November 24, 2000

Dave Houghton's view: our national players

Dave Houghton was the Zimbabwe team national coach until the end of the West Indian tour last April, and is better qualified than anyone else to know what the Zimbabwe national players are really like. He gives his views to John Ward on players of the present and recent past.

ANDY BLIGNAUT. He has loads of talent, but has a lot of injury worries, which is a real concern for such a young guy. I think the thing with Andy is that most of his life has come easy to him, therefore he finds it quite difficult to adjust when he gets up to the highest level and times are difficult. As I said, loads of talent, but whether he will ever get to produce it on the major scene is entirely up to him. Obviously if he does he is going to be a major attribute to the Zimbabwe side. But I just worry that at the moment there are no results when he is given the opportunity.

EDDO BRANDES. Eddo has been a fantastic figure over the last 15 years. He's had his injury problems but he has won matches for us almost single-handedly. He's coming to the end of his career, and has had to make way in the national side for young up-and-comings, which is a natural progression. He has been a fantastic servant; I believe it's his benefit year this year, in recognition of the service he's put into Zimbabwe cricket, and hopefully he will do well out of it. I think he's in his last season now.

GARY BRENT. I rate Gary Brent and think he's a good cricketer. He's a whole-hearted performer who gives you 100% every time he goes out there. For some reason he never seems to catch the selectors' eye for too long. An example is that he was on the England tour and performed pretty well on it, came back and has not been near the national side and is not even in the A squad. He seems to have one of those names that is forgotten when it comes to selection meetings, but I think he has a decent future. He's not going to break any records, but he's a good whole-hearted performer. Carl Rackemann last year revamped his bowling action and he's in the process of coming to grips with it. He was a big inswing bowler and Carl has turned him into an outswinger; that takes a while to get used to. A superb fielder who gives 100% with the bat; the sort of cricketer who could contribute in many ways, particularly in the one-day game. He's still young, only 24, so he's got a future and I'm sure he'll get another opportunity and cement a place.

ALISTAIR CAMPBELL. Alistair potentially is the best batsman we have in this country. We've all seen his ability with the bat, but his whole career goes in peaks and troughs, and he had a disastrous two years. I get the feeling with Alistair that when he's under pressure for his place he plays better; when he's on the back of a few runs he tends not to score for a while. It's almost an arrogance as opposed to over-confidence. The two years he was captain he was guaranteed his place all the time and his performances weren't good. Right up to the end when he resigned the captaincy he was struggling to make the team. Now he's not captain, he's basically playing under the same rules as everyone else: if you fail, you have a chance of being dropped, and we've seen the improvement in his performance, because he's playing under pressure.

It's ridiculous that he hasn't got a Test hundred, but sometimes that can just be a mental barrier; he's certainly been playing pretty well and this season especially he's played some good one-day knocks. We've played three Tests this season and he's scored runs in two out of the three, so he's back in form and I'm sure everybody hopes he'll pass this barrier. You can't just go out in Test cricket and blaze fours and sixes, make a pretty forty or something like that, which he's been guilty of doing. You've actually got to work very hard, and once he first gets through the barrier he'll score plenty more. There's not that big a jump between first-class and Test cricket, and he makes plenty of hundreds in first-class cricket because he has the confidence and know-how to do it. So I'm sure when he does it in Test cricket he'll make quite a few. But he must always play under pressure; you can't allow him to sit back and relax on what he did last week or a month ago.

STUART CARLISLE. Stuey has been in and out of the side ever since he first started; he never really had a run in the side in one position. With the departure of Murray Goodwin the number three berth became open and Stuey has grabbed it. He's done pretty well; he hasn't the best technique in the world but he makes up for it with a big heart and some intelligent cricket. He uses his head and makes the best out of what he has. All he's got to do is start to convert good starts into big scores. Once he does that, I think he'll go a long way.

CRAIG EVANS. Craig murders the league and doesn't do too badly in the A side. But he's had plenty of opportunity in the main side and played 49 one-day internationals, with only one score over fifty. So there seems to be something that at the highest level he just doesn't perform. He's still relatively young, abut 30, so he has some time ahead of him, but he's going to find it difficult to get back into the national side. There are one or two youngsters who have taken the chance now and got in ahead of him, so he's in the wings again and it's going to take quite a few big scores in the B side before he gets another opportunity. When you see him play, he murders attacks just below Test level, but when he goes up that one extra level he doesn't do anything. It could well be that, like Andy Blignaut, he's found things too easy, and always played for a strong club side in Old Georgians, so he's never had it tough at league level, and unfortunately does find it very tough in the national side.

ANDY FLOWER. I can't speak highly enough of Andy; I think he's the most fantastic cricketer. He plays particularly well when the team is under pressure; an example of that is this last Test [the First against India in Delhi]. When the team is struggling Andy Flower is at his best. He's got a magnificent average, with eight Test hundreds now, against five or six different countries, so against all attacks - spin, seam or quicks. I hope for his sake, to prolong his career a little bit, that he gives the gloves away as soon as there's a ready successor and just works on his batting. He's the best batsman we've ever produced, I would think. He's got an average of about 47 now over almost 50 Tests, and that's a mighty good career under his belt.

GRANT FLOWER. Grant's form has dropped off dramatically in the last two years. I would have said two years ago that he was one of the top opening batsmen in world cricket, but his form has dropped off quite drastically. I think the problem with Grant is that cricket is his only piece of life. He has nothing else outside it; he doesn't have a social life or any other hobbies - just cricket and the gym. Unfortunately that puts extra pressure on him, be if he's not succeeding he's got nothing else. He's gone through a really bad patch, and I think that if it doesn't sort itself out very shortly he's going to find himself out of the side. Which is a pity because he's an all-rounder: he's a superb fielder, he bowls pretty decent left-arm spin, he's a nice guy to have in your unit, but it's just not working with the bat. They have moved him down the order in one-day games, which has been successful, and maybe that's something he should look at in Test cricket, because he's just going nowhere as an opening batsman.

MURRAY GOODWIN. Murray was a superb player, and I really think he made a mistake by going back to Australia. From all I hear now, he's actually struggling to make the Western Australian side, which for a guy who played so well at Test cricket is sad. He had everything going for him here and I think his decision was the wrong one. (Also see under Neil Johnson, below.)

TREVOR GRIPPER. He had a good start and got that lovely 60 against Australia, who have a pretty decent attack, and batted for a long time against them, and a 40-odd against the West Indies in Trinidad against a good fast bowling attack. He hasn't done anything else, and one of the problems Trevor has is that he doesn't play off the front foot, he doesn't get forward. So that's why his success is primarily against the genuine quicks, because he plays well off the back foot. Once he can learn to play both, I think his career has every chance of succeeding, but until that time he's going to struggle against your genuine line-and-length seamers, your England-style bowlers, and that's what has stopped his career at the moment. He's in the A side, but hasn't really put together any big knocks this season, so he's fighting his way back. The opening berth in the Zimbabwe cricket team has always been a real problem, and we've tried various people, Trevor being one of them. The opportunity is there for whoever wants to grab it, and I think his opportunity is there if he just gets a few more runs in the A side.

ADAM HUCKLE. Hucks was a tremendous bowler. I always thought he was a better leg-spinner than Paul Strang in that he turned the ball with more zip, and had more opportunity of getting people out, especially when they're playing defensively. Paul Strang I tend to feel will get people out when they try to attack him. But sadly Adam had a choice of farm or cricket, and he chose farm, which is a pity. But we seem at the moment to have quite a collection of leg-spinners around; we've got Brian Murphy back in the squad, so we've got two leg-spinners already there, and there are one or two youngsters coming through at Under-18 level. So it's sad for Hucks that he's not playing but we will be able to fill his role quite easily.

NEIL JOHNSON. He's not my most favourite man. I don't feel that Neil came and did anything for Zimbabwe cricket, and I've said it before in newspapers: Neil came and played for Neil. He had one or two good one-day performances for us and was exciting when he got going; he certainly had a good World Cup, but rarely did anything for us on the Test scene, where he averaged 24 with the bat and about 40 with the ball. As a Test cricketer he didn't produce what he is capable of. I was not sad to see Neil leave, because he is a South African, not a Zimbabwean, and he came here almost like our overseas pro.

He was completely different from Murray, who came back here and immediately got his Zimbabwe passport back, bought a house, settled down and wanted to be a Zimbabwean again. Neil never made any effort to reclaim his Zimbabwean birthrights and he was literally here as an overseas professional. I don't have anything against Neil as a person, but I'm a person who is passionate about Zimbabwe cricket, and someone like him should have come here, put time into coaching, worked hard in the clubs and put something into Zimbabwean cricket. He didn't do any of that. During his time here he got as much money as he could, got some exposure and left. Murray worked really hard at Alex: he coached at the nets; whenever I wanted someone to come down here and work with the youngsters, Murray was the first to put his hand up. Never charged us a penny; he just wanted to put into Zimbabwe cricket. Neil was exactly the opposite; he never coached a day.

TREVOR MADONDO. Trevor has had his problems off the field more than on the field. I think he's very talented, can play all the shots; he has probably a little bit of a weakness against spin and plays seam better. He has a decent set of hands and can field pretty well, but his biggest problems have been off the field. Once he can kick those nasty habits away, he has every chance of succeeding. But he's got to give himself the best chances, and to do that he's got to slow down off the field.

DOUG MARILLIER. I haven't seen a great deal of Doug. I saw him obviously when he made his debut against New Zealand in the one-day series, and what I liked about him was that he had the confidence, even in his first match, to come out and play his natural game. I haven't seen enough of him to turn round and say he has weaknesses here and there, or what his strengths are, but I think the main thing is what I saw of his mental side, that he could play his natural game in that situation, and that shows me that he has a strong head on him. That is half the battle in international cricket. I'd like to see a lot more of him and I definitely think he deserves an opportunity, especially in the Test side, with the problems we're having opening the batting, and hopefully it will be sooner rather than later.

EVERTON MATAMBANADZO. I haven't seen Everton bowl for a couple of years. He was in the side almost regularly two years ago, then suffered a bad injury to the shoulder at a fielding practice and never really recovered. He's back on the road now and playing in the A side. At his peak two years ago he could bowl some really quick deliveries; a little bit wayward, but from what I gather now he's become a little more accurate. He hasn't quite the same pace as he had, so it will be interesting to see how he develops from here. But it's nice to see him back on the scene and he's playing regularly in the A side.

POMMIE MBANGWA. Pommie is a typical England-style bowler, line and length, does a little bit with a ball, but he really needs some assistance from the pitch. Because he's lacking a little in pace, if you give him something to bowl on with some grass on the pitch and the ball is moving around, he's an exceptional bowler. Unfortunately, if you play on flat pitches he doesn't have a lot to offer. He's really a bowler that you pick `horses for courses'. He'll always be there or thereabouts in the national side, and if they go to England they should take Pommie all the time. If you're playing at Harare Sports Club you should pick Pommie, but when you get on flat pitches as in India, as was done, you should leave him behind because he's of no value on flat pitches.

BRIAN MURPHY. `Murphs' has probably the best cricket head I've seen from a youngster. He understands the game and knows it well, and I would think without a doubt is a future national captain. That might be sooner rather than later. He has a lot of ability with the bat - he's batting at nine or ten now, but batted at four or five for the Under-19s and for Cape Town University. As a spinner he has superb control, but he doesn't have enough variation yet. He's got a top-spinner now but has to work really hard on a googly and a flipper. Then you've got the complete article. A very good cricketer and I've got a lot of time for him.

DAVID MUTENDERA. Again not one I've seen a great deal of late. He's also had injury problems. He can bowl quite lively, but has a tendency to sling, which can be a problem because he's a tall lad and if he bowls from over the top he's going to get bounce to add to the pace he's got. I think that will make him more effective, but he doesn't bowl quickly often enough for me; he has to get cross or somebody has to push him really hard to get the best out of David. I think if he wants to get to the top, he has to be working himself to bowl really quickly, get his action right and putting in 100% effort all the time.

HENRY OLONGA. Henry is a lovely athlete, a nice bowler, but probably too nice a guy to be an effective quick bowler. I think quick bowlers have got to be really aggressive, get under your skin all the time and really get at people, and I just don't think Henry's got that in his nature. He's got ability with the bat and a great fielder with a tremendous arm - he's a superb athlete, but he's just not aggressive enough all the time to be a high-ranking quick bowler.

GAVIN RENNIE. Another of our opening batsmen with problems. He's had plenty of opportunities and played some decent knocks for the national side, but has a real left-hander's tendency to be caught behind the wicket early in his innings. I don't know where we're going with Gav. He's shown all the signs from the age of 14 of being a truly good cricketer. Although he's been around a long time he's still a youngster; he's only 24 but everyone thinks he's 28. So he's still got plenty of time to make it, but I think he's got to start making more use of his opportunities because he's going to find himself out of the side again if he doesn't.

JOHN RENNIE. John played a very effective role for us in one-day cricket, particularly at a time when we didn't have a lot of good bowlers around. John always did a job; he could open the bowling and swing the ball quite a long way into right-handers, and then was very effective bowling at the end, as a `death' bowler, when he had the ability to bowl yorkers and also a slow leg-break. But I think as more and more youngsters with ability have come through, like Travis Friend and `Skye' Nkala, John's role has probably gone now and I don't think he'll get back in the national side.

BRYAN STRANG. Bryan is to me exactly the same as Pommie Mbangwa. If you play Bryan on the right surfaces he is very effective. I'd say this to Bryan's face if I saw him right now: how he is in India I have no idea, because once the ball is ten to twelve overs old in India and there is no shine on it he has nothing to offer. He can't swing it, he can't reverse-swing it and he has no pace, so it's just like bowling throw-downs to the likes of Sachin Tendulkar. This is no disrespect to Bryan's ability, because you have to use Bryan where he will get some effect from his bowling - Harare Sports Club is ideal. That's where the pitches seam a but, with some grass on top, and Bryan is an effective bowler. But again, like Pommie Mbangwa, it's horses for courses and you should not take him and play him on flat pitches. The other thing with Bryan is that he has a huge heart, and you've seen it in his batting a number of times. Very unorthodox, but he annoys bowlers because of the way he plays, and he can be quite effective. So he's got something to offer with the bat as well.

PAUL STRANG. I think he was a better cricketer three years ago. He seems to have lost something in his spin bowling: he's forever worrying about the injury in his right hand and he tends to bowl one bad ball an over. Whether this is an injury problem or a bowling problem I don't know, but certainly in my last couple of years as a player he was a much better cricketer than he is now. He used to make runs for us batting down the order, but I haven't seen him make more than 20 for us for two or three years. This guy has a Test hundred for us, in Pakistan, so he can bat. I think he's got some work to do to cement his place again. He's got Brian Murphy around now, who is probably a more complete cricketer, and it's not often that you're going to find us playing two leg-spinners in one team as we did in India. I think Paul is now fighting for a place.

HEATH STREAK. He is probably one of the top ten fast bowlers in the world at present. I can't say enough about his bowling. I think if you put Streaky in any other side that had back-up attack, like South Africa or Australia, he would definitely be one of the top four or five bowlers in the world. The fact that he still has a magnificent bowling record as our one and only true Test bowler speaks for itself. I think the guy is an absolutely fantastic bowler. He hasn't made as many as he should have with the bat, and we're now seeing him start to make a few runs, but really he's a better batsman than his results show as well. He could easily bat four or five in the national side and be capable of scoring fifties and hundreds. I think the problem with his batting is that we've batted him at eight or nine all the time, and if you play a batsman down there he becomes one of those batsmen. He really needs to bat where he is now, at six or seven, and bat there permanently. If he does, he'll always come in with a major batsman at the crease, and he'll always have somebody to form a partnership with, as he did with Andy Flower the other day, as opposed to having to bat with the tail.

MARK VERMEULEN. I haven't really seen enough of Mark play; the little I have seen hasn't overly impressed me. He's not what I'd call a natural athlete; everything seems to move slowly, in the field, and his batting doesn't look bouncy and vibrant. I can't really make any major criticism of him yet, through.

DIRK VILJOEN. A good little cricketer, and it's nice to see that his bowling has come on. The problem with Dirk, though, and I told him two or three years ago when I was still in charge, is that he doesn't have an identity. In other words, he's not a batsman who bowls a bit, and he doesn't make the team as a bowler who bats a bit. He's in that all-rounders category, but he's neither one nor the other. This I think is what is stopping him from playing regularly for the national side. I told him two years ago that I thought he should go back into the A side, make piles of runs, and then come back into the national team as a batsman, so he has an identity - this man is a batsman and he bats in the top six. He nearly did that, and in Sharjah started to come through with some consistent batting performances, the first time he has done that and taken his opportunities. Before that he bowled well for us in one-day games but never really scored runs for us. I would think that he might be the answer to our opening problems, or perhaps push Stuey Carlisle into opening the batting and have Dirk in the top four. So I think he has a future as a batsman, but he must keep that identity, and when he gets opportunities he must make runs like he did in Sharjah. The fact that he can bowl is a bonus, but don't try to make the team as a bowler and a batsman who comes in at number nine.

ANDY WHITTALL. Andy was a pretty decent off-spinner, especially in one-day cricket, and a good fielder - a nice guy to have in the side in one-day cricket who always did a job. But he didn't really have enough about him as an off-spinner to press on that little bit further and cement a regular place in the side. So I think quite rightly, for his sake, he has given it up and gone into business. I think our side at the moment is a little bit imbalanced as everybody we've got turns the ball one way, left-arm spinners and leg-spinners, so we could do with somebody who turns it the other way, a genuine off-spinner. There are a couple of them around, so if he does decide to come back, the longer he leaves it the harder he might find it to get back in. We've got people like Greg Lamb coming up through the Academy; he's a really good off-spinner and bats well. If he gets his opportunity he might cement a place, which would make life difficult for Andy.

GUY WHITTALL. A gutsy cricketer, and he's got a pretty decent record, coming in at number six or seven - three big Test hundreds and he's done really well. He's made a lot out of his ability; the only thing for me is that there are too many troughs and his career is up and down. He's not bowling at the moment, which is a pity because he's quite a useful little bowler, a good partnership-breaker, one of those bowlers who hits the ground quite hard and comes on quicker than people think. He nips batsmen out and is a nice guy to have when you're trying to break a partnership. But he's playing now purely as a batsman at number six, and he's going to have to kick off some of these troughs and get a few peaks. He needs to be more consistent with the bat if he's going to hold a place as a permanent member of the batting top six, and needs every third or fourth knock to be scoring a fifty or a hundred, and he's about one every seven - that's not consistent enough. And he is never in both batting and bowling form at the same time - don't ask me why!

I'm sure the option of Guy opening the batting and Grant Flower dropping down the order will be discussed by the team in India right now. The thing about Guy is that he will do whatever you ask him to do. He's not afraid to do anything: if you want him to open the bowling he'll open the bowling; if you want him to keep wicket he'll keep wicket; if you want him to open the batting he'll open the batting. He puts his hand up first for everything, and he's not afraid of opening; he had some success overseas in the one-day matches, and again, it might be an option.

CRAIG WISHART. He's a difficult one! So much ability! Watch him play in the nets, watch him play in the league, and this guy should be one of your leading batsmen. Some would argue that he hasn't had a good run at a position, but the other side of it is that he's had a lot of one-day games and a fair number of Test matches, and there have never really been any big results. He had one weekend where he got a sixty-odd in a Test and a hundred in a one-day game against India, and there's really nothing else behind that. So he's missing out now, playing in the A team, where he thrashes hundreds; he got another last weekend against Northerns. So he makes runs at the level below the international game, but hasn't really made the most of his opportunities up front - and he should do! There's no reason why not. He's got all the technique, he's not scared, and I just don't know why people like that don't succeed at the highest level. Maybe he needs to have a run, and somebody needs to say to him, "You've got six Test matches to bat at number four or five - go for it and let's see if you can do it." If you look at his career you will see that he's in and out regularly, but there's no real run of opportunities, and that may be the reason why he hasn't succeeded at that level.