July 17, 2014

'I wouldn't mind dying on the cricket field'

Putting behind a chequered past - which included ghastly blows to the head, and arrest for arson - Zimbabwe's 35-year-old Mark Vermeulen hopes to play Test cricket again

The central Zimbabwean city of KweKwe takes its name from the sounds of the croaking frogs that live in the river that runs through it. If your ear is close enough to the ground you can probably hear them, and in the summer of 2012 that's where Mark Vermeulen's lobes were.

"I was sleeping on the floor, which became quite difficult after a while," he remembered. "But I don't know about any frogs."

Vermeulen's night-time arrangements were not the result of spending time in the famed African bush or - given his reputation, you will be forgiven for thinking - a prison cell. They were because he was trying to do what he loved most: play cricket. He was a member of the Mid West Rhinos team that consisted of mostly out of towners from Harare who were being put up in a house in the city. Sort of.

"It was a decent-sized house but the administrators actually needed to rent the rooms out to other guests so they could make up the money they needed to pay for the place. So we all ended up just everywhere," Vermeulen said. "And I was on the dining-room floor. It got quite tiring after a while."

Despite the discomfort, Vermeulen turned out in all eight first-class matches for the franchise and was their second-highest run scorer after Brendan Taylor. He also finished the season sixth on the overall run charts to mark a comeback to the game after four summers of flitting about the Zimbabwean domestic scene like a man in a maze.

Between 2008 and 2012, Vermeulen played just 17 first-class games for four different teams during a period of transition in Zimbabwe's domestic game that saw it go from a regional system to a franchise-based one.

Before that he was on trial for arson. And before that he was doing his best not to get hit on the head by another cricket ball because it had already happened three times. The first came on an Under-19 tour to England, but that was mild compared to what followed. At the 2003 World Cup, his skull was fractured by one of his own team-mates, Travis Friend, in the nets. But the big blow came later that year in Australia. An Irfan Pathan bouncer proved almost lethal - literally - when it snuck between grill and visor and cracked the other side of Vermeulen's skull. He spent three hours in surgery and left with a plate in his head and a dire warning.

"When I had the operation the doctor told me that because I was a young man, he would not tell me to stop playing sport, but he also said that if I got hit again, there was a good chance I won't survive."

Chilling as that is, it's only the prologue. "I actually wouldn't mind dying on the cricket field," Vermuelen said. "I know it sounds a little sadistic but I've thought about it and I just love cricket so much that it wouldn't be that bad. Obviously I hope it doesn't happen but…"

Vermeulen's matter-of-fact way of stating this is an indication he has moved on from believing cricket owes him something and is now willing to give himself completely to the game.

"I just realised doing crazy things doesn't help. I spent two years in court and another year and a half out of the game so it was three and a half years totally wasted"

Back in 2006 that was not the case. Cricket in Zimbabwe was changing in ways Vermeulen did not like. He was left out of national squads and could not bear his exclusion. That October, after he saw the team he was not part of training at the Harare Sports Club, he tried to burn the club down. But his attempt went only as far as the club's curtains. Someone spotted the smoking drapes and the fire was put out.

The next day Vermeulen targeted a smaller but no less significant target: the national academy. That time the sparks spewed over everything from cricket kit to computers. Vermeulen was arrested shortly afterwards and his troubled past thoroughly combed. One of the stories repeated was how he had hurled a ball at a crowd in an English league game, narrowly missing a young girl, and then brandished a spiked boundary marker like a lightsabre. Another incident recounted was about the time he knocked on Robert Mugabe's state house door to demand an audience with the president, also the patron of cricket in the country.

Some remembered his refusal to ride on a team bus. It all sounded like the doings of someone who needed help, and Vermeulen's lawyer successfully argued that he deserved that. Vermeulen was acquitted but not entirely free. He was still made to serve a 12-month ban from cricket in Zimbabwe, which put paid to his aim of being part of their squad for the 2007 World Cup and forced him to reflect on what he had done and what he was going to do.

"I just realised doing crazy things doesn't help. When you get older, you get wiser, I guess," he said. "I spent two years in court and another year and a half out of the game so it was three and a half years totally wasted, and at that time of my career that should not have happened."

It was not that Vermeulen was racking up the runs before the "incident" that interrupted his career. It was that he was threatening to. Before 2006, his was a story of unfulfilled potential. He had a Test century to his name, scored in Bulawayo against West Indies, but he averaged 25.87. His ODI record was similarly middling. In 32 matches, he had scored four half-centuries but his average sat just above 20. His career was ready for take off and then the engine seized.

After the trial and the enforced time away, Vermeulen returned to domestic cricket for the Westerns team in Bulawayo. "I was playing but I was doing it half-heartedly," he admitted.

The truth was that the whole domestic system was limp as it was trying to recover from the crippling effects of the white-player walkout and the country's economic crisis. That season, 2008-09, the financial effects spilled over into the domestic game, which faced lengthy delays before it finally got underway at the end of summer in February. Run-scoring was generally low and there was only one century in the List A competition, in which Vermeulen played six games and managed a total of 113 runs. His presence, it seemed, was enough to earn him a recall to the side for a series against Bangladesh that August.

Vermeulen announced his return with his highest ODI score, 92, in a losing cause but the time he spent in the middle made him realise that his passion for the game had never dimmed. "I love batting. It's the most awesome feeling in the world," he said. "There is something about watching the ball fly for six that is just so satisfying. Or threading it through the field and seeing it roll along for four. It's still the best feeling in the world." Vermeulen's knock that day included six fours but he did not clear the boundary once. Still it was a reminder of what he was capable of.


Vermeulen had always been acknowledged as talented but troubled. He enjoyed the challenge of fronting up, especially against quick bowlers, and was strong on the cut and drive. He averaged over 40 in first-class cricket for three consecutive seasons before he was picked to open the batting against Pakistan in November 2002. In his first innings in Test cricket he lasted just eight minutes, faced six balls and scored 2, but he learnt the lessons that he believed set him up for much more.

"In my first Test, I was up against Shoaib Akhtar," he said. "I actually prefer playing against quick bowlers. You've just got to get yourself into position and use the pace, which means you actually don't have to do much. I love facing quick bowlers."

By his second Test, he had a fifty at Lord's and after his third, a pair. Although his returns were patchy, Vermeulen was enjoying international cricket. He was a regular in the ODI team and played against the likes of Brett Lee, who he enjoyed facing in front of relatively big crowds in a tri-series in Australia.

"I'd get zoned in and even when there were 20,000 people in the crowd it felt like I was playing in front of no one," he said. He doesn't have a bad word to say even about Pathan, except that he taught him to "take the hook shot out of my game".

The memories of facing those bowlers, and later Dale Steyn on his comeback in 2009, returned to Vermeulen even as he made his way around Zimbabwe's domestic traps. When the franchise system formed, he signed on with the Matabeland Tuskers, who were based in Bulawayo. He only got three games for them in the 2009-10 season and the following summer went to Mutare where he played for the Mountaineers.

That period was more profitable for Vermeulen. He was the fourth-highest run-scorer for them and scored two centuries in their first-class campaign. But his time there was also marred by a three-match suspension earned after he contested decisions against him. That, it was believed, caused his relationship with the franchise to break down and his contract with them was terminated at the end of the season.

The following year Vermeulen tried his luck in Masvingo and the Southern Rocks but played only two matches and that was when he realised he was not taking the job as seriously as he should have been. "I wasn't playing cricket properly because of all the frustrations," he said. "You have to take a lot of deep breaths when you're involved in Zimbabwe cricket."

Uncertainty over payment was one annoyance; Zimbabwe being voluntarily exiled from Test cricket was another. When the latter changed in 2011, something in Vermeulen awakened. He decided to play a more active role in the former to ensure the talent drain could be blocked.

"The talented players leave because they want money - they want to earn a living. Look at a guy like Sean Ervine, he has been playing county cricket for years now. And then you have someone like Andy Blignaut - he just went and did something else. But it's important to be able to speak up. The players are all very frustrated with the situation and I think they enjoy having me around because they can throw my name in. I have a voice and I'm not scared to stand up and say something. I think my name gets used quite a lot in meetings."

"I've become more determined because I know I don't have many years left in me. I've become more focused"

Volatile reputation aside, Vermeulen is vocal about what he thinks players deserve and about what he wants: "To give myself the best chance I can to play Test cricket." He joined the Mid West Rhinos, put up with sleeping on the floor, and played as best as he could for them. When the concrete became too uncomfortable, he moved.

Last season Vermeulen turned out for the Mashonaland Eagles who, until then, were the only team he had not turned out for. Now Vermeulen has played for every one of Zimbabwe's five franchises. It allowed him to stay home in Harare and the ease of being there showed. Vermeulen had his best season in more than a decade. His 580 runs was the most he had scored since the 2002-03 summer.

Time in the middle was both a form of therapy and an audition. "I love batting, so I know if I stay out there and bat for as long as possible, I don't have to deal with everything else like the boardroom issues, whatever," he said. "And I didn't ever lose any love for cricket. I still think I have two or three years left in me and I think I will give it one last full go in the hope that I can play a Test again. I've become more determined because I know I don't have many years left in me. I've become more focused."

He seems to be on the right track. Vermeulen was included in the Zimbabwe A team that was due to travel to Bangladesh in June. The tour was postponed after the BCB requested a rescheduling because of the monsoon, which disappointed Vermeulen. He was hoping to use it to earn his place in the Zimbabwe XI for a one-off Test against South Africa in August - the only Test on their agenda in the foreseeable future. If he gets to the play there, he hopes to bat against Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.

"I've just got to be aware that I don't get hit in the head," he joked. "But seriously, if I had a last wish for my career it's to average 99.96, so that it's more than Don Bradman." Does Vermeulen really think he can do that? "Why not? The way to increase your average is not to get out, so I've just got to make sure I never get out."

And he would need Zimbabwe to have many more fixtures. They may or may not tour the UAE to play Pakistan, may or may not host the postponed visit by Sri Lanka, and may or may not host Pakistan and West Indies in 2015.

"It is very worrying. What I've done for myself is pursue golf because golfers have a longer lifespan in the game and that may be something I can do," he said.

He also has interests in property rental, which is lucrative in Zimbabwe's now-dollarised economy, and has a plan to become a South African resident. His mother lives in the coastal town of Plettenberg Bay, located on the Garden Route between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. It's a postcard-gorgeous place of sea and sun and was originally named beautiful bay (Bahia Formosa) by Portuguese explorers. Chances are even the frogs sound beguiling there, but Vermeulen will not have to sleep on anyone's floor to find out.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent