'I'd like to become one of the world's best allrounders'
In possession of a calmness and maturity that belie his young age, and a genuinely disarming smile that encompasses his whole face, Elton Chigumbura, Zimbabwe's premier allrounder, and captain of the national side, is every bit Zimbabwe's poster boy as they attempt to re-establish their cricket credentials on the international stage.
Born in the tiny town of Kwekwe in Zimbabwe's Midlands province, at just 24 years old his passion and talent for cricket have already taken him around the world. With Zimbabwe's return to Test cricket mooted for sometime in the next year, Chigumbura will have a vital role to play at almost every level.
"I'm looking forward to leading Zimbabwe in Test cricket," Chigumbura told Cricinfo. "I think it's an honour to lead any team, and if you play well, you can say I led this team to become a better team or to be recognised as one of the best teams in the world. I'm looking forward to it and looking forward to pushing the guys back home to become more competitive and start winning games. I know Test cricket is hard, but you can only improve at it by playing."
With increasing regularity, Chigumbura has displayed the same game-changing effervescence as another young allrounder, Dwayne Bravo, and has the ability to lift his team through personal brilliance. Now, as he looks to broaden his horizons and expand his game, he finds himself as Northamptonshire's overseas signing in England's own East Midlands. It is the sort of experience that will stand him in good stead when he steps onto the field as captain of what will be, essentially, a fledgling side totally new to Test cricket.
"When I was growing up, I wanted to play county cricket. It was one of my dreams, after playing for my nation, and now it has come to reality. So I take this as a big opportunity. I'm honoured to be here and hopefully I'll have success and so help the team to win. I'll take my experience here and help the guys who are playing back home."
"Back home" is not a place many Zimbabweans in the UK (and there are over 100,000 of them, according to the Office for National Statistics) are considering going to yet, but thanks to the relative stability in the country and the recent facelift of its cricket infrastructure, it is now a much more welcoming place for cricketers. Chigumbura suggested this was the reason behind the change in the national team's fortunes.
"Standards have gone up, and there's also more cricket being played throughout the first-class season. Guys like Dave Houghton and Heath Streak helping the team has improved us a lot. If you look at the team from two years ago and compare it to this past year, we've been going in the right direction and improving. Now there's more competition among the players.
"It is healthy to have competition like that, and it's been a positive for Zimbabwe cricket. Even when we're playing internationals it's been hard to choose a first XI, because lots of guys are now starting to perform consistently."
Houghton and Streak are just two of a number of foreign and local professionals to have been involved with Zimbabwe cricket, at some level, in the last year. Chris Silverwood, the former England seamer and current Essex bowling coach, was another who turned up in the restructured domestic scene, and proved very popular as player/coach of the Mashonaland Eagles, to whom he has pledged to return to next season.
"He's a good guy," Chigumbura said of Silverwood. "I learned a lot from him last season. He's helped me become a better captain and a better player. He's a guy who wants to improve players, and he's honest. Spoons has done a lot for the franchise, and I hope he'll stay for a long time. "
Chigumbura also had praise for Alan Butcher, who took over the role of head coach after Zimbabwe's tour of the Caribbean earlier this year, and whose clear-cut, open approach to the job seems to be bringing out the best in the players.
"He gives players room to think for themselves, and when he needs to help someone, he can do that. He wants to bring the team together. Since he took over, the guys have become as one team, a big unit. He just brings calm into the team, and guys are now confident about their play. What he says is always clear as well - no one doubts what they are supposed to do."
Chigumbura took over the captaincy from Prosper Utseya, who had been in charge of the team since 2006, before the recent triangular series in Zimbabwe. He had had some success as captain of the Mashonaland Eagles, leading the team to success in the Logan Cup first-class competition last season, and his appointment as national captain was reportedly unanimously supported by the ZC board.
But despite recent wins over India and Sri Lanka it is still too early to judge his tenure as captain, and amid those successes Chigumbura's own returns were somewhat modest. Although he scored at a run a ball, his batting average of 25.50 for the series was boosted by two not-outs, and his bowling was completely off the mark: he bowled 13 wicketless overs for 111 runs.
"At international level, it's a bigger challenge than captaining a provincial first-class team. But i've enjoyed it so far, and also with the guys gelling well as a team it's made my job much easier. I know there are bigger challenges to come, but I'm looking forward to them."
The sterner challenges ahead include a World Cup in the subcontinent in early 2011, and following that, Zimbabwe are going to tentatively dip their feet into the challenging waters of Test cricket, with a return against Bangladesh their first appointment. Though Chigumbura was reticent when asked about the World Cup - suggesting only that it is likely that conditions could suit Zimbabwe's spin-heavy bowling attack - he opened up when asked about the opportunity to lead his country on its return to cricket's pinnacle.
He argued that Zimbabwe's rehabilitation must include as much top-level cricket as possible, and games against the A sides of the stronger nations. Zimbabwe's only major engagements between now and the World Cup are two Twenty20s and three ODIs against South Africa; Chigumbura suggested that it is only with an increased volume of cricket that Zimbabwe could continue to develop their game.
"[Playing top teams] is a major part of Zimbabwe moving forward. You can only learn from them, and you can improve by watching what they do. We just need to keep playing more games. Unfortunately these [the tri-series] were our last games before quite a long break. We would have loved to play another international team because we've been playing well as a team and going forward.
"Last season, the four-day stuff we played, that's a good place to start preparing for Test cricket. Playing A sides will definitely help. And also by actually playing cricket most of the time, rather than just practising, you know where you are and what you need to do to get to the top level. I just hope we will play more cricket before we get back to Tests."
When that return comes, a lot of responsibility will rest with Chigumbura, whose personal performances often mirror that of the team. Zimbabwe have won 10 ODIs in the last 12 months and Chigumbura played in eight of those wins, averaging 72 with the bat and 31 with the ball. In the 17 games Zimbabwe have lost in the same time, his batting figures fall to 18.17 and his bowling average inflates to 49.09.
The greater consistency of Hamilton Masakadza and Brendan Taylor at the top of the order, the increasing solidity of the middle order, and a reliable hydra of spinners have taken some of the weight off Chigumbura's shoulders, but he realises that a cricketer's duties, while focussed on the field of play, can often also have a far-reaching effect off of it.
"After we won the first game [against India], it got people that didn't want to come and watch cricket to take notice. By the second game there were more people watching, and the fans that were watching now believed that we could win games. After that, there was more support, and when you're playing and you can see guys behind you, supporting you, it gives confidence to the players.
"Our job is to entertain people, and you can only entertain people by winning games. We knew that we had responsibilities on our shoulders, so it was a very good team effort to put smiles on the faces of Zimbabwean people. It can only move us forward as a nation."
Zimbabwe cricket, much like the country, faces an uncertain future, but if homegrown talent like Chigumbura can be nurtured then it's possible they will continue to progress. Chigumbura is hopeful when he talks about what has been achieved, and about the future.
"First, my goal was to start winning games as a team and to build consistency, not to just win one game and then lose a series. Obviously I'd like to win series, but at the moment we're just trying to win more games to give confidence to the guys, and that's when we can start believing that we can win series against big teams. So it's a process. In the long run it'll become a habit and the team will go far.
"I'd like to become one of the best allrounders in the world, and one that will be recognised even after I retire. I'm still working towards that. I'd also like to see a Zimbabwe team that will start winning games and a team that other countries will love playing against. If we can achieve that then we can set further goals after that."