September 28, 2001

Dave Houghton on the CFX Academy

The CFX Academy: three years on
The CFX Academy in Harare has just completed its operation. John Ward talks to the man who did more than any other to get it going, and is now the Academy coach, former Test cricketer Dave Houghton. Dave also gives his views on the future direction of cricket in Zimbabwe.

"The idea of the Academy originated from my trip to Australia in 1985. I saw their academy, and also their centres of excellence in different states, and I brought back that idea then. But Zimbabwe cricket in those days was living from hand to mouth, and there wasn't enough money to proceed with a project like this. So it just stayed on the shelf as no more than a good idea for 13 or 14 years.

Then, when I took over as fulltime national coach and was no longer involved with English cricket [Dave coached Worcestershire from 1994 to 1997], I was back here all year round. I decided we would try to pursue the idea again, but there was still no money at that stage. I came up with the idea of copying Ian Botham and doing a sponsored walk from Harare to Bulawayo to see if we could get some money in.

That brought in almost Z$1 million, and we started digging straight away, which forced us to continue to raise funds to finish the job, because otherwise it would always be no more than a nice idea that never happened.

I managed to involve a few others besides myself: Rod Bennett from Schweppes and Simon Parkinson from Radio Three. They got behind me to help me do the walk. At that time I was already in negotiation with Gwynne Jones to come back and run the Academy.

This was the first money to come in. Some of the money came simply in the form of donations, while some was sponsorship per kilometre, and of course there were a lot of donations given on the road while we were walking. The walk also created an awareness that allowed us to market the Academy and get it going financially.

Three years ago in Zimbabwe, a million dollars was going to cover most of what we needed. We had organized a committee that was going to help us build the pavilion, and the quote at that stage was for about Z$3 million. But it was never going to cost us anything, because we had a subcommittee tasked with sourcing funds from extra sponsors. Things changed dramatically over the next three years and in the end it cost us about Z$15 million to put it up.

But a lot of it has been sponsored; where there were shortfalls we found other sponsors to help us out, and Zimbabwe Cricket Union also came in. ZCU put money into the completion of the pavilion and also into the car park, and they have been covering salaries for Gwynne Jones and myself. A lot of people feel ZCU haven't contributed to the Academy, but in fact they have.

CFX [the official Academy sponsors, a foreign exchange company] were our first major sponsors, who were sourced and secured by Gwynne Jones. It's amazing how golf does things in this country, because it was through a golf game that Gwynne met Shaun Molony, the CFX managing director, who agreed to meet and talk further on the project, and after a couple of weeks of discussion CFX decided to come in and assist us for the next three years with our running costs. It is still continuing and has been absolutely invaluable, because it's one thing to have buildings but there are also running costs to be covered.

We wanted the Academy to be sited near the centre of town, but not at Harare Sports Club, because with their calendar the way it is - club cricket, first-class cricket and international cricket, together with the use of their nets for development coaching and so on - the demands on that ground were astronomical. So there was no way we could also move in there and run an academy.

Country Club was selected because it is fairly central and is a beautiful facility that was being underutilized. I think the cricket area was actually being used as a chip-and-putt practice area for their golf course. So we had discussions with Country club, who have quite a progressive committee, and they saw the value in it as well, so we signed a 25-year lease with them.

We really started much too early with the first intake, but it was at my insistence, even though nothing was ready except for the field, because if we hadn't started it would have been put off until the next year, and then to the next, and so on. My feeling was, rather like starting the Academy itself, that if you don't get it going it just remains a good idea.

So we started, and we started with about 18 kids, mainly hand-selected. It proved to be too many and we didn't really have the facilities. I was involved with the national side, so Gwynne was not only having to try and co-ordinate the building of the Academy but also to coach. I feel sorry for the first-year students because we feel we didn't really give them the course they should have got, but we had to start.

Through my connections in England we also got a couple of English pros out to join us [Mark Wagh of Warwickshire and Nathan Batson of Worcestershire]. We charged them for coming to the Academy - not money, but Worcestershire bought us an overhead projector and Warwickshire a digital video camera, equipment we really needed here.

My input at that stage was mainly background connection, as I was national coach: advice for Gwynne and assisting as a trustee, and on the management committee, giving advice, because I couldn't be here often enough to run it. I would occasionally do a few coaching sessions, but it has really only been since I stopped travelling, in September last year, that I've been fully committed as head coach.

My television commentary duties made it a bit of a problem this year because we played so many matches in winter. But normally it should work out nicely, as the Academy runs through winter and I will be doing commentary during the summer.

We are obviously now in the process of re-staffing this place. Gwynne has now left, so we need someone to replace him on an admin side. His actual job, which was mainly connected with the building of the Academy, has now fallen away, so we really need an administrator to replace him.

I also want to get in at least another two coaches. That again will ease the problem should I happen to be away for the odd week doing commentary.

As we go along, we are learning year by year. This year was better than last year; next year will be better than this year, because we're learning to run an Academy just like the players are learning to play cricket. Being a national team coach is a lot easier than being an Academy coach, for example, but we want to try to increase the staff and also increase the curriculum.

I don't think we're doing enough at the moment about everything outside the playing of the game that is still part of cricket. We're not doing enough on marketing or teaching the kids about reading or negotiating contracts, or about how to run clubs - because that will eventually be the case in ten or 15 years' time; people will have to go and run sports clubs - ground maintenance and the preparation of pitches, practice areas and so on. They all need to know these things and we haven't done enough of it, so this year we want to make sure our curriculum included these extra parts of the game.

For the future, there are plans for a sports science institute to go in above the ground floor behind the sightscreen. Some people in the management committee have that as a priority; I don't. I would much rather see us do this thing well first before we go on to the next thing. My priorities would be to improve the equipment on the grounds - a better tractor, for example. I'd rather see money put into those areas, and into transport. I think we need a bus, preferably something like a 22-seater, because at the moment we're rather static and we can't travel without hiring vehicles, which is a major expense. Those are my personal priorities, but I'm just one of the management committee and others think that the sports injuries side is a bigger priority.

We are in negotiation about getting an electronic scoreboard for the ground; the people who helped us out with the sightscreen, the present scoreboard and the netting seem to be quite interested in it. But it's not a major priority to me, because the scoreboard we have is adequate for the cricket we play, and that would be a luxury bonus. I'd rather see us build up what we have and produce better cricketers first, and then look to those other areas.

We have reached the stage now where we feel 15 or 16 at the Academy is the ideal number. In our first year we had 18, plus two England professionals, and in our second year we took 17, and those were too many. This year we took 15, which we think is an ideal number. In the first two years we arranged to send the kids over to England in the winter to play club cricket, which was quite a good idea but a huge expense.

I think we have now got down to where we are going to end up, which is to run the Academy from March to September, through the winter months. That doesn't affect club or provincial cricket, so we're not being accused by anybody of stealing their players. I think things are starting to fall into line quite nicely.

We have a problem in that the Logan Cup usually starts in February, but we will get around that because we will know who will be at the Academy during the next year by the end of December. So I will advise them that we start the Academy on 1 March, but we do have Logan Cup in the middle of February, so I will call the guys in for a week, train them up as a team and we will play the Logan Cup games. It's nice to be part of the first-class system, but it's not our priority. Our priority is to teach them everything we can about cricket in six months.

So we will still get through the Logan Cup, but obviously playing at the start of our Academy year is not ideal. It would be better to play later in the year, but I live in hope that once they have finished the restructuring in ZCU they will appoint someone with vision as director of cricket who will organize that.

In the last three years we have set about building up a local first-class structure, which I think has gone well. The standard might not be the best ever, but it will be much better in a few years' time. Everybody else seems hell-bent on playing national league one-day cricket and getting our sides to play in the South African first-class competitions. This defeats our object.

The view is that next season our A side will play in the SuperSport Series, which is nice, but it takes all season and we just won't see those guys. They also want to field another side, a third team, in the Castle Bowl. If we have those two sides, together with our national side that we never see, that takes 45 first-class players out of our system. How are we ever going to have a decent first-class domestic competition?

That is what we need in this country, a reasonably strong domestic first-class competition. There is no reason why, if we didn't put a bit of effort into it, we couldn't have a domestic first-class system as good as, say, New Zealand. Their first-class structure in New Zealand produces some decent players and they hold their own in international cricket. We should be doing the same.

But we seem to be pushing everything to go and play in South Africa with a select band of people. We need somebody to direct cricket in this country who has a feeling for improving the standard of local cricket. That's where we're heading and that's where we're trying to put our focus. "