July 29, 2013

Joker, competitor, team man

Zimbabwe left-arm spinner Ray Price combined humour and intensity in an international career that spanned over a decade

History was about to be made. Andy Blignaut was walking back to his mark, thinking about becoming the first Zimbabwean to take a hat-trick in Tests. He had dismissed Bangladesh's Hannan Sarkar with a delivery that had swung in and trapped him in front. He had had the promising youngster Mohammad Ashraful caught at gully. And he was weighing up his options as Mushfiqur Rahman took his guard.

It was February 2004 and the Harare sun was unforgiving, even though the day's play was about to end. Zimbabwe were going for the kill. They had set Bangladesh a target of 353 and had them on their knees at 14 for 4. If the next ball delivered the fifth wicket, it would catapult Blignaut into the history books and tighten Zimbabwe's grip on the game.

No one - not Heath Streak the captain, not Tatenda Taibu the wicketkeeper, not Grant Flower, the senior statesman - interrupted Blignaut's thoughts. And then, from the boundary, Ray Price came screaming in to issue instructions.

The looks on everyone else's faces was a mixture of amusement and anxiety. What could a left-arm spinner possibly say to a fast bowler as he is about to deliver a hat-trick ball?

"I don't remember, but I'm sure it was some kind of abuse," Blignaut said, laughing when asked to recall the story.

Price's memory needs no jogging. He can repeat, word-for-word exactly what he told Blignaut. "Bowl it full and straight, you dumb ****," he remembers uttering, in as stern a voice as possible. "If I didn't tell him, no one would and he was so excited, I'm sure he would have tried to bounce him or something."

Whether Blignaut had already thought of inducing the edge by pitching it up or whether Price planted the seed will remain unanswered, but that's exactly what Blignaut did. Mushfiqur Rahman feathered through to Taibu, who took the catch that secured the milestone. Of course, Price was the first to reach Blignaut in celebration.

That, in a nutshell, is Ray Price: joker, competitor, team man. And it's those three things Zimbabwe will miss most now that he will no longer be around.

Price's international retirement has been a long time coming. Various injuries, the most prominent of which was a hamstring problem, affected his participation. He has not featured in their limited-overs squads in ten months, and last played a Test in March, against West Indies.

Every time I spoke to him in the last 18 months, Price spoke about calling it a day. Every time, I did not believe him. To me, he was still the Price of the 2000s - showing promise in the early years before the white player walk-out and returning to the fold with real commitment later on. Price was one of those who did not enjoy the years in exile and welcomed the opportunity to turn down a contract with Warwickshire in order to return to his homeland.

At heart, Price is a family man and he applies that to all aspects of his life, especially his cricket. His father-in-law is Kevan Barbour, the international umpire. Price married his daughter, Julie, who was a scorer. Did that make it easier for him to get decisions on lbw and a few extra runs added to the total?

"No, it made it much harder. Sometimes I used to be appealing for what seemed like the duration of a song and it was plumb and he still wouldn't give it out," he once told me. "You know how it is with family. No protection."

The same extended to Price's cricketing relatives. As far as he could, he always tried to have a laugh, be it at their expense or with them, which is why he is such a source of great stories. One of his favourites, and one that I never tire of hearing, was about Guy Whittall.

Lauded as an absent-minded genius of sorts, Whittall often came up with pearlers on the field that did not make sense to anyone but himself. In a Test against Pakistan, one of the opposition batsmen was leaving the ball elaborately by taking a great stride forward, planting his front food ahead of him and, once he was sure it was safely past, putting one hand on his hip. After he did this repeatedly, Whittall decided to throw in a sledge.

"Who do you think you are?" he asked the batsman. "Christopher Columbus?" Whittall looked around at his team-mates for some encouragement but he was only met with bemused expressions. Nobody knew what he was on about, and Price decided to find out.

He asked Whittall to clarify exactly who was trying to compare the batsman with. "You know, Christopher Columbus, the guy whose statue is at Victoria Falls, with one foot pointed out and his hand on his hip," Whittall said. Price understood. "No, you mean David Livingstone, that's who is at the Falls," he told Whittall, before explaining the insult to his team-mates.

Price still has a good giggle when he retells that story but he has realised his cricketing future is no laughing matter. With a clutch of young spinners coming through and age creeping up on him, he has struggled to find a place in the Zimbabwean team despite the value he adds. He recognises that Zimbabwean cricket has to move on in order to grow.

That is the one subject Price is often serious about - the future of the sport in his country. Like so many, he is concerned about their lack of progress despite the promise.

"Sometimes I used to be appealing for what seemed like the duration of a song and it was plumb and he still wouldn't give it out"
Price on matches in which his father-in-law Kevan Barbour umpired in

Price was hopeful the 2011 World Cup would be a turning point - he even invented a toe-tapping dance with Chris Mpofu which the team would do in celebration every time they took a wicket - but it was not. Zimbabwe bowed out, as expected, after the first round, without having showed the fight of a unit who had spent months preparing for the event. When focus shifted to their Test comeback later that year, Zimbabwean cricket was believed to have turned a corner.

Price was part of the team that beat Bangladesh in August that year and celebrated long into the night - first with his young daughter, who was just a toddler then, at the ground, and then with Mpofu and Co at the party afterwards. The special dance made an appearance as well.

But Zimbabwe have not built much on that victory. An inconsistent fixture list and financial problems are the biggest speedbumps on their road to success. In Price's less light-hearted moments, his worry over the latter is obvious. He cares about what players and ground staff earn, and knows unless the situation changes, Zimbabwean cricket will find it difficult to take real steps forward.

That was the situation when I last saw Price, in April, during the two-Test series against Bangladesh. He knew he was not going to play in any of the matches, although he was in the squad. He also had a medical issue at the time and had to go under the knife, which means he wasn't around to watch the games either.

Then, he said he was four months away from the end of his career. I wasn't sure he really was. He loved the game too much.

Now I've been reminded passion is not enough. In some ways Price reminds me of Makhaya Nitni towards the end of his time - his skills were obviously waning but his team-mates and his supporters wanted him to carry on. Price has recognised his time is up but hopefully Zimbabwe Cricket has realised he can still contribute in other ways.

They could easily use him as a mentor, perhaps even as an alternative to a psychologist, as they look to infuse their youngsters with chutzpah to take on the best in the world.

If they don't, he will still be around the field. He owns the sports shop at Harare Sports Club but has a range of other trades, selling in his words, "everything: rats, cats, bats", and is a qualified air-conditioner repairman, although it is a profession he may not return to.

His fledgling career as a tradesman was what made Price turn to cricket. "It wasn't any fun fixing those things," he used to say. "It was much more fun playing cricket. That's what I want people to do, just to have fun when they're playing cricket." He certainly did.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 3, 2013, 1:16 GMT

    Ray Price still scares me. I would hate to walk on his lawn. Thank you Firdoose Moonda showing the "lovable-teddy' side of him. As relieved Bangladeshi fan, I, we, know exactly how dangerous he could be with the ball on a given day. We will miss you.

  • Faisal on August 1, 2013, 18:25 GMT

    U beauty Ray Price Zimwabean crkt will miss u and your expertise.....

  • Leonne on July 30, 2013, 12:57 GMT

    Thank you Pricey! You guys, Blignaut, Whittall and rest surely did put us on the map. Hopefully we can get back to those heights. With the belligerent n "living in the past" elements still around (ones that still view everything as black n white), it is going to be a mammoth of a task though.

    You are a CHAMPION Pricey!

  • ZCF on July 30, 2013, 6:56 GMT

    Whittall-Columbus-Livingstone, classic! That tale itself shows how much cricket has moved on from that lazy attitude past players had. Just need to get rid of those who literally walk singles! Price really had fun while playing, and it showed in his body language all the time. They could certainly make use of him to inspire the boys, but the team already has Mangongo. Unless sessions with Price are done after the coaching, the reverse is likely to be an anticlimax. The docile combination of Grant&Waller(previously Butcher) is enough to put out any fire one lights under their backsides!

    I'd like to disagree on the reference to Ntini. His fans, like myself, wanted him to continue, but his key team mates did not. With 400 wickets in sight, he had all the inspiration he needed to play on, but a few elements were not prepared to help him crawl over the mark like they did Polly. Ntini himself remains aggrieved to this day, but he "understands" why he same courtesy was not extended to him!

  • Amit on July 30, 2013, 4:30 GMT

    was a great competitor,i still remember his 6 wickets against australia in there own land,that day he bowl very well.everyone will remember him.

  • Rob on July 30, 2013, 0:20 GMT

    Excellent article - Zim cricket would be mad not to find a way to utilise Price. Thanks for everything RP.

  • TholletBeura on July 29, 2013, 18:31 GMT

    An awesome Tribute to one of Zim finest. Will surely miss you Ray

  • vamshi on July 29, 2013, 17:14 GMT

    he was a supeRb competitor and a genuine soul.... all the best mate...... hope u do well in life post retirement!!!!!