Zimbabwe v South Africa, Tri-series, Harare

Loss deflates Utseya's worthy achievement

Zimbabwe's hero of the moment was as improbable as the South African scoreline. Almost always economical but hardly ever incisive, Prosper Utseya's career economy rate has always hovered around four, even as his average inflated towards fifty

Liam Brickhill in Harare

August 29, 2014

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Utseya's second spell was of an entirely different complexion, and brought a bounty of five wickets in 36 deliveries © AFP

Two men have now taken one-day international hat-tricks for Zimbabwe but the circumstances of their achievements and the players themselves couldn't be more different. Eddo Brandes and Prosper Utseya will forever sit next to each other in the record books, but that's where the similarities end. Utseya has no memory of Brandes' glory days and this match was not screened live in Australia.

Brandes, born in Port Shepstone and built like a Mashona bull, swung the ball at pace at the end of a thundering run-up. Famously, he got past Nick Knight, John Crawley and Nasser Hussain with successive deliveries to send a packed, almost entirely white-skinned, Harare Sports Club crowd into beer-soaked ecstasy back in 1997. It was an "I was there" moment for Zimbabwean cricket fans, and I really was there, seated at what used to be called 'Muppet's corner' with my old man, screaming my cracking teenage voice hoarse. I've still got the limited edition 'Zimbabwe Murder England' T-shirt that he bought me at the Sports Club shop after that series.

Utseya, on the other hand, floats the ball down from a three-step shuffle and simply cannot impose himself on batsmen as Brandes did, being blessed with a portly frame that barely rises over five feet tall. Sadly, far fewer people will be able to brag about having witnessed his achievement as the mid-morning crowd at the Harare Sports Club today numbered in the hundreds. That changed very quickly over lunch, as word got out about the unlikely scenario unfolding.

Zimbabwe's hero of the moment was as improbable as the South African scoreline. Almost always abstemious but hardly ever incisive, Utseya's career economy rate has always hovered around four - and often below - even as his average inflated towards fifty. He'd been an early starter in cricket, making his first-class debut at 15, as an opening batsman, having been awarded a cricketing scholarship to Churchill High School.

'Disappointed we didn't win' - Utseya

  • "I have mixed feelings. I'm happy that I managed to get the wickets and put my team in a strong position. Obviously disappointed that we didn't win the game. Spin is one of our strengths, especially playing at home. We tend to prepare wickets that are slow and that turn. So we'll always try to play to our strengths when we're playing at home.
  • "I just realised it was one of the key moments during the game, so I decided to go a little more on the attacking side because I could see that I was getting more assistance from the wicket and it was always going to be difficult for the guy coming in to bat. At the time I was bowling a lot slower because I knew that I was on top and I had, I think, four guys around the bat. So if, for example, you get someone out lbw he might have thought you were bowling it quicker but when the next guy comes in you bowl it slower. It also comes with experience: the more you play, the more you learn to vary your pace to your advantage, especially if you're on top.
  • "I just try and enjoy my cricket. Every time you go out there and play for your country, if you're enjoying it you tend to play better. With freedom."

Three-and-a-half years later he was bowling to the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara, having been thrust into the national side in the midst of the so-called 'rebel' crisis when Zimbabwe were shorn of a generation of experienced cricketers. There followed a sustained period of tumult and scandal, and a lengthy list of defeats - from which Zimbabwe is yet to fully emerge.

Utseya became Zimbabwe's captain in 2006 and lead them on many of their darkest days, taking the team to the World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007, where their most notable achievements were tying a match against Ireland and helping Inzamam-ul-Haq to a farewell victory in his final ODI. Throughout, he trundled through over upon over of modest offspin, earning himself two nicknames in the team dressing room: 'Rowdy', because he barely says a word, and 'Mr Dots', because he bowls lots of them (Utseya has bowled 65 maidens in ODIs).

He has precious little flair with the bat, but allowed himself the luxury of an adventurous signature shot: a bent-kneed paddle against seam and spin that gestures towards the Dilscoop without becoming too cute. He managed one such stroke today before feathering one from Ryan McLaren, and as Zimbabwe slipped towards a 61-run defeat, the relevance of Utseya's career-best effort with the ball deflated.

Yet it remains a worthy achievement. Zimbabwe's recent travails have lacked the ruthlessness and self belief necessary to claw the team back from a precarious position. Their situation today appeared perilous as Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock put on a 142-run opening stand while batting on cruise control. And then Utseya spun his magic.

His first spell had given no hint as to what was to follow, the batsmen milking runs through the gaps before de Kock signalled his intent with a slog-sweep to deep midwicket. His second was of an entirely different complexion, and brought a bounty of five wickets in 36 deliveries including, of course, three in three.

The conditions surely helped him, but that's not too shabby for a man with a career average of 46.45. Utseya also overcame a bout of chickenpox just before the one-day series against South Africa began, and has had the spectre of his being reported for a suspect bowling action during the third ODI in Bulawayo hanging over him. Assuming he gets his visa in time, he will be on a flight to Cardiff on September 17, to be tested two days later. His arm ball and faster delivery have been deemed to be the problem. He needed neither today, letting the ball hover higher - and slower - in the breeze with each dismissal as he manoeuvred his team into what could have been a winning position.

Unfortunately, there was to be no fairytale ending to Utseya's day and ill health meant my father was not here to see his triple strike, or his unabashed joy when umpire Ian Gould gave David Miller out, the humble offspinner tumbling backwards onto the pitch and wriggling his arms and legs in the air like an upturned dung beetle. No matter, I'll tell him all about it. I have to: I was there.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Peterincanada on (August 31, 2014, 3:55 GMT)

I sympathize with Utseya because he has played through Zim's darkest days and has put in a lot of effort with rarely seeing victory. It seems fitting that even on this day of his greatest achievement it would be in a losing cause. I hope he keeps plugging away and gets to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Posted by alfrends on (August 29, 2014, 20:44 GMT)

zimbabwe is full of talent .....its a shame that they is no one to lead the team

Posted by   on (August 29, 2014, 18:29 GMT)

Well written. Zimbabwe has regressed a lot since their glory days of mid to late 90s when they could seriously threaten the top teams. Still miss the raw talent and ability to punch above weight from the likes of Alastair Campbell, Olonga, Strang brothers, Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson. Even without the customary mention of Flower brothers, this was a solid side. For a side mostly in rebuilding mode, it was heartbreaking to see them lose solid bowling hopes of Kyle Jarvis as well. Utseya, in that respect game back the team a measure of joy and fillip. Much needed. Much appreciated.

Posted by B.C.G on (August 29, 2014, 18:00 GMT)

For some reason this gave me goosebumps.Nice writing Liam.

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Players/Officials: Prosper Utseya
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