Prosper Utseya was a promising cricketer at the school level, earned a call-up to the national side during the exodus of many of Zimbabwe's leading cricketers and Heath Streak's dismissal from the captaincy, and soon found himself as captain at the ripe age of 21. A talented offspinner, Utseya has impressed with his prowess and maturity in a side that has strived to earn recognition and respect in troubled times. Speaking to Cricinfo from Harare, Utseya opened up on his career, captaincy and just where he saw this fledgling Zimbabwean side going.
Publicly announced as Zimbabwe's captain some 18 hours before the start of a five-match series against Bangladesh, Utseya acknowledged that he had little time to adjust. "I hadn't planned on anything as such," he said. "I was given notice but didn't even have time to speak to any former Zimbabwean cricketers or any of the captains. Terrence Duffin had just captained before me, and I was very lucky that he was playing in the team. If I don't know anything, I can approach him or even senior players and friends like Stuart Matsikenyeri [who is Utseya's cousin, incidentally]. There are guys who can help me out."
Something of a veteran himself in an inexperienced side, Utseya firmly maintained that his approach towards his team-mates did not change after the captaincy. "It didn't change anything, because the guys and I have such a good relationship. We all work very well together," he said. Was it difficult to command respect at such a young age? "The good thing about our team is that the average age is around 21, so we're all learning. I've played with the guys for a long time, most of them since high school, so it's not that difficult for me to get respect. We're all young; we do well together, so respect comes along."
Zimbabwe would win the series 3-2, thanks to two thrillers in the first and third matches. Sterling efforts from Matsikenyeri and Elton Chigumbara put Zimbabwe up 1-0 in a 49th-over win in the opener, while Brendan Taylor overhauled a target of 239 in death-defying style off the final ball of the third match. Utseya admitted that the dressing room was a bundle of nerves during those two wins but that had been precisely what the doctor had prescribed. "Yeah, it was exciting. Most of the games were close, and we managed to pull through," he said. "The team was very excited after the series victory. The thing is, most of the guys believed we could win and in the end that's what we managed to do. It was a good win."
The series victory was Zimbabwe's first since November 2001. With the ICC working to reschedule the country back into Test cricket, Utseya felt the win came at just the right time. "Yeah, we managed to win and it really boosted the morale of the guys," he said. "Now we're looking to play Test cricket, and if we can do that soon, it would be great. At the moment, the guys are excited and confident. They're starting to believe they can win rather than just competing every time. They're starting to believe more in themselves."
They're starting to believe they can win rather than just competing every time...they're starting to believe more in themselves
During West Indies' ODI whitewash of Zimbabwe earlier this year, Utseya emerged with kudos for his maturity on the field as well as his effectiveness with the ball. Asked if he did any extra homework or experimented with his offspin, Utseya's reply was simple."In the West Indies, the pitches suited me a bit," he conceded. "There was some turn on them, more so than here in Zimbabwe. It wasn't difficult for me. The main thing was that I was accurate and bowled to my field. That's all I thought about and I stuck to the basics."
Mention to him that he currently sits as thesecond most economical Bowlerin the history of one-day cricket, ahead of even Muttiah Muralitharan, for bowlers who have played at least 40 matches and sent down 1500 deliveries, and Utseya almost blushes: "It's a great achievement. To have managed to stick to such standards, to me, is good but the most important aspect is to maintain it and get more wickets." He is the first to admit, though, that there are aspects he needs to work on: "My batting definitely needs to improve. I think I've let myself down with the bat a bit. I need to concentrate and make sure I can get some good scores for the team."
The past season has been a turbulent one in Zimbabwe, with disputes between players, administrators and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union marring the progress of domestic cricket. Utseya refrained from comment on the political side of matters - "I don't know much about the administration and the way they run things at the moment" - but remained confident of a shift in the curve as a new season beckons. "There is a bright future ahead of us," he said. "As I mentioned, the good thing is that ours is a young side that is willing to learn and play cricket for the love of it. All we need to do is make sure we try and play cleanly and adjust to Test cricket. And we need to play more games, and when we do, we need to play well."
Zimbabwe are scheduled to tour South Africa for three ODIs and a Twenty20 in mid-September, their last opposition before October's Champions Trophy in India. "The guys have been working hard towards the Champions Trophy," Utseya said. "We're definitely up for it and we're looking forward to beating one or two big teams. We're beginning to believe we can beat some other teams, which is important for us."
Despite his meteoric rise, Utseya has not lost his bearings. He reflected on his early years and Test debut like any seasoned campaigner would. "I was still in school when I got called up for my first Test," he said. "It's not that I had really expected to play at that time as I was still playing Under-19 cricket too. I managed to get the opportunity because I had played against Sri Lanka before, in the warm-up game for Zimbabwe A, and I managed to score 89 and bowl well. Then, I was playing in a Test match and managed to score 45 and gained confidence. When you're young you don't worry as much. I just played as I would my normal game."
Much confidence, and many runs and wickets later, Utseya's signature tone is his equanimity, a wise head on young shoulders. It is an asset that should stand Zimbabwe in good stead as it emerges from a troubled past.