Pace bowler Henry Olonga's six wickets for 19 runs destroyed the back of the England innings in their match at Cape Town recently, winning the day for Zimbabwe. He talks to John Ward about the match and the tour.
JW: Henry, first of all how did you find conditions in South Africa compared to those in Zimbabwe?
HO: Their wickets were a bit helpful for bowlers. When we say this is a flat wicket it didn't necessarily mean it was going to be difficult to bowl on. In fact, some of those wickets were a touch on the slow side, and it was very difficult for the batsman to hit through the line. I think if you follow that whole tournament you'll find the bowlers did very well on that tour, and I think every second game a bowler took four or five wickets. It was very good for bowling in South African conditions because the outfields tended to be a couple of yards slower, so it was difficult for batsmen to score and as a result bowlers could bring back a good analysis.
I personally found the wickets I played on weren't very helpful. Newlands [Cape Town] was very nice to bowl on and the ball swung around, but that was more to do with the atmospheric conditions than the wicket. But it was a very nice wicket - good carry, good bounce. Kimberley I think was the flattest wicket of the lot and we should have capitalised on that. But I think there's always something in it for the bowlers; if you bowl straight enough and on a good length you tended to have just reward.
JW: Did you have to do anything to adjust your bowling to the conditions?
HO: No, I think I found I was at home on the South African wickets. If you recall I was at the Plascon Cricket Academy for four months so I was pretty familiar with the kind of conditions we were going to face, and while I was there we had a tour round South Africa to various venues - not any of the venues we actually played at, but I was familiar with the kind of length I had to bowl. So I settled in there nicely.
JW: I noticed you didn't play in the first match of the tournament.
HO: That was due to my left knee flaring up; in fact, it's being doing that for most of the games I've played in since we came back after Christmas. So it was a precautionary measure. I wasn't sure I'd make it through that game because it was quite sore. But it recovered nicely for me to be able to play in that Newlands game.
JW: Can you first of all describe the ground and the conditions.
HO: It's very much like any of the grounds you find in South Africa. It has a bank on one side and the main pavilion - one on each side, actually - and wonderful nets. The nice thing about our preparation for that match was that we had good nets, and the batsmen got in and were able to work on their game for a good couple of days. The outfield we were very pleased with - it was very flat and wonderful grass, very different from the kind of kikuyu we get back at home. For some reason, though, it was very heavy; I don't know why, I don't think they'd had any rain recently, but it was just a slowish outfield.
I don't think there was too much grass on the wicket; in fact, I can't remember there being any grass at all, but it was a nice hard wicket, had good carry, good bounce, and bowling in the evening is always an advantage at Newlands, because the ball doesn't really get wet and it does swing. The highest score to win at Newlands I think was just over 200, so for a team to chase our score of 214 and win would have been a mammoth task; it would have been going against the history of the ground. So we knew that having got 214 we thought it was a winning total, one of the highest scores at Newlands.
JW: Who did well for us with the bat?
HO: Well, it was Neil Johnson who batted through the innings for us, and a lot of the other batters batted around him. Then he got out with a few overs to go, and as we said and is common sense to any cricket follower, if you can get one batsman to bat through and the others bat around him, you're going to get a good score, normally between 220 and 250 plus. That game was a wonderful game because we got most of the departments right: we bowled well, we fielded well, caught all our catches, and the batting was superb.
JW: So when you came on to bowl, did you have a feeling that it was going to be your day?
HO: Not at all, John; I just figured that if I bowled with a bit of rhythm and didn't try to bowl too fast - it was something I'd been working on in the nets. I'd been trying to get over my front knee, which is something I hadn't been doing - the knee that's been giving me problems, and in fact it's only been giving me problems since I tried getting over it! - but what it meant was that I'd be bowling at my full height and letting the ball go with the seam upright. So I just figured out that if I got it in the right areas enough times I'd get lucky, but I didn't figure I'd get six wickets, to be honest!
It's a day I can look back on and say, "Well, I'm not sure how everything fell together that day" - I can analyse videos and analyse my action and see what I got right, but if the truth be told, it's just one of those moments when you're in the zone. I think golfers know what it means to be in the zone, and basketball players and football players, when you just can't seem to do anything wrong. Obviously you want to be in the zone as often as you can be, but that doesn't happen too often. The best bowlers and the best batsmen are those who can get into that zone all the time, and for me that was a day when I was on form. Hopefully, with experience and maturity and the more I play - I think I've only played 25 one-day games - the more I play, the more I'll be able to relax and do the things I did right then over and over again - if my knee holds out!
JW: Can you describe the wickets you took?
HO: Well, it just so happened that I was swinging both ways. I had my grip right and I was obviously landing right, and I figured that if I got it in the right areas it would swing for me, either away or in. I didn't plan to bowl inswingers and outswingers, but it just so happened I bowled an outswinger to Nick Knight, which had him fishing - in fact, I was bowling slightly wide of off stump for him initially, and he drove one or two through cover, got two for it, so I bowled one that went away from him and figured he would get across more. Having done that I got one that swung back at him and caught him plumb in front - I think that would have got middle stump, or leg stump.
JW: Did you have much control of the swing?
HO: I don't think I did; as I said I was just trying to get it in the right areas. For me that's important; if I'm bowling a good pace and getting it on a decent line and a decent length, if it goes away and it's on or around off stump, it's going to beat the bat, and if it comes in hopefully it's going to hit a glove or get him lbw. I didn't have control of my swing, but I did have control of my line and length. Because I got it in a good area, when it swung away it didn't matter. Off stump is a good area to bowl to Nick Knight, I think; he's very good on the cut so you don't want to give him width, and nothing shorter than a length. His was a very good wicket because it was all worked out.
The second wicket to fall was Graeme Hick in the same over. The first ball I bowled came back at him, and the ball that got him out just held its line - I don't think it swung a great deal, and it was wonderful to see that he edged it. It was a decent ball in a good area, and he walked, so that helped.
Solanki was the third to fall. He got a wide one that swung on him and he played a nice booming square drive that carried, just about as high as Murray Goodwin could stretch. He just held it in his fingertips and that was a great catch, a match-changing catch, because Solanki and Hussain were looking good. Solanki was timing the ball nicely and was looking like he would get a big score. So it was a nice wicket to get, and it wasn't due to a great ball, it was just a great piece of fielding.
Then Nasser Hussain played on - full ball, fast, not quite a yorker, just outside off stump, and he managed to get a thick inside edge which made the ball career into leg stump. Many people noticed that I didn't see that he had been bowled, and that was because I was unsighted. The ball hit leg stump and he was batting on two-leg or something. I didn't see initially that he'd been bowled because I only saw the ball heading off to fine leg, but I did see Andy Flower running towards me with his hands in the air and I heard the roar from the crowd, so I figured that something has happened. Much the same happened yesterday [the first one-day international at Bulawayo] when I didn't realise he'd been bowled. Once again he played it on to his leg stump.
Adams had been struggling, as far as we'd gathered, throughout the season outside the off stump, so we figured that if we kept the ball in a good area outside off stump we had a good chance of getting him out. The ball bounced on him a little and flew to Neil Johnson, who took a blinder of a catch.
The last wicket was Chris Read. There was nothing in the game for them, and Andy Flower brought me back on. Read was obliged to smack it as far as he could, and he hit it in the air for Guy Whittall to take the catch, and I was very pleased to end up with six wickets for 19. I didn't know that it was Zimbabwe's best until after the match, I didn't know it was the eighth best in one-day internationals and one better than Bryan Strang's record of six for 20. So it wasn't until after the match that I realised that all sorts of things were supposed to have happened that night. But it was a special night.
But in the circles I move in, Christian circles, I would call it a day when God's hand rested upon me. That was a day I can look back on and say, "Well, it was different from other days." There are key times when God has equipped me that way, and I remember the World Cup against India. If you asked me to reproduce that I probably couldn't do it at will; it's just a moment in time when God's ability and anointing rest upon me. And I think that was one of the days when everything went right; we found how to get batsmen out and it worked. Save for the wicket of Solanki, the rest were good balls that deserved to get wickets. It was only the skill and ability that was divinely resting upon me, I guess.
As I say, the more I play and the more experience I get, the more I will be able to produce magicals. I'd like to be able to bowl like Wasim Akram, as I said in an interview in Pakistan, and he's my role model if you will, the guy I look up to, and I think he's an awesome bowler. I'll never bowl like him, but I certainly have taken a few things from him. He's given me advice over the years and I've been able to put some of those things into practice.
It was wonderful that I could go out and bowl like that because a lot of people have asked in the past whether I should be in the one-day side. Even today there are times when people ask that question, but I think of late I've been bowling a lot better than I have throughout my career in one-day games - I haven't played many, as I said. But I've been maturing and growing and able to bowl more consistently, and a much better line and length.
JW: What sort of speed were you bowling at in that match?
HO: I wasn't bowling very fast; in fact I haven't been trying to bowl flat out; one, because of my knee, and two, because I don't think it's necessary. The faster I bowl, the more prone I become to bowl wides and noballs, and all sorts of dross in between - short, wide, everything. So I have decided to bowl a little slower, a little within myself, mainly because I have more control. I do sometimes get wickets through bowling fast, but I've found that if I bowl in good areas, at a decent speed, 130 [kilometres per hour], I will get wickets as long as it's moving.
JW: Just an occasional very fast one?
HO: Definitely, although sometimes it doesn't come out right, sometimes I do bowl the odd wide here and there, like yesterday the instructions were for me to go out there and get wickets - we needed to get wickets in case it rained, and then under the Duckworth-Lewis calculation method we would be slightly ahead by taking wickets. Yes, it does go wrong once in a while if I try to bowl fast, and if I bowl within myself the batsmen can run down the pitch to me, hit me over the top, do all sorts of things.
JW: When I spoke to you about a year ago, you told me that when you tried to concentrate on line and length rather than speed, it didn't work.
HO: No, it didn't, because the coach wanted me to bowl flat out, and at that time it was working because I'd take lots of wickets with the new ball. Then they brought me on first change, if you remember, for the last few matches, with Heath back in action, and then they changed back again and gave me the new ball. Throughout the Sri Lanka series I was bowling with the new ball, and it was very important that we got early wickets, but also that we didn't get them off to a flying start because those Sri Lankans can get on to anything loose. Throughout that Sri Lanka series I actually shortened my run-up and bowled a little bit within myself in the one-day games, especially with the new ball.
Things changed when I hurt my knee, because now I can't just bowl flat out and because I need to last the game. So I'm bowling a little bit within myself, and that has changed mainly because as I said of my knee and I'm having success bowling that way as well. If it wasn't working I'd have changed back to how I used to bowl.
JW: You really need a break, but you won't get one for several months.
HO: No, we won't, and I've obviously got to watch this. Guy Whittall's out with his knee injury - he's off for five weeks or so, so he might miss the West Indies tour which is very sad for us. But we're not thin on bowling, and one of the things that were discussed at the beginning of the season was that because it was such a long season there would be opportunities for most of the bowlers to break down. I've bowled pretty much nonstop as a strike bowler for four months now and my frame is not that strong; I'm a very lean guy, and we'll just have to hope and pray that I last the next four months.
I don't think it's as serious as a season-threatening injury; I just think it's one of those injuries that needs a bit of a rest here and there, and then I can get back into action. I don't think it's possible that I'll play every single match from now until the end of the season, without it flaring up and giving me problems. A break doesn't necessarily mean a month or two weeks; it means maybe I should rest for a couple of games if it starts to give me problems. And that's what happened in South Africa, and I rested for a game, which gave me about four days, which I think is all I need, and I won't need to be put on hold for about five weeks.
JW: Any other memorable moments in South Africa?
HO: The Kingsmead match, of course, where we won our second victory over South Africa, and I took two early wickets, which was nice, because I bowled well, and sort of fairly economically because I was going at four an over, which is different for me because I usually go for fives. That was nice for me, because I had a part to play, and after I took two early wickets they didn't stop losing wickets. And I didn't think I bowled badly during that match. I was happy with that return, and getting our second victory over South Africa was brilliant.
I'm really grateful to God for having given me this career and a lot of what has happened over my career has been very character-building. I had a bad start to my career, I've had injuries that put me out for a long time, I've also had a horrendous amount of criticism over the years, so I just think it's wonderful for God to vindicate me this way. I'm not saying it's done now, I've arrived, I'm now the finished product - no, but what I can say is looking back and having the best figures by a Zimbabwean bowler in one-day cricket is very pleasing to me. It's not something that would have made good sense to a few people some years ago.
I remember Robson Sharuko writing an article in The Herald at the beginning of the season after a played against Australia, and I played really badly, I bowled badly, I ran Bryan Strang out in our first innings, and it was just a bad game. The press just jumped on to it and his exact words were, "At this stage in time we don't need Henry Olonga. Instead we should give David Mutendera a chance." I think it was a bit harsh.
From then on, my season just seemed to get better and better, and I got wickets throughout the matches I played in, I got wickets against South Africa, I got four against South Africa, I got four against Sri Lanka - I was getting wickets consistently. Even in the one-day games; my one-day game improved. So it's wonderful to know that a lot of the criticism that's come, a lot of my critics have had to swallow their words to some extent. It's a wonderful feeling to know that when everyone writes you off, Almighty God can give me the ability to confound my critics, as has been seen. If I could do that every day, I'd be a truly awesome cricketer, don't you think, John? But God does it out of weakness, so his glory may be increased.