Made for the main stage
Twelve months ago Alan Butcher, the Zimbabwe national coach, was not sure who Brian Vitori was. And he could be forgiven for it. The left-arm seamer had, by any standards, had an ordinary domestic season, adequate but not explosive enough for Butcher to take notice.
In nine first-class matches Vitori took 25 wickets at an average of 37.16. It put him tenth on the overall bowling rankings, behind the likes of Tendai Chatara and Keegan Meth, both of whom had claimed over 50 wickets in the season. Vitori's List A record was slightly more authoritative, with nine wickets in five matches at an average of 19.55, and he finished third on the bowling charts.
Still, it was hardly a sign that a few months later Vitori would break the world record for the most wickets taken by a bowler in his first two ODIs - which was just what he did, with 10 scalps from his first two matches, the icing on the cake of an international debut that began with five wickets in his first Test. In those first three outings it looked as though Vitori had arrived custom-made for international cricket. It hasn't been all that straightforward, though
"I started playing street cricket when I was eight, at primary school. And when I went to high school I just continued playing the game," Vitori told ESPNcricinfo, but added that it probably wasn't his first-choice sport. "I actually used to play rugby as well - I was a prop. And basketball. I was a big boy then, but I've lost a lot of weight now."
Cricket only became attractive when he was picked for the school's first XI, and at the age of 15 for his provincial side, Masvingo. His first tournament was a three-match outing in the 2005-06 Faithwear Clothing 50-over competition, where he bowled 15 overs, took three wickets and conceded 36 runs. Economical but not hugely memorable.
It was only when Zimbabwe started to emerge out of economic meltdown in 2009, and Vitori travelled with the national Under-19 team to Namibia, that a career in the game became a viable option. "From then on I really enjoyed playing, knowing that if you do well, you can tour, you can see places, and I started taking it seriously."
The coming of the franchise system coincided with Vitori's new-found resoluteness, and he was contracted to the Southern Rocks, though he only played for their second XI until last season. While plugging away, he caught the attention of Allan Donald, who was coaching rival team the Mountaineers. Donald saw Vitori practise on his own in the nets and was impressed with his discipline and accuracy. "I wondered why he wasn't playing in the first team," Donald said.
It was only when Monte Lynch, the former England and Surrey player, arrived and took a special interest in Vitori's development that he started playing against people who would eventually be his national team-mates. Vitori started blossoming under the challenges and enjoyed being tested against the strongest talent in the country.
Who did that list include?
"Vusi [Sibanda] is a good player. He is really one guy who you know that once he is in he will play his shots, and it will be difficult to get back into the game," Vitori said. "You have to be on the money from ball one, otherwise he will get on top of you. The same with Hamilton [Masakadza]." Both Sibanda and Masakadza have matured since they were rushed into the international game during the player walkout of 2004 and have performed well in the recent series against Bangladesh. For Vitori it was an important step in his growth to to have played against them.
Lynch recommended that Vitori be included in a national training camp where 32 players trained under Butcher's watch in May this year before a squad was selected to play A sides from Australia and South Africa.
When Butcher saw him it was obvious he would have to include him in the squad. "I knew we had found someone special, who could be good for Zimbabwe cricket going forward," Butcher said. Vitori was managed carefully in the series, playing only one limited-overs match, against South Africa A, but both four-day matches against Australia A. He took five wickets in the first and two in the second, both of which Zimbabwe XI lost.
He was one of the finds of the tour and made an impression on the visiting teams. Vincent Barnes, former South Africa bowling coach, now in charge of the High Performance Programme, who travelled with the A team, said Vitori struck a chord with Jacques Rudolph, who captained South Africa A. "He bowled to Jacques in the nets and Jacques said he was one of the better bowlers he faced. He was difficult to get away." For Vitori, Rudolph was as much of a challenge. He named him as of one the batsmen he had to work hard to bowl to.
The A series have been cited as one of the reasons for Zimbabwe's recent good showing, because of the role they played in their preparation, and Vitori agreed the warm-ups helped. "We got to play against guys who really can turn things around, like David Warner, Callum Ferguson, Jacques Rudolph and Vaughn van Jaarsveld. They are good players - they really get in your face and test you," he said.
Then came Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe's first taste of Test cricket in 71 months.
Vitori was talked up as the secret weapon and hidden from Bangladesh in the warm-up game and the nets, and when they did get their first look at him, it was as though he petrified them. Even though he had seldom bowled to left-handers - and Bangladesh had four in the top six - Vitori found a way of moving the ball away from them with his unusual angle. And instead of moving the ball across the right-hander, he moved it in to them.
The fun continued from the Test match into the one-day series, where, with Zimbabwe bowling first, Vitori was the chief reason they chased totals below 200.
Just as it was starting to look all too easy for him, circumstances changed and Zimbabwe were made to defend in the third match. Vitori only got one wicket, but he bowled economically. He was able to show that he was not a one-trick pony and could be threatening in defence as well. "It was really about tying them down," he said. "I wasn't nervous, but there was a bit of pressure on me. I had to make sure I bowled dots or not give them a boundary."
His final over in that game was the 47th, with Bangladesh needing 31 runs off four overs with five wickets in hand. Mushfiqur Rahim, on 78, was in sublime touch. Vitori took a wicket with his last ball, becoming the catalyst of a collapse. "I really had to back myself to bowl the one over to give us a chance to get a wicket. It worked for us because the wicket got us back into the game."
A shin niggle kept him out of last two ODIs in the series, but he should be fit by the time Pakistan visit for a full series. He expects to meet a sterner challenge and is looking forward to countering it.
"I wouldn't say international cricket is easy. You will always get tested as you play players in different situations. Each day is different and you have to do what's [right for] the situation. There will be pressure. I've only played three games and I was really under pressure in the third."
With a dream introduction to the game, Vitori is on the cusp of a summer either of great achievement or slipping back to anonymity. He feels the only way to continue to succeed is by getting as much experience as he can.
"I want to play as much international cricket as possible against as many teams as possible, because they all have good batsmen," he said. "Bangladesh have Tamim [Iqbal], Australia have [Ricky] Ponting and David Warner, Sri Lanka have [Tillakaratne] Dilshan, South Africa have got Graeme Smith and [Hashim] Amla. You can really see where you are as a player because they will test you, and that's how you mature."
In some ways it's comforting to know that Vitori wasn't found nestled in a cabbage patch on the outskirts of Masvingo, kitted out for an international career, because it means he understands the value of experience. He doesn't see his journey as a relative unknown a year ago to the most talked-about player in Zimbabwe today as the culmination of something. He sees it as the beginning, which means he is planning to do much more in future.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent