February 22, 2002

Dave Hougton on the CFX Academy

Dave Houghton, CFX Academy coach, talks to CricInfo about his team's Logan Cup victory over Manicaland in their first match, and their prospects for the year. This was only the Academy's second victory in their three-year history as a Logan Cup team.

The official start of the Academy is actually 25 February, so we had to bring in the squad in a couple of days before the match just to prepare for this game. We only had 12 available, because there are five away: Tatenda Taibu with the Zimbabwe side in India, Stuart Matsikenyeri is still playing club cricket in Australia and gets back in April, `Syke' Nkala and Chappie Coventry are in South Africa with the Board XI, and young Sherezad Shah is in South Africa with his mother, who is not very well.

So we only had 12 here, which is the 12 we used in the game. I didn't get to see much of them as a squad, but obviously I had seen quite a bit of them as individuals. We were pretty comfy that we had a reasonable outfit.

Our captain is Andre Hoffman, who is probably the most senior guy at the Academy this year. It's normally our policy to rotate captains, but we decided to stick with one captain for the Logan Cup and then rotate in our other fixtures through the year, to give everybody a crack at captaincy.

Guy Goosen filled the wicket-keeping role for us, which he wouldn't normally do; he's here as a batsman and probably the wicket-keeping will be done by Taibu and Coventry when we're together full-time.

So we had a couple of good days' net practice here and took the side down to Mutare on Thursday, with some fielding practice there on Thursday afternoon. We got under way on Friday morning.

Mutare Sports Club itself was looking a bit better. I'd heard some horrific stories about how it was overgrown, and it still looks as if it could do with a closer haircut. But by and large it was good. The outfield was rather on the grassy side, but because it's so hard underneath the ball ran very well.

To be honest, the way we were looked after down there was fantastic. They provided magnificent teas for us every morning, with good lunches; we had our own changing room, which was swept and cleaned every day. They really went out of their way to make it a good first-class venue. They also have two sets of brand-new covers, and funnily enough we did get some rain on the third day, but the covers are magnificent.

So things are looking up, and having Kevan Barbour there as a fulltime employee will help. It will all depend now on how much the ZCU will assist them financially to get off the ground. It's a lovely ground when it's in good nick.

We didn't have our permanent openers with us, so we had to make do with some makeshift openers, who did pretty well. Otherwise it was a pretty well-balanced side, considering we had only 12 to choose from. We were probably a little top-heavy in the bowling department, but we batted a fair way down.

We won the toss, and did the right thing on that wicket, I think, which was to bat first. One of the biggest problems we have at the Academy is to try and knock out the ten or twelve years of one-day cricket that these kids have only ever learned from, and try to teach them how to play the longer version.

That was still very evident in this first encounter, when a lot of the batsmen got out to one-day shots - too eager to get after the bowler instead of building a sound foundation to work from when building an innings. We lost a few early wickets; I thought Hoffman (47) played pretty well, as did Conan Brewer (66).

But the main contribution was 104 from Glen Barrett on his first-class debut. There is a typical example of one-day cricket, though I'm not sure he's the type of batsman I would try to change, because he has one way of playing and it was very effective. I think he scored 104 off about 56 balls, and really tore into the bowlers. It may be an indication of the bowling side we were playing against, but at the same time, in the context of this game, it was a very important innings for us.

That gave us 298 in the first innings, which wasn't a bad effort. Probably the only disappointment was that four of our top six batsmen gave their wickets away with one-day-type shots - they didn't make the bowlers work hard enough.

Manicaland replied pretty well. Neil Ferreira played a good first-class innings and he occupied the crease, kept the ball on the ground and didn't look like getting out. He was 69 not out overnight but came out on the second day and completed his hundred. It was a good example I could point out to my players. He gave one chance, which we put down, when he was about 60, but he played basically a good, solid first-class innings. He had some support from Kingsley Went, who was unfortunately run out at the back end of the first day, but really it was Neil Ferreira who held their innings together.

For us, Pete Rinke bowled really well; he came on to bowl a spell just before lunch on the second day and picked up four quick wickets, just bowling solid line and length, hitting the ground hard. That got us the breakthrough and it meant that we took a 26-run lead.

Our catching was quite exceptional, which was one of the things I'm very impressed with in this current squad. We've got some really good slip fielders in Hoffman and Conan Brewer; Neetan Chouhan at short leg took some good catches, and Innocent Chinyoka, who's a youngster I didn't know much about, opened the batting and got a pair of twenties, run out both times, bowled some nice little seamers, and he has a great pair of hands. He ended up taking four catches in the innings, two in the gully and two in the covers - not a bad first outing.

Nyasha Chari and young Jordane Nicolle bowled well with the new ball, too, and got rid of the openers. Nicolle was rather unlucky to take only two wickets, but he had a couple dropped as well. I was quite impressed; our bowling is more of a first-class standard than our batting. We bowled a steady line and length and were quite aggressive with our quicks.

We're a little short in the spin department at the moment: Neetan Couhan is doing that job for us, and developing his leg-spin is one of the reasons why he's at the Academy. I feel that he bowled better the more we gave him to bowl; you can see he's a guy who hasn't bowled enough in the last two or three years. He has a lot of potential. He did the same in the second innings, bowling well after a poorish start.

In the second innings, we got a good start again, and Chouhan this time batted pretty well (72). He's a makeshift opener and would normally bat in the middle order. He played a lot better, much tighter, and Innocent Chinyoka also batted for a long period. He only got 25 before being run out, so his first-class debut starts with two run-outs.

Again we had too many one-day shots. Goosen played well for 35, but was out to a poorish shot. Vusi Sibanda played quite well for 18, but missed a long hop and was bowled trying to hit it out of the ground. We lost a few wickets through one-day-type errors, but once again Barrett came in at number eight and hit 80 in 60 balls.

He played better in the second innings, funnily enough, because he was more inclined to hit the boundaries and then take a single, whereas in the first innings he just continued to blaze at most things. Maybe he is learning as well, because if we can give him some sort of defensive technique, just for occasions when the bowlers don't actually get it in his hitting zone, he could make quite a lot of runs. That 80 helped us to a second-innings total of 286, which gave us a lead of 312, Manicaland needing 313 to win.

Young Nicolle bowled particular well in the second innings; he picked up the first four batsmen, bowling aggressively. I was really impressed with his spell; if anything, his captain may have overbowled him a bit in giving him 12 overs unchanged. But he picked up the first four wickets, and you couldn't ask for more from your opening bowler.

It was a good partnership, because Nyasha Chari bowled well from the other end, although he didn't get any wickets this time. But it was a nice promising opening pairing we've got there.

Then it was just a case of trying to winkle the rest out, which took us 48 overs. Andre Hoffman picked up a couple of cheap wickets, two for 12, and once again Chouhan came in and bowled badly in his first three or four overs, but the more he bowled, he started to land the ball and bowl some really good leg-spin, picking up two for 41. It was a much more disciplined performance by the bowlers than the batsmen.

And once again there was some great catching, especially in the slips. Andre Hoffman himself took one or two really good ones. I was impressed, not just with the fact that the Academy won, but with the standard of cricket over the three days. Both sides played pretty well considering they were missing a few good players each. It impresses me that the average age of those sides was about 18½ and I just have to believe that in four or five years' time, when they have that much first-class experience behind them, and more youngsters coming through the Academy into these areas, our first-class structure will be pretty good.

The Academy guys were very chuffed with their victory; they're youngsters and they're quite excitable. They played good cricket and they deserved the victory. They were absolutely elated, to be honest. What I like about this year's Academy - and I'm not knocking the other years that have been here - but these guys seem to be the most enthusiastic I've had, right from the start.

We haven't gone into the courses yet, so we haven't started with any physical training or anything like that, but they themselves have been out and about doing physical training. At the end of each day they went for runs and came and warmed down properly; they did all the right things without being told to. I liked their attitude straight away; in fact, even today those in town have been in training. I think we've got a good squad here.

Our next match is against Mashonaland A - we have three in a row here at the Academy, and then we play our last game in the Midlands. We have a two-week break in the middle, but that's all right because we can get on with our course.

I'm looking forward to seeing Mutare Sports Club back in the condition it should be. It's a fantastic venue, and I just hope that ZCU get behind it as much as they have Midlands, putting the facility back where it belongs, which is one of the top four in the country. I went there every morning at seven o'clock just to get a better look at it.

They have a lovely borehole, but it's completely in the overgrown grass and it took us 15 minutes to find it, even though we knew roughly which area it was in. All it needs is for the pump to be fixed; they have irrigation pipes but they can't water the outfield because the only water they can use at the moment, the municipal, is too expensive. It's simple things like that, and it doesn't seem to me to need an exaggerated cost to jack the place up.

They have the new covers, the club itself was looking pretty neat, but there is that old hangar-type building on one side that was built about 15 years ago and never finished. That's another thing that I don't think needs a lot of money. I thought that if you knocked off one of the walls and used those bricks to build up the rest of the place and thatched the roof, it would make a beautiful outside viewing area that could include a bar. Those sort of things don't take a lot of money, just a little bit of effort and thought.

The top right-hand corner of the ground, where the nets used to be, is overgrown; there is a very tatty-looking fence around it that hasn't been repaired for ages. You don't need to go digging around to build a new practice area; all you have to do is scarify it down and put the right grass on top, because you have a surface that's been there for 20 years. Then jack up the fences around it; again, a small cost for a big improvement. I personally would like to see our facilities committee getting down there and getting stuck in, getting the ground back to what it should be.

We had a fair number of spectators there on the Saturday and a few on the Sunday. What was nice was that there was quite a good number of schoolkids. There were one or two schoolkids playing against us: Tino Mawoyo and Andre Soma both play for Hillcrest College, so they had a bit of support. We also had Adil Kugotsa, who also played, and he's from Mutare Boys' High, and had his fair share of support as well.

When we were done there on the Thursday, I watched some of their practices. Not only was the Manicaland side practising, but they also had another 40 or 50 kids working out in their Academy-style nets. It's lovely to see the enthusiasm for cricket in that area. They have a little twelfth man who is about four foot six and looks about 12 years old; they told me he's about 16 or 17. I can't tell you his surname, but he's Marvin somebody. I watched him bowl and he's an absolutely fantastic leg-spinner. He really gives it a good rip. He came on the field on numerous occasions to do twelfth-man duties; he's an absolute livewire in the field and chucks the ball a mile for a little guy.

All these sort of things are so encouraging for a guy like me who is involved in cricket and sees the enthusiasm, the encouragement and the talent that's available. It was a good weekend and I enjoyed it.

I think the overall state of cricket in this country is much better off than it was a few years ago. I think by expanding the league, obviously you will dissipate the standard to the league to a certain extent, but I think that's a short-term problem. Give it another couple of years, and you'll have a bigger league and a stronger standard.

I think the Logan Cup, the first-class tournament, could be run better and it could be played more often, and with more of our national players around. I think we're spending a bit too much time looking after A sides in the Castle Bowl, and not enough time looking after our own first-class situation.

I'd love to see a situation where we don't play past Under-19 level in South Africa; I'd like to see us pull out of the Castle Bowl and keep our players here, and really work out our first-class structure here so we've got a strong system. It would be like New Zealand taking their best players and going to play in the Australian first-class system. What would happen to the New Zealand first-class system, minus all their best players? I think that's what we should be concentrating on; it's something I hope to bring to the Board's attention the next time I get given the opportunity to speak to them.

Even if the Board XI did get promotion to the SuperSport Series down there, I don't believe it will help our cricket as a whole. It will benefit 13 people who get the opportunity to play. But it means we are much weaker now. In the first round of this Logan Cup, one match had to be postponed because two sides couldn't put out first-class teams. We do have cricket developing, but not to the standard yet where we can afford to be without our best 30 players. I understand our national team needs to travel a fair amount, so let's be without our best 14 players - but not our second-best.

If we keep our A team here, playing first-class cricket, they will be strengthening teams all round the country, and we will end up with a good first-class structure, by which we will produce better Test players. At the moment, by sending just the A side to play in South Africa, only those 13 blokes get the exposure, while the others are playing first-class cricket, but against weaker sides.

I'm a big one for building up our own structures. Why don't we offer Namibia and Kenya entrance into our first-class system? Why must we play in South Africa's system? I'd like to see it played more often, too - with this present system of playing everything in a five-week period in February and March, we can fall into the state where the national team is never here during that period, but if we played it throughout the season - and my suggestion would be to play it almost every second weekend - we would end up with ten weekends of first-class cricket. Everyone would play each other twice, home and away. The chances are that the national team would be in the country for at least 50 per cent of those games. Then we would have a good, strong first-class structure.

I find lack of finance a very poor excuse. Everyone is very well aware of what players get paid, what their TV bonuses are and how much money is available here and there. If we are going to spend some money, at least spend it in an area that is going to develop our cricket. Finance is no excuse; they have more than enough money to cover the cost of a proper first-class system.