The Takashinga way
For a place that spent a good chunk of the last decade being an emblem of Zimbabwe cricket's decline, Takashinga Cricket Club has a disarmingly friendly air to it.
The cracks in the myth first began to show when, another journalist and I, having driven into the townships to visit Takashinga in a shiny silver Toyota Yaris with South African plates, promptly got lost and sought refuge beside a ramshackle collection of shops next to the main road. A man who had been sitting on a low wall and watching our flustered conversation walked slowly over to the car, greeted us with a warm smile and asked, with masterful understatement, if we might be lost. After giving us simple directions to Takashinga, he sent us on our way with another smile, adding: "Enjoy your time in Highfields."
That pleasant interaction set the tone for the morning. Under a baking hot cloudless sky, the ground was hosting an Under-16 tournament made up of a selection of teams from Highfields, Glen View and Chitungwiza - all poor, black suburbs - and so we settled in to watch a little of the cricket.
Stephen Mangongo, the assistant coach of the national side and one of Takashinga's founders, arrived some 20 minutes later, and it was clear from the moment he walked into the gates that he commanded the respect and admiration of all present. A father figure to a generation of Zimbabwean cricketers, he obviously felt some paternal goodwill to us too, having kindly turned up with ice-cream.
"There's been a real lack of exposure," explained Mangongo as we walked around the ground between the boisterous youngsters on the field and older club cricketers honing their skills in the nets. "People don't realise there are so many good things happening. It's not all gloom and doom here."
Zimbabwe has certainly had its ups and downs since 1990, when a 20-year old Mangongo, who had been one of the first recipients of the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union's scholarship programme, found two like-minded allies in Givemore Makoni and Danmore Padaro. Together they took the first steps towards creating the club.
The club was first linked to Churchill High School in Harare until the facilities in Highfields were brought up to scratch, but in a post-colonial Zimbabwe that name was never going to stick, and in 2001 it was changed to Takashinga.
"The major driving force behind the formation of Takashinga was the burning desire to make cricket a mass sport, to play the game at our own locality and make sure that those boys who did not have the funds for transport into the city could also enjoy the game," explained Mangongo. "We wanted to take the game to the people and make it accessible.
"It's a hard life in the ghetto. For the parent who's trying to get one dollar to go and buy vegetables or cooking oil to then give you 50 cents to go and play cricket, it's a luxury. Those are the sorts of things I grew up watching and seeing, and I saw a lot of other players who were probably better than me quitting the game because they could not get money to go into town and play at Harare Sports Club and Alex and Old Hararians."
Mangongo singled out two people for their help in those early days: Dave Ellman-Brown, who was the Zimbabwe Cricket Union president at the time, and the much-maligned Peter Chingoka, whose parents still live in Highfields. The two helped secure the initial funds to build the clubhouse, and then sponsors were approached as an attempt was made to turn what was basically an open field into a cricket ground.
"This place was really a jungle," continued Mangongo. "There was no field here, there was nothing. So OK Zimbabwe [a retail company] helped us with levelling it, and we approached the British Council and they gave us a tractor, which helped us with our cutting. They also donated the first equipment, and we then started coaching the kids.
"From there on, it was a case of us having the passion to become the best cricketing team, because we had the ground, we had the clubhouse. What was left now was just to try and work hard at our game."
They did just that, and having started off in the national fourth league, Takashinga were promoted to the third league, then up to the second, and finally to the first league. Andy Flower, then at the peak of his game, joined the team, and in their maiden first league appearance, they won the competition. "Andy Flower brought so much professionalism. He helped to shape so many of the youngsters you see today. People like Tatenda Taibu, Stuart Matsikenyeri, and Vusi Sibanda.
"Everything else," Mangongo said, "is history."
Speaking of history, Takashinga's has, at times, been somewhat troubled. Sport and politics are always, arguably, inextricably entangled, perhaps more so in Zimbabwe than elsewhere.
Takashinga's name became increasingly linked to Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF as the political complexion of the country changed. The club was embroiled in the tumult in Zimbabwe cricket around the time of the rebel crisis in 2003-04. Henry Olonga was kicked out of Takashinga by Makoni after his black armband protest with Andy Flower at the 2003 World Cup (the Flowers had already ended their association with the club), and there were also allegations of preferential treatment, with regards to national selection, towards players who toed the club's line.
It appeared that Takashinga was the bad guy, a symptom of all that ailed Zimbabwe's cricket. The truth was, of course, rather more complex, but as Zimbabwe's political and economic turmoil has calmed, Takashinga has worked to change its image, just as Zimbabwe Cricket has.
Image and PR aside, Takashinga has also had to survive - as has everyone else in Zimbabwe - a sustained period of political turmoil and economic decline. "Cricket equipment is very expensive, and you won't believe how this club has struggled," said Mangongo. "It's a tight community, where you have people like Hamilton Masakadza and Prosper Utseya. When they go on tour, we always say, 'Guys, let's pool our little bit of extra, and buy a couple of bats for the club.' So the kids come from the township, and they don't have anything, but they get old equipment from the guys, the hand-me-downs. The guys remember where they came from and they put back into the community."
It's that sense of community that seems to be at the heart of everything Takashinga has achieved. As we watched the tense denouement of a tightly fought, low-scoring game on the field, Mangongo introduced me to two of the club's senior players: Tafadzwa Kamungozi and Sam Mwakayeni. Though neither was playing, both had turned up on the weekend to help with the organisation of the tournament and to mentor some of the younger players.
"It's a great honour to give back to this club," explained Kamungozi, who played a handful of ODIs for Zimbabwe in 2006 and has recently forced his way back into the Zimbabwe A squad. "It's a really good system I've come through. You have to give back. I've been playing at this ground since I was seven."
"This is where I grew up," added Mwakayeni. "This place is the grassroots of my cricket. I want to come back here and help the kids, and they can take the same route I've taken. It's really helped me to develop my cricket. I'll always be here, because I know this is my home. It's always good to give back to the kids, give them a chance like the one I had."
Kamungozi and Mwakayeni, and men like Leonard Namburo, Tendekai Maposa and Alois Tichana - the three coaches standing at the boundary's edge and shouting instructions such as "Push mwana, push. [Push, child, push.]" and "Sweeper ari kupi? [Where's the sweeper?]" every so often in the direction of the pitch - give freely of their time in Highfields, Chitungwiza and Glen View. Without them, cricket could not flourish in the townships.
"The rolling of the square out there is done by the kids and the club guys," added Mangongo. "It's a community thing. With that comes a sense of ownership. It's our club, we'll roll the ground, we'll do it. These umpires have all come through our systems, and they're good umpires. A sense of ownership from the community becomes the binding force, and I believe that that's the pillar of the growth of any investment. The community must feel part of it, and that's exactly what is happening with our cricket here at Takashinga."
The Takashinga model certainly seems to work. The club currently has 35 cricketers playing franchise cricket across the country, and has nurtured a significant proportion of the current national side. The club's membership continues to grow every year, and there are plans to expand the facilities to convert one of the nearby football fields to cricket.
"It's a simple concept," insisted Mangongo. "Once you've got a facility, these kids, they die for sport. In high-density areas, in the ghetto, there's not much entertainment, unlike in the nice, leafy green suburbs, where kids have got computers, they go on holidays, they've got this and that. These kids here have got nothing to do. So by tapping into them, you are just going to win. These kids are as good as anyone else."
As if on cue, an excited group of children gathered at the edge of the field to cheer their side on in the final over. They are part of one of the two Highfields teams playing in the tournament, and rose to support the other kids from their neighbourhood. As a nail-biting one-run victory was secured by the bowling side, they charged onto the field in joyous celebration. If their clear devotion to the game can continue to be nurtured by clubs like Takashinga, cricket has a bright future in Zimbabwe.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town