The Rhinos go local
Zimbabwe's Richard Muzhange has moulded his yorker on the one Australia's Jason Gillespie used to bowl. He fires it in fast, aims low and produces late inswing. On one of the 16 turf nets at the Kwekwe Sports Club in the Midlands, he practises it over and over again, motivated not by a magazine clipping or television footage of Gillespie, but by a lucid memory.
"Because Jason showed him how to bowl the yorker, he knows how to do it now and he wants to make sure he gets it right every time," said Kenyon Ziehl, chief executive of the Mid-West Rhinos, where Muzhange plays his franchise cricket.
The Rhinos are one of the less glamorous of Zimbabwe's five franchises. They have not won a trophy since the competition was introduced in 2009 but are steadily improving. For the past two seasons they have had the expertise of Gillespie to guide them. His enthusiasm resulted in the discovery and grooming of seamers Muzhange and Michael Chinouya, both among the top wicket-takers on the domestic scene, and generated an air of excitement and hope in the squad as a whole. "We've discovered a lot of young bowlers here and things are looking very promising," Ziehl said.
Most visitors to Zimbabwe do not venture further afield than Harare or Bulawayo but Gillespie did. He was offered the job with the Rhinos in 2010, when his youngest son was only nine weeks old. He was tempted by the opportunity to coach a first-class team but says he did not take the decision lightly. "My thoughts focused on how I can develop my coaching, how I could help the Rhinos players individually and as a team, how grassroots cricket could be improved," Gillespie said.
He found a fairly basic facility that had deteriorated during what Ziehl calls Zimbabwe's "lean years" - the mid 2000s. The structure of a multi-purpose sports facility that had hosted an ODI (against Kenya in December 2002) was there, but it needed serious sprucing up. With funding from Zimbabwe Cricket and bits of sponsorship, Kwekwe began to transform.
"The change has been immense," Gillespie said. "There is a swimming pool and gym, and the new turf training facility, once fully completed, will compete with Harare and Bulawayo as the best net training set-up in the country. The old scoreboard from Harare is now in Kwekwe, and hopefully by next season it will be operational."
What inspired Gillespie was the personnel. In an area thirsting for cricket development, he found players eager to learn and succeed. When the franchise system was formed, Zimbabwe Cricket ensured the national players were evenly distributed across the five franchises. The Rhinos were given current captain Brendan Taylor, opening batsman Vusi Sibanda, legspinner Graeme Cremer and allrounder Malcolm Waller. Most of the other players at the franchise were also from the main centres.
Finding and grooming local talent - one of the few national players actually born and brought up in Kwekwe is Charles Coventry who plays for Bulawayo's Matabeleland Tuskers - was essential, and Gillespie found that it was difficult.
Zimbabwe Cricket cannot afford to maintain more domestic competitions than the current franchise system caters for, so all second-team tournaments were cancelled. Players who came to training but did not make the first XI were often demotivated by the lack of opportunity. "We had upwards of 20 players coming to all the skills and fitness sessions for months on end and [they would] then be told there was no cricket," Gillespie said. "Their only cricket was club cricket. It's difficult to judge a player's form from sporadic club cricket and net form, and the frustrations of the lads were quite clear."
Like in most of Zimbabwe, Kwekwe's club structures are virtually non-existent because of lack of funds. Matches are infrequent and the standard is poor. Ziehl said it was one of his goals in the next few seasons to revive club cricket in the area. "We hope to get a proper league system going so our development can kick on from there."
Financial support and interest have increased, so Ziehl's ambition is not unrealistic. In late 2011, the Australian embassy funded the building of a ground in Mbizo, a high-density area just outside Kwekwe. Mahindra, the Indian automobile manufacturer, also lent support, and Gillespie and members of the Rhinos squad held coaching clinics for the local children. "We simply wanted kids to have fun. I must credit the players for making themselves available to come and teach these kids the basics of the game which they enjoyed immensely," Gillespie said.
Such initiatives will allow more players like Muzhange to start competing with established franchise players for places, which Gillespie thinks is crucial. "The first-class players in the country are not being challenged from below, and for the standard to improve across the board, more consistent and meaningful cricket is needed at the lower level," he said.
For that to happen, a more aggressive effort has to be made to take the game to the people, by building facilities in areas that previously had none - Gillespie is passionate about Chitungwiza, a suburb south of Harare, being given a franchise - and assistance from foreign players like him. The Rhinos have two international players, Gary Balance (born in Zimbabwe but who is aiming for England qualification) and Riki Wessels, son of former South African captain Kepler, playing for them.
Wessels senior has also played an informal consultancy role with the franchise, which may become official in the coming season. The Rhinos are on the hunt for a new coach because Gillespie has taken up a position with Yorkshire and settled his family in Leeds. "We were very happy to have Jason with us for two seasons," Ziehl said. "He took a gamble coming here and he made a big difference."
Gillespie hopes to continue contributing, and said a part of his heart remains in Zimbabwe. "I have made some great friends in Zimbabwe and I love the country, the people and the lifestyle. My business back in Australia has an agency agreement with Cricket Tours Africa to bring cricket teams from Australia out to Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya," he said. I believe I can help promote Zimbabwe as a cricketing option for players and coaches by communicating my experiences in Zimbabwe over the last couple of years."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent