November 7, 2002

Back at the Helm - Alistair Campbell

Alistair Campbell was perhaps rather reluctant to take on the mantle of Zimbabwe cricket captain again, but he saw it as a duty to Zimbabwean cricket, with no other obvious willing and capable candidate for the post in the absence of Heath Streak. He spoke to ZCO about his temporary reappointment.

The position regarding the post of national captain is decided each July by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union board. In July 2001 Heath Streak had been reappointed by the board, which was quite taken aback by his resignation in October.

Then followed an unsatisfactory season: Brian Murphy was appointed as Streak's successor, but had hardly started the job when he was sidelined by a hand injury. Stuart Carlisle stood in for him until he returned, only to be beset by another injury, which eventually forced him out of cricket for the rest of the season.

Carlisle continued in the job therefore for the rest of the season, but was appointed on a tour-by-tour basis, uncertain how long he would hold the job and feeling he did not have the confidence of the selectors.

At their meeting in July 2002, the ZCU board had perhaps a three-way choice. They could continue with Carlisle, they could return to Murphy, or they could look elsewhere, which would mean returning to a senior player who had already held or been offered the job.

They decided against Carlisle, perhaps also because he is not a leading international player and a loss of form might make his place in the team difficult - which in fact was to happen at the start of the 2002/03 season. The problem with Murphy was perhaps that during his absence Raymond Price had bowled superbly in Test matches and the reappointment of Murphy would mean either dropping Price or playing two specialist spinners all the time.

So they decided to sound out the senior players in the hope that one of them might relent. Reportedly Andy Flower and Alistair Campbell were approached and found unwilling, on a long-term basis at least. Heath Streak was won over and he agreed to return to the post.

Then came the fateful accident in Colombo, during the wasted week that Zimbabwe were required to stay in Sri Lanka after being knocked out of the ICC Champions Trophy. According to Alistair Campbell, he was riding in a rickshaw in Colombo when apparently a car went through a red robot, forcing the rickshaw driver to take evasive action and rammed into a tree, overturning the vehicle with Heath at the bottom. "Everything landed on top of him and he was scraped along the kerb. Thankfully the injury is in his left shoulder, not his bowling shoulder, but he's had an operation and had pins put in it. He's likely only to start bowling again in the middle of December, and hopefully will be fit and raring to go for the World Cup."

"At the beginning of the season (the ZCU) wanted me to do the vice-captaincy job," says Alistair. "I declined, but said that if Heath Streak was injured I would take over. But I thought that might be one game, if it happened, but it turned out to be quite a serious shoulder injury, so, good to my word, I said I would take over this Pakistan series and the Kenyan one-dayers when I was asked."

According to Alistair, the mood in the team to face Pakistan is very good, despite Streak's injury. "We've got a very good work ethic, a very good sense of professionalism at the moment under Geoff Marsh and Kevin Curran, and we're looking forward to it. We've just come off Logan Cup and there have been some good performances there, and it's been good to get into the longer game. We're playing at home after a long gap, the grounds are looking fantastic at both venues, and we know the opposition are very good. It's going to be a test, but something we're looking forward to."

Who does Alistair regard as the key Pakistan players, those who will receive most attention from the Zimbabwe team think-tank? "No one can forget Shoaib Akhtar," said Alistair. "I think he's a match-winner in his own right and he'll be one to watch. But they have some very good cricketers. They are a side fully of match-winners, and if you just go through their bowling they've got Shoaib and Waqar Younis, who are very good, and then Mohammad Sami and Mohammad Zahid are very good young fast bowlers. Sami bowls quicker than you think and swings the ball. Then obviously Saqlain Mushtaq speaks for himself as well, a world-class off-spinner.

"Then their batting is full of stars as well. They're obviously missing a few of the so-called veterans, like Saeed Anwar and Wasim Akram, who'll be here for the one-day series, but we've played against guys like Hasan Raza before when he was supposedly a 14-year-old and looked very good, so if he's progressed then he must be quite a good player now. Then obviously you have your Yousuf Youhanas and Inzamam-ul-Haqs; we've played them before and they're premium performers at world level.

"So it's going to be tough, really tough. But we're playing at home, we've had a good break over the winter and played some good cricket leading up to it, so the guys are fit and raring to go. We're very happy Wasim Akram won't be here for the Test matches, but he will be here to hunt us down for the one-day games. Wasim is an awesome performer, because I'd have like to play against him at Test level, as he's just about to retire; it would have been nice to have one last battle against him, but that's not to be."

Zimbabwe has a particular game plan to use against Pakistan, but of course Alistair cannot divulge it. He does say, though, that he recognizes the need to strike early, before Pakistan have the chance to dominate, but without Heath Streak in top form this may be an area where Zimbabwe will struggle, especially if Douglas Hondo is not fit in time for the First Test. "They respect us as a dangerous team," he said, so nothing can be expected by way of complacency.

Alistair himself has batted with remarkable consistency this season for Mutare Sports Club in the national club league and for Manicaland in the World Cup, even if it does stop in the nineties, where he has been dismissed several times. He didn't claim any particular incentive, either positive or negative, but said, "I'm feeling good and I hope it augurs well for the future. They say you peak at 30, and I've just reached 30, so I'm making a conscious effort to enjoy the last four or five years of my career. My mind has been my greatest enemy, but at the moment my mindset is right, my mind is clear, and we'll see what happens."

Zimbabwe cricket followers will be hoping this new-found application will extend to the coming series, when he will add to his list of centuries, which is so meagre for one of his ability. Alistair acknowledges that Zimbabwe's batsmen should be aiming to average around 40 in Test cricket, so perhaps he has had a look at his current average of 36 and decided it needs a major boost before it is too late.