April 21, 2008

Friday at work

While their home country deals with the aftermath of its elections, four young Zimbabwean cricketers are focusing on the future during a stay at Australia's Centre of Excellence

Friday Kasteni played for Zimbabwe at the World Cup and has his sights set on playing Test cricket someday © Cricket Australia

With questions over an audit of the board's finances, a postponed first-class tournament, and a potential change of government that may also alter the way cricket is run in the country, the game in Zimbabwe has plenty of major issues simmering at the moment. But somewhere in the midst of it all, there is a focus on improving the nation's future cricketing prospects.

Half a world away from the aftermath of an election that could oust Robert Mugabe after 28 years, four of the country's most promising young players have grabbed an opportunity to learn from the world's best. The quartet is taking part in a six-week programme at Australia's Centre of Excellence in Queensland thanks to an arrangement between Cricket Australia and Zimbabwe Cricket.

They are under the tutelage of John Davison, the journeyman who played with Victoria and South Australia, captained Canada, and is now a development coach at Australia's academy. Over the coming weeks the young men will have access to several of Australia's leading coaches, as well as an eagerly anticipated chance to net with the Australian players.

The best credentialled of the Zimbabweans is the batsman Friday Kasteni, who played three ODIs during 2007, including at the World Cup, and is viewed as an important player in the country's future. Regis Chakabva, another batsman who has represented Zimbabwe A, is also in the group, along with the left-arm fast bowlers Tendai Chisoro and Prosper Tsvanhu. Walter Chawaguta, an assistant coach of the national team, and Shepherd Makunura, who is in charge of the Zimbabwe Under-19s, are also upgrading their skills.

Kasteni, 20, said the chance to use Australia's world-class facilities was a major bonus in his development. Late last year he was part of a squad that trained at Zimbabwe's academy, which lost its pavilion to a fire in 2006. However, Kasteni said other facilities remained. "The pavilion burned but the housing is still there and the ground is still there, all the practice facilities are still there.

"We used to practice from 6 till 5. I was part of that squad around November-December last year, but they haven't picked the guys yet for this year's intake."

Although the Logan Cup, Zimbabwe's first-class competition, has been delayed this year, Kasteni has had a chance to get some first-class action during the past few months in the Zimbabwe Provinces side, which competed in South Africa's Provincial Three-Day Challenge. He said it was difficult when Zimbabwe's own tournaments were postponed, but there was still a chance to play regular games, either provincial limited-overs fixtures, or matches for his Harare club on grounds he described as "okay".

"If we're not playing first-class cricket we play club cricket," he said. "Last year I didn't get to play much of it because I was finishing studies but this year I've played almost every game. I think I'm near to being in the Zimbabwe team with all the work I'm putting in."

A grim picture has been painted of cricket in Zimbabwe over the past few years as leading players have left the country and the quality of the domestic competition has suffered. But Kasteni believes that whenever Zimbabwe finally start playing Test cricket again, they will be able to hold their own. "With the amount of cricket we're playing, yes, I think we'll be able to get there," he said. "The local guys coming up are getting competitive."

Kasteni and his countrymen are keen to see first-hand the training methods used by Australia, who will be at the Centre of Excellence preparing for their West Indies tour in early May. A left-hand opener, Kasteni is looking forward to analysing one of the world's best at that role. "Mostly I'd like to see their batsmen, guys like Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting," he said. "Especially Hayden - I want to see how he trains and how he attacks the ball."

The boys and the two coaches: Tendai Chisoro, Regis Chakabva and Friday Kasteni (front); Prosper Tsvanhu. Walter Chawaguta, Shepherd Makunura (back) © Cricket Australia

Exposure to some of the world's top Test players will be a major boost for the young Zimbabweans, who hope to find themselves playing Australia on the biggest stage in the coming years. Davison, who has already spent two weeks working with the youngsters, said learning about the attacking style of cricket played in Australia would be particularly beneficial.

"We hope they can expand their game and back themselves," he said. "Both the batsmen are very good players and know their games pretty well. The bowlers are a bit more raw and need a little bit more refining. Troy Cooley [Australia's fast-bowling coach] is back from holidays soon and he'll work with them."

During their first few days, the quartet practiced with some of Australia's best young indigenous cricketers, who were selected from the state and territory squads at the national indigenous tournament, the Imparja Cup, at the Centre of Excellence for a one-week training course. A couple of Twenty20 matches featured players from both groups - Kasteni was pleased to make 35 and 86 not out - and the Zimbabweans will also spend three weeks working with the annual intake of Australian Institute of Sport scholars.

Kasteni said his Australian stay was already helping him understand his own game much better and he hoped to impart some of his knowledge to his young team-mates when he returned to Zimbabwe. "The resources here are great and the coaching is great," he said. "I think I'll be able to help them with batting strategies, how to prepare to bat. The way I approach my game will be different after this."

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo