'We'll be a tougher prospect in the next World Cup'
After Zimbabwe's historic Test win over Bangladesh last month, their first five-day match since 2005, their coach, Alan Butcher, was seen celebrating by dancing at the after party. Butcher has taken his young side to heart and allowed them to grow around him while he has himself adapted smoothly to life in Zimbabwe. He is open and honest - both in his praise and his criticism - and spoke exclusively to ESPNcricinfo about his reasons for taking the job, the challenges he has faced in it, and how he hopes to take Zimbabwe cricket forward in the next 18 months.
Zimbabwe in February 2010 were a team struggling at international level, run by a fractured administration, and living a self-imposed exile from Test cricket. Why did you take the job?
I thought it was going to be an interesting challenge. David Houghton had encouraged me and had pushed my name quite hard, and I felt that if he had faith in me and my ability to do the job, then I'd give it a go.
I had also been to Zimbabwe before, because my uncle ran the Coca-Cola factory, so I had played here in the late '60s and then had been on a pre-season tour with Glamorgan in 1989. I knew that things would have changed a lot, but it was still a place I was a little familiar with. Also, an international job is not something to turn down lightly, so I took it, and I haven't regretted it.
What was your immediate impression of the team when you first met up them, and how did you approach your first task, the World Twenty20?
I went to watch three of the ODIs they played in the West Indies in April 2010, and what I saw was a group of players who had little confidence, which was understandable given their success rate at the time. They were a side that needed to be given [responsibility] and then to be able to take responsibility for their actions. They looked like they had spent a lot of time being told what to do, and they weren't allowed to have an opinion.
We first got together in Grenada before the World T20, and I started by asking the team how they thought they were perceived and how they wanted to be perceived, and we were to work on strategies to bridge that gap. It was very difficult to get answers out of them at first, because sharing ideas was new to them. During the get-together, I thought it was very interesting that some of them went and asked a few senior administrators, who I will not name, if they were allowed to say certain things. It took a while to get them to understand that they could do that, and that I was creating a safe space. It was important to let them know that this was their team and not the coaching staff's team. Eventually I managed to establish that they saw themselves as a talented group but also as a team that are easy to beat.
Do you think that phrase "talented but easy to beat" describes how the World T20 turned out for them after they showed promise in the warm-ups but struggled in the main event?
Exactly. We beat Australia and Pakistan in the warm-ups, and even though it was just practice matches, they didn't want to lose to us. But then we played abysmally in the two games that mattered. Against Sri Lanka we just let them get too big a score, and we really played poorly against New Zealand. That tournament confirmed what I thought when I took the job: that it would take me about a year to work out who the best group of players were, not only technically but also from a mindset perspective.
After the trip to West Indies, you moved to Zimbabwe. How did you settle in?
The adjustment has been fine. It can get a bit frustrating with the power- and water cuts, but I realised that a lot of the stuff you read in the English papers is not what you find on the ground. I am halfway through a three-year contract at the moment and if people here think I am doing a good job, I would consider staying longer. My family have not come with me, though, so that is quite difficult. My daughters are still at school, so they are still in England with my wife.
There was some degree of expectation of the team at the World Cup, which they failed to live up to. Was that a particular low for you?
No, it wasn't. I didn't think we performed much below what was expected of us. We didn't perform above ourselves, which I hoped we would do, but we didn't do all that badly. We bowled and fielded well in the tournament, but we didn't get enough runs. If you look at the players' averages, five or six of them exceeded their ODI averages in the tournament, and the rest didn't. So I would say we performed to our average. We hoped we would meet one of the top nations on a bad day for them and a good day for us, but it didn't happen. I would still say containing Australia to 262 was a good effort. The truth was that for us to have had a realistic chance of causing an upset, this World Cup came a year too soon. In the next World Cup, we will have a better chance because we would have prepared better, mentally and physically. We will be a tougher prospect.
You've been through three captains - Prosper Utseya, Elton Chigumbura and Brendan Taylor. Is Taylor the best pick?
Yes, I think we have the best man in the job now. When I first met Prosper, I asked him if he enjoyed the captaincy, and he said, "Sometimes", so I knew that he didn't really enjoy it. His general demeanour also gave that away. He had done a good job but he was finding it tough. The obvious choice to take over at the time was Elton, but Elton is a mercurial player - some days he can be brilliant but other times not.
I'm pleased it was handed over to Brendan. He is fortunate to have taken over at a good time, when we've managed to prepare well, identify some new players, and when there has been a lot of emphasis on improving technique.
