on an adventure that will determine whether his future includes a kitbag full of old balls and a clipboard. That doesn't mean he is without reservations.

"Zimbabwe has had its issues, no doubt about that," he told Cricinfo from England, where he has been a guest player for Lashings. "My wife and I have talked about it, I've spoken to a number of people there and they are really optimistic about how they are going. Things are moving in the right direction."

The cricket climate is significant for Gillespie and after chatting to Heath Streak, a former opponent and currently the national side's bowling coach, he was impressed by Zimbabwe's desire to rebuild the first-class structure. "As a new coach it's a great challenge and exciting that they're really looking to get things right over there," he said. "So I didn't have a problem. As for everything else, I'm a cricket coach and I'm there to help the Mid-West Rhino cricketers to improve."

Kwekwe, a mining and steel town, is about 200km south-west of Harare and a similar distance to the north-east of Bulawayo. The Mid-West franchise began last year and while the sports ground is suitable for games, there are better training facilities in Harare, giving the squad two bases.

It's hard to think of a place in an international cricket country that could be further in outlook and prestige from the lush and established Adelaide Oval, Gillespie's home over 14 seasons of first-class high performance. He quickly achieved cult status at the start of his career and by the end of his 71 Tests was a mainstream hero.

Since he retired from the domestic game in 2008, Gillespie has been involved in the ICL, started a sports shop and coaching business in Adelaide, and last year was a commentator for the Ashes. He applied for the England and Western Australia bowling coach positions, but when overlooked decided he would go anywhere for an opportunity.

"I'm willing to make a move to Zimbabwe," he said. "It does show that I am serious about coaching and giving it a go. Who knows whether coaching is going to be right for me, or if I'll be good for coaching. You don't know until you try it. I've certainly got plenty to offer and it's a great opportunity to implement some of my ideas."

As the head coach, Gillespie is ready for the extra scrutiny and has been reading about the players in his squad, which is led by Vusi Sibanda. Other internationals in the outfit include Brendan Taylor, the legspinner Graeme Cremer and Ed Rainsford, the fast bowler. Ian Harvey, a former Australia one-day representative, has also been briefing Gillespie on what to expect, after the allrounder turned out in the Twenty20 competition earlier in the year.

It's not just the cricket that Gillespie will be learning about. Interviews for the job were done by phone and email and his only trips to the country were in 2003 and 2004. The first visit was a fly-in, fly-out excursion for a World Cup game in Bulawayo, at a time when Andy Flower and Henry Olonga were mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe.

A year later Australia were meant to play Tests, but the exodus of 15 top-level local players led to the tour being trimmed to three one-sided 50-over games. Australia have not been back. "I really enjoyed it there, I was only there for a week or so, and I have very good memories of Zimbabwe," Gillespie said. "I just want to get over there and get cracking."

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo