Calm Masakadza ready for special debut
There's a first time for everything, they say. And when that first time comes it's supposed to be reckless, rash, radical. Not for Hamilton Masakadza.
For the first time in 14 years as an international cricketer, Masakadza will play in a World Cup. Not for the first time, he will bear the burden of expectation from a nation.
"It's living up to the hype but there is responsibility on my part as a senior batsman and that's a challenge I am relishing," Masakadza told ESPNcricinfo.
Masakadza, along with Brendan Taylor, will be required to do the bulk of Zimbabwe's big run-scoring. They are the most experienced and consistent pair in a line-up missing Vusi Sibanda, who was dropped, and which has just welcomed back Stuart Matsikenyeri and Sean Williams.
It's a task Masakadza has accepted wholeheartedly, so much so that he got a headstart on it. His century in the warm-up match against Sri Lanka formed the spine of Zimbabwe's successful 280-run chase, in which they recovered from 35 for 2. Masakadza and Taylor starred in a 127-run, third-wicket stand before Masakadza took his team home, in good time too. Zimbabwe's victory came with 4.4 overs to spare and Masakadza scored 117 off 119 balls but he was quick to deflect praise from himself and onto his team.
"The boys all played really well. It started with the bowlers, they got wickets at the right times so we didn't let Sri Lanka get away from us," Masakadza said. "And the guys batted really calmly. We showed we can chase big totals, like when we beat Pakistan in Harare two years ago. That's what we need more of."
Even then, Zimbabwe's chase was successful because of the house Masakadza built, with 85 at the top of the order to anchor them. When he is calm, they are calm and Masakadza is almost always calm, rarely bothered by the ebbs and flows that can affect professional sportsmen.
He could have played four World Cups to date but was unavailable in 2003 because he was studying in South Africa and was dropped in 2007 and 2011 after patches of poor form. He believed his omission was justified even though many Zimbabwean fans did not. "It was really disappointing but I lost form just before the World Cups," he said. "The good thing was that I bounced back quickly afterwards."
In the build-up to the 2007 tournament, Masakadza went 10 ODIs without a half-century and was left out. Friday Kasteri, a 19-year old who had played just a single international, replaced him. He recovered and was back in the Zimbabwean squad in the series after the tournament and soon found his feet again. In 2009, Masakadza scored 1087 runs in ODI cricket in a calendar year in which he averaged 43.48 and notched up his career-best of 178*.
Masakadza seemed to be on track but another drought came the following year. In 2010, he averaged only 19.00 from 17 games and was left out of the 2011 Cup squad. Zimbabwe had what they consider to be their worst World Cup showing and lost by massive margins to the Full Members, although they beat the Associates by big margins. Masakadza was clearly missed and recalled when they took the field next, in August that year.
Since then, he has barely put a foot wrong for Zimbabwe. He added to his tally of Test hundreds - his second Test century came in 2011 in Zimbabwe's first Test after their return to the format, and a decade after Masakadza's first century. Since then, he has scored two more Test hundreds. He was Zimbabwe's highest run-scorer in ODIs in 2014 with 532 runs at 35.46. He contributes with medium pace, as a slip fielder, an outfielder and shoulder for the captain to lean on.
He is the ultimate team-man and there was no doubt he would be part of this World Cup. He has even found some time to look beyond his own duties and have some fun.
"When we arrived in Christchurch there were some Zimbabwean fans waiting for us at the airport," he said. "They had drums with them and they played some traditional songs so that was really nice. And then a few days later, we had a bit of a get-together with Zimbabwe fans where we had some our local food like sadza (maize porridge). The last time we were in New Zealand in 2012, we had a contingent of Zimbabwe fans who met us is every in city. We hope they'll be around again."
A significant number of Zimbabwe supporters are expected to be at Seddon Park on Sunday to see Masakadza soak up the sensations of the first walk out to the middle of his first innings in his first match of a major tournament. Then they will hope to see him remember there is too much at stake to approach this first like a first.
"I won't, I'm used to it," Masakadza promised them. "I know what I need to do."
A first-timer may not be able to say that so confidently but Masakadza is no ordinary first-timer.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent