Telford Vice on Mark Vermeulen January 13, 2007

Ghost in the machine

ESPNcricinfo staff
Mark Vermeulen, once among Zimbabwe's most promising young batsmen, could spend his next 25 years in jail. Telford Vice examines his descent into serious behavioural disorder ...

Mark Vermeulen, once among Zimbabwe's most promising young batsmen, could spend his next 25 years in jail. Telford Vice examines his descent into serious behavioural disorder ...

A handcuffed Mark Vermeulen arrives at court in Harare with his solicitor © Getty Images
Are you my bag?" Mark Vermeulen didn't seem to be trying to humour himself or those around him amid the humdrum of another day, another airport. In fact, he sounded entirely serious "You aren't my bag!"

Yup, he was talking earnestly to the luggage as it trundled past him on the carousel. "Why aren't you my bag?" Odd. Just like his behaviour in an interview after he had scored a Test century against the West Indies. As keen as Vermeulen was to discuss his innings, he was prevented from doing so by his own over-riding obsession with the reporter's recording equipment. "What's that button for? What happens if you push it twice? Where do the batteries go?"

Sadly, that fine 118 in Bulawayo three years ago could prove to be Vermeulen's only Test hundred in the wake of his trial for arson after the Zimbabwe academy premises in Harare was destroyed in a fire that raged late on Halloween night.

"He's always been a little ... what's the word, different," says Alistair Campbell, who captained Zimbabwe when Vermeulen made his Test debut in 2002. "He's never reacted that well to authority or to adversity, and some of his actions in those situations have not been those of normal people. Everyone is allowed their idiosyncrasies and professional sport is full of oddballs. But they don't go around burning down buildings." That's the difference between being considered a harmless madman - someone like Merv Hughes - and being confirmed as a total loony.

Vermeulen, it seems, has long been a grenade without a pin. His past is littered with incidents of poor discipline and irrational conduct and while action was taken in several instances, it seems he never managed to curb his wilder ways.

But Campbell also remembers, between the rough spots, a talented, easygoing youngster who did show others the necessary respect. "In his calmer moments he was like a kid with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) who took his medicine," Campbell recalls. "When he had proper guidance - when the Flowers and other experienced players were in the team - then he did take direction. But I think when everyone left he fell apart. Perhaps his ambition was to play with those guys.

"Even now when I see him, he comes up to me and says, 'Let's make a comeback, lets go to the World Cup'.

Maybe the turnaround of things, when he realised he couldn't play with the best anymore, wasn't good for him. He didn't mind taking direction from people who knew what they were talking about. He always had a mad streak in him, but it was never as pronounced as it was after the old guard left."

Vermeulen made his Test debut in a team that, besides Campbell, included Grant Flower, Andy Flower, Tatenda Taibu, Andy Blignaut, Ray Price and Henry Olonga. For much of his international career of eight Tests and 32 one-day internationals, he was captained by Heath Streak.

These days Zimbabwe can only dream of fielding a side studded with cricketers of that level of skill and experience. Player strikes and rebellions, contractual disagreements, and the sheer daily strife that comes with living in one of the most economically, politically and socially dysfunctional societies in the world have ripped the heart out the game.

Did Zimbabwe's systems fail Vermeulen?

"Vermeulen is not the first player like this," Campbell says. "The difference with most of the others is that they were in a system where, if you behaved like that, you just didn't play cricket. You were ostracised. Here, guys like that tended to get away with a lot more. If there had been a system in place with counselling, and if things like this had been taken seriously, it might have been different." But in Zimbabwe, with its tiny player base and generally impoverished cricket structures, there was no safety net for Vermeulen.

Vermeulen is 27 years old, which in better circumstances would mean he should have another 10 years of playing cricket at a decent level to look forward to before having to consider other ways to earn his keep. That his career is probably over is due in large part to the events of September 10 in a Central Lancashire League match between Werneth and Ashton. Vermeulen, a professional for Werneth, reacted to a spectator's verbal suggestion that his bowling might improve if he removed his sunglasses by throwing a ball in the crowd's direction. Then he grabbed a boundary marker, which had a steel spike attached to it ...

Before Vermeulen could add to his woes he was frogmarched off the ground - effing and blinding all the way - and out of English cricket. That much was confirmed when he was banned for 10 years from all matches played under the auspices of the England and Wales Cricket Board. The ban was subsequently cut to three years, of which the last two were suspended.

There was absolutely no support base for a guy like him, there was no system to fall into. That was a recipe for a bomb going off, which is basically what happened
But how many clubs would be able to see past such a significant blot and hire him to play for them? "We are pleased that the board have clearly recognised the substantial mitigation put forward on Mark's behalf," Vermeulen's legal representative, Andrew Fitch-Holland, said at the hearing at which the sentence was reduced. "However, we are disappointed that Mark remains subject to an effective 12-month ban. Mark is totally focused on fighting for a place in Zimbabwe's World Cup squad and is obviously concerned as to how this outcome will be viewed."

Fitch-Holland said Vermeulen had been diagnosed with a "depressive illness which of course has a significant impact upon his behaviour. For anyone, let alone a professional sportsman, to publicly admit to such a struggle is, I suggest, exceptional and worthy of a degree of respect. We offer no excuses for Mark's unacceptable conduct but ask instead for some understanding."

It was under this heavy cloud that Vermeulen returned to Zimbabwe determined to resurrect his career. "When he came back and said to Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), 'I want a contract and I want to play for Zimbabwe again', they quite rightly told him he had this thing hanging over his head in England, which was not ideal, and to go play league cricket and prove himself," Campbell explains. "But to fob off someone who's already unstable was just asking for trouble. There was absolutely no support base for a guy like him, there was no system to fall into. That was a recipe for a bomb going off, which is basically what happened.

"You'd think he might try and knock out the chief executive or something. But to do what he did - if, of course, he's guilty - you've got to realise there's a serious problem. Put yourself in his position: 'If I come back at least I can play cricket again. But now I can't do that. In fact, I've got nothing. Now what do I do?' It's a scary scenario."

Even players who did not face Vermeulen's personal challenges were shaken by their first cold blasts of reality, Campbell says. "Playing professional cricket is a pampered lifestyle. You're not really aware of the outside world, and when you're dropped into it it's a bit of a story. Teams these days have fitness coaches and dieticians and all sorts of things, but not enough of an effort is made to assess players' mental strength and aptitude to play at international level - what it takes out of you and what it creates inside you.

"Playing for Zimbabwe was never about making money, it was all about fun on the road and having a good time. Suddenly that's taken away from you, and you're not staying in nice hotels and you have to pay a few bills."

Presumably, Vermeulen had similar topics on his mind early in October when he apparently walked up to Robert Mugabe's front gate and demanded to see "the patron" to "talk about cricket". Zimbabwe president Mugabe is indeed the patron of cricket in the country. The walls surrounding his residence in Harare bristle with razor wire and men armed with bayonets, AK47s and notoriously short tempers. This time they didn't shoot, and Vermeulen was simply arrested. Upon his release, he went back at the gate and restated his demand. Somehow, he survived again.

In the days before the fire, the Zimbabwe squad played practice matches at the academy ground in preparation for their tour to Bangladesh. "He tried to stop one of the matches at the academy; he was throwing boundary boards and bricks onto the field," says Zimbabwe coach Kevin Curran.

A source claimed Vermeulen "went into the gym at the academy and poured whisky all over himself, and told people about what he was going to do". A fire was extinguished before it took hold in the ZC boardroom on October 30. The next night the academy building, a handsome two-storey thatched structure, was razed. Vermeulen was seen leaving the scene even as the flames leapt into the darkness.

He was arrested and charged with two counts of arson, and he appeared in court in Harare on November 3. He was granted bail of US$2000, but his passport was confiscated. Vermeulen's lawyer, David Dhumbura, said his client had been compelled to "make indications to the police without the presence of his defence team" - legalese for claiming a confession had been wrung out of him. The trial was set for December 6, but it was adjourned until February 7 because the police had not yet furnished the defence with a copy of video evidence in which Vermeulen had, again according to Dhumbura, "made indications" to the police.

Dhumbura might also consider the rest of the evidence in Vermeulen's dossier. While batting for Prince Edward School in 1996, Vermeulen was given out lbw. He was adamant that he had edged the ball onto his pad, and he made plain his displeasure by ripping the stumps out of the ground and locking himself in the dressing-room. There would seem to be more to this incident, because he was suspended from school, axed from the Mashonaland Schools team, and barred from playing for Old Hararians, which had an arrangement with Prince Edward to include boys from the school in its club sides. It took the intervention of Bill Flower, the immensely respected father of Andy and Grant, to earn Vermeulen a return to cricket the next year. In June 2003, Vermeulen was sent home from Zimbabwe's tour to England after he defied an ostensibly reasonable instruction that he travel on the team bus from Chester-le-Street to the squad's Durham hotel. "Mark has been warned about his conduct on a number of separate occasions during the tour but unfortunately has not heeded that advice," manager Babu Meman said at the time.

Vermeulen's bad mood might have been prompted by the fact that he had become just the 13th player in Test cricket to record a pair on the same day. But he couldn't have been too bleak earlier in the tour at Hove, when he scored 198 against Sussex and then refused to field a ball because "it's too cold".

The remains of the Academy © Cricinfo
Four months earlier during the World Cup Vermeulen's skull was fractured by a delivery from team-mate Travis Friend in the nets in Bloemfontein. Just 11 months after that calamity, Irfan Pathan smashed Vermeulen's skull again in a one-dayer in Brisbane. This time he emerged from three-and-a-half hours under anaesthetic with steel plates holding his head together. Another such injury, the doctors warned, could have serious consequences for Vermeulen's future well-being.

Vermeulen is not the only Zimbabwean cricketer who lives a troubled life. Another Test player, well respected and admired, has fallen victim to self-mutilation and slashes his arms with a razor blade. Still another player, who is easily counted among Zimbabwe's greatest, punishes himself for a poor stroke by refusing fluids and running long distances.

Sometimes cricket is not at all a funny old game ...

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