Players are taking things more seriously, from fitness and work levels to cricketing skills. They've bought into a tougher fitness regime and have grasped the fact that in order to make the most of their talent they have to put in some work. It's a good time to be captain because previously we had eight names you could put on the team sheet, now we have 14 or 15, and we are leaving people out who could justifiably ask what they have done wrong to be excluded.
What did you think of your Test schedule when you saw it - first, Bangladesh, who are probably on the same level as you, then a step up to Pakistan, and then New Zealand?
Actually I'd love a crack at the West Indies now! Seriously, though, I genuinely thought we would have a chance against Bangladesh, and as the game went on I became more and more confident. I was reasonably confident against Pakistan as well, and had we not dropped so many catches, who knows what might have happened.
New Zealand are a different type of team to those two. They will be more like us in terms of how we play the game. They are disciplined and a good fielding side, so we'll have to be better in that department. If we keep playing the way we have done, I will fancy our chances of being competitive at least.
The batsmen seem to have matured a great deal. What do you attribute that to?
They have worked harder and been driven harder. We had a winter training camp and they were coming in early, at around 7am, and netting for an hour or two, and some still do that on match days. They are hitting a lot more balls. They had to gain some confidence in their own ability and iron out the technical flaws.
Basically they have more belief, and the more belief you have that you can spend time in the middle and succeed, the more you will. Previously they didn't have that at all, so they would freeze in the middle or get out, because that's much easier - to get out and sit in the change room. It's tough out there, and now they have more of the mindset to cope with that.
It's exciting to find young, enthusiastic bowling talent like Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis. How do you plan to manage them going forward?
They are only playing one Test at a time so the workload won't be too high. But we still have to look after them and make sure they don't over-bowl. We will definitely rotate them, and we are lucky that we can do that now, so we don't have to flog one guy until he is finished.
In general, they are more attacking now than they have been and they have worked on techniques and learned new skills. As we saw with Vits [Vitori] in the Pakistan Test match, there is still no substitute for experience. This pitch didn't bounce and he had to find different ways to adjust. It's a learning process and some days they will take a pasting, but they will learn.
Look at Chris [Mpofu] - he was hammered in South Africa last year but he came back and worked on a slower ball and did well again. I think he had a very good World Cup.
You talk about being satisfied with the depth in the pool of national players. Does that mean you are pleased with the quality of the franchise system and confident it will produce new talent regularly?
I didn't see a lot of franchise cricket the seasons before last, but people say that last season was better than those, so things must be improving. I did a few miles last season, going to some games in different areas, and the ones I saw were all competitive. There were no walkover games. We were able to have a camp with 30 players who were in line for national honours - there were some young fast bowlers who we wanted to fast-track, and they did really well. I'd say it's doing well. What's important is that we continue the process of getting the squad together in camps to prepare. We only really started that before the World Cup, when we had nine days in Dubai, but before that this team never had enough preparation time.
Before the Pakistan Test you showed the squad the documentary Fire in Babylon. How did that inspire them, and what other tools have you used?
After the Bangladesh series we had a few days at Heath Streak's farm just outside Bulawayo, and we started by watching Fire in Babylon. The guys were just spellbound. There were so many levels on which they could relate to it - the racial aspect, the political aspect, and the quick bowling thing. They really enjoyed it.
We also played an orienteering competition, where we sent them out into the bush to photograph wild animals, and we had them do some small plays on how they see Zimbabwean cricket. We had some excellent contributions; there are some very good actors here. Last year, prior to the tri-series, we got in Dale Williamson, who works at Gary Kirsten's academy, and he was really good. I would like to use him more often.
We're lucky because everyone gets on. There is no need for any social engineering.
It's interesting you should say that because Zimbabwe have enjoyed a rapid rate of transformation, which was, at first, somewhat forced. How do you feel about transformation now?
What I will say upfront is that we don't get any interference from anyone regarding quotas. We pick the team on merit. Every black person I have spoken to about the game has agreed that that is the way the team should be handled and that everyone who is in there must be good enough.
The administration has a reputation for infighting at the management level. As someone coming in from the outside, what was your experience of that, and are you comfortable with the way the administration is handling the game, especially with allegations of wrongdoing still surfacing occasionally?
I don't get any sense that there is corruption. Like any administration that has to work under severe financial strain, there are problems. Having said that, I have always been paid on time and we are not the only ones with those problems. New Zealand had to defer payments recently, and West Indies are always in some sort of turmoil.
What are the goals going forward?
We have two series against New Zealand, and I would like us to be competitive in both. In order for our one-day cricket to go forward we have to unearth some more allrounders to lengthen our batting line-up. Graeme Creamer's injury hasn't helped in that regard. We have to identify and develop some allrounders without severely weakening our bowling attack. I would also want us to be much more competitive in the T20 World Cup next year.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent