Mpofu takes it slow
The dusty towns of Kimberley and Bloemfontein in the heartland of South Africa are not destinations for people in search of self-realisation. The cricket pitches at both venues are flat and unresponsive, and fast bowlers are particularly unlikely to discover themselves at either. But Zimbabwe's Chris Mpofu did.
He toiled on both surfaces during Zimbabwe's short tour of their neighbour in October last year, recording unflattering figures of 1 for 59 in a Twenty20 in Kimberley and 0 for 59 in an ODI in Bloemfontein. His was not the most expensive return, but it was the most disappointing because he was expected to perform as the senior seamer and failed to do so.
"Robin Jackman came and spoke to me after those two performances and said if I wanted to succeed in international cricket, I had to learn to bowl a slower ball," Mpofu told ESPNcricinfo. "He said it's not all about speed, it's also about variation. Even if you hit the same areas over and over again but don't change your pace, batsmen will find a way to succeed against you."
Mpofu had bowled some cutters in the nets before that but "did not have the belief" to try them in a match situation; he had also not found the need to. Only after bending his back on the batsman-friendly strip in Bloemfontein did he start to ponder what Jackman said, and his choice to take the advice seriously represented the turning point of his career.
"The most difficult part was getting him to realise that he needed to add to his repertoire, but once he acknowledged that, it was quite easy to teach how," Heath Streak, Zimbabwe's bowling coach, said. "In cricket you need a range of balls, over and above your stock delivery. Once Chris knew that, he was happy to learn, and we worked in the nets for over a month to develop his offcutter."
Streak and Mpofu have a special relationship as the only two members of the current national set-up who come from Bulawayo. They have known each other since Mpofu first turned up to bowl in the nets against the national team in the early 2000s, when he had only just discovered an interest in cricket. Mpofu was a late starter in the game, having played as a goalkeeper for his school's football team and participated in athletics. "I only started watching cricket during the 1999 World Cup," he said.
Zimbabwe fielded one of their strongest sides in that tournament and beat both India and South Africa to advance to the Super Eights. They were labelled the giant of the smaller teams and it's easy to see why a youngster like Mpofu may have been inspired to take up the sport. Five years later he got his wish, but not in the way he would have imagined.
The 2004 player walkout left glaring gaps and Mpofu was one of the youngsters who was fast-tracked onto the international stage. He was 19 at the time and although it was his dream to represent his country, he was not comfortable doing so in that environment.
"It wasn't easy for any of us. We had no one to lead us and we didn't know what the future would hold," he said. "Some days we would come into the change room and not know what we were doing, and even when we thought we were doing well, things weren't going our way."
He stuck it out, though, like Hamilton Masakadza, Vusi Sibanda, Prosper Utseya, Tatenda Taibu and Brendan Taylor. It was probably tougher for him than for any of the others because he was often the lone seamer among a clutch of spinners. Mpofu had the essentials - his height allowed him to get good bounce and his action was technically sound - but he had no one to help him work on consistency and discipline. As a result he was often wayward and expensive and the target of opposition batsmen.
His poor performances seemed a symptom of the malaise that had crept into Zimbabwe cricket, and there were times when walking away looked an attractive option. "There was a game against Pakistan when I took 1 for 75 and I had to ask myself if it was worth it."
The answer only came much later, after things had started to change in Zimbabwe cricket. When Alan Butcher was brought in last year, with Streak as his bowling coach, Mpofu could sense that things were stabilising. As if in validation, he had a handful of decent performances in the tri-series against India and Sri Lanka and the matches against Ireland. He went off the rails after that, though.
"The tour of South Africa was one of the toughest times in my life," he said. "When I was doing that badly, I thought of Mick Lewis in the 438 game against South Africa and how I had not seen him play for Australia again, and I wondered if I would ever play for Zimbabwe again."
It was Streak who helped him believe he would. Mpofu said that because Streak speaks his mother tongue, Ndebele, it made it easier to talk to and relate to him.
"He had been more willing to open up and discuss issues with me, whereas in the past he may not have been as comfortable with other people," Streak said. It was probably the sense of familiarity that Mpofu felt around Streak, whom he describes as his cricketing hero, that made him receptive to Streak's mentorship in developing the slower ball.
"Streaky is the master of the offcutter," Mpofu said. His desire to learn to bowl it like the master took over. "It was an easy thing to teach because he has the ability," Streak said. "And the good thing is that his action doesn't change too much when he bowls the offcutter, so that element of deception is there. We had to be quite careful that he didn't lose his quicker ball, but he has done very well."
Mpofu showed great improvement at the 2011 World Cup, where he took seven wickets at an average of 22.71 and eased into a more senior role for Zimbabwe. He began to symbolise the new era of Zimbabwe cricket, one that is not scared to experiment and innovate.
He formed another special friendship during that tournament, with his new-ball partner Ray Price, and the two invented a special heel-touching jig to celebrate their wickets. "We saw some of the Kenyan guys doing it and we decided to make our own version," Mpofu said. "Ray taught me to celebrate every wicket, because you never know when you may take another one. He said, 'Even if a team is 300 without loss and you take the first wicket, you should celebrate it.'"
Recently Mpofu has not had as much to celebrate as two of Zimbabwe's new young seamers, Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis, have done. Since they debuted against Bangladesh, the spotlight has shifted to them, but instead of envying them their easier passage into international cricket and their early successes - which he did not have - Mpofu is quietly thrilled they are involved. "Having them makes my job easier," he said. "In Tests if they open the bowling, by the time I come on, I would have had time to see what the pitch is doing. I know if they do well, I have to continue that, and if they don't, I have to fix it."
Streak is pleased with the way Vitori and Jarvis have combined with Mpofu. "It's good to have that competition in the squad, and there will be days when he [Mpofu] has to take a back seat to them and vice versa. But he has taken on the more responsible role," Streak said.
Mpofu may seem to have been around for a while, but he is just 26 and is the senior seamer in the attack. Streak thinks his maturity at such a young age means Zimbabwe can look forward to a dynamic future with the three quick bowlers. "Their best years are ahead of us, and by the next World Cup I think the three seamers will be quite a handful."
Mpofu has set himself some lofty goals. "I would like to play in the Indian Premier League or the Sri Lankan Premier League, or maybe even in England - a big league; that would be a real achievement for me." But ultimately it's not the personal accolades but the collective ones he wants to reel in, having seen how resilient his team-mates have been over the last few years. "We have been through a lot but the guys haven't got too affected by it," he said. "We lost matches day in and day out and now we're probably three-quarters of the way there. We can't stop now."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent