Introducing: Commentary in Shona and Ndebele
It's the afternoon of the third ODI against India and in a small, slightly frayed commentary box at the end of a dimly lit corridor in the media centre at Harare Sports Club, a pair of radio pioneers are readying themselves to go on air. As the clock ticks past 3pm, Jeff Murimbechi and Godfrey 'Chief' Koti take their seats in front of the room's large open window and put on their head sets. In a matter of seconds, they'll be broadcasting live radio cricket commentary in Shona and Ndebele for the first time for Star FM.
"We've got a first for you here on Star FM," says presenter Steve Vickers, "bringing you commentary not in English, but in Shona and Ndebele with Chief Koti and Jeff Murimbechi here with me in the commentary box. Chief!"
"Maswera sei mukoma, Steve (good afternoon brother Steve)," begins Koti, and with that they're away. India are cruising towards victory and the situation is dire for Zimbabwe but the minutes that follow the presenter's introduction are filled with joyful exuberance. Test Match Special it ain't, but one gets the feeling that this is African cricket as it's meant to be described: with energy, humour and in a vernacular that millions can relate to.
After Koti's lively description of the state of play, Murimbechi replies with the sort of dry wit that's a staple of any long-term follower of cricket in Zimbabwe. "I'm amazed that you are so excited when I'm crying tears of blood because the Zimbabwean boys have failed to put on enough runs," he responds, in Shona.
Koti and Murimbechi have a clear chemistry on air, bouncing jokes off each other constantly. Their chosen languages, too, are complementary. Murimbechi's Shona, with it's slightly slower pace and rolled R's, is the antidote to Koti's staccato Ndebele delivery: For the uninitiated, think Brazilian football commentary, but with more clicks.
"The idea of having commentary in Shona and Ndebele is fascinating especially to those who understand the languages because they wonder how a commentator will translate regular terms like 'the off side' or a 'left-arm spin' and it changes their perception of the game," explained Murimbechi after their commentary stint.
"It seems very bizarre to most people but what they forget is that the players on the field normally call out instructions in the languages that they grew up speaking. For example, Tatenda Taibu gave instructions and encouragement in Shona while Heath Streak would talk to his bowlers in Ndebele."
The idea of covering cricket matches live in a local language has been around for a while, but in Murimbechi and Koti the platform has found, perhaps, its ideal proponents. Alson Mfiri, a radio presenter, used to read the news, including descriptions of the cricket scores, in Shona, and a couple of years ago Brian Goredema, Lawrence Trusida and Sinikiwe Mpofu - who played cricket for the national women's team - trialed the idea of commentary in a mixture of English, Shona and Ndebele on National FM. Murimbechi and Koti, however, made the format their own.
"The first time we combined was for a Test match against Bangladesh," Murimbechi said. After trialing their routine for various radio stations, Koti and Murimbechi took it to Star FM. There, sports producer Steve Vickers knew he was onto something special, and offered the pair a slot during India's visit. The response to their commentary has been very positive indeed.
"It's almost as if we assume different personas when we're on air. My combination with Godfrey won the hearts of listeners and we made a brand of it.
"Shona and Ndebele cultures are very vibrant and the language depicts a lot of sensation in every statement," added Murimbechi. "The same way we grew up watching soccer on TV and preferring the radio commentary is the same way I would like people to enjoy cricket. We have been asked by people why we tend to scream and go very loud when we do it in vernacular but, hey, that's how Zimbabweans talk when they are excited about something!"
Cricket's extensive lexicon is a miniature language all of its own, and can often appear almost opaque to outsiders. The challenge of conveying the unfolding action is doubled when one has to bring archaic English terms to life for a Shona or Ndebele audience with no direct cricketing terms or references of their own.
"I can say that it is not easy to convert a whole glossary of cricket terms into Shona. I barely speak Ndebele, that's Chief's speciality, but people enjoy how well we have been able to use derived idioms, adjectives and invented nouns to accurately give an account of live games," Murimbechi says. "A phrase like 'he smacks the ball" will sound like 'azvambura bhora nemubhadha!' An innings will be 'jana rekurova nemubhadha', a literal translation being 'one's allotted turn to hit with the bat.'"
"It's a great achievement for the game, the station and of course for an individual like me," added Koti. "The commentary in vernacular languages creates a platform for people to understand the beautiful game that has in the past been dubbed as an elite sport."
The popularity of Xhosa language rugby commentary in South Africa is showing just how successful sports coverage in the vernacular can be, and there's certainly scope to expand the coverage of cricket in Zimbabwe via the use of radio.
Recent changes to the licensing laws have made it easier for independent radio stations to claim a space on the airwaves, and with almost 70% of the country's population living in the rural areas - where radio is often the only way one can receive news or any coverage of sports and most people don't speak English - there's certainly a need.
"We, through Star FM Radio, are giving an opportunity to other people to understand cricket across the entire nation," concluded Koti.
"We'll definitely do more commentary in vernacular for more games to come since the response we got after this game was overwhelming."
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town