The English cricket lover can get a little battle-weary, cynical even. Supporting a team which so often flatters to deceive is just one part of the English cricket experience. Commentators harking back to a mythical bygone golden age, cricket clubs battling for survival with dwindling playing memberships who prioritise golf, kids, or just ration their valuable free time in an era of extreme time poverty. And constant negative sniping from those who can't or won't open their minds to this beautiful game.
And then something happens that reminds you why you chose cricket in the first place - a moment when cricket reminds you quietly of its power, and why it chose you.
It happened to me at a proud and confident primary school in Harare, Zimbabwe. I was there to publicise CricInfo's Z$5-million donation to the ZCU's development programme. A coaching session had been arranged to show the world's press the remarkable progress cricket is making in Zimbabwe's schools, particularly those in high-density areas, Zimbabwe's less privileged suburbs and rural areas.
The lure of a positive story had led a small but interested section of the England media touring party to Chipembere School. Nick Knight and Mark Alleyne from the cricketing contingent had given up their afternoon to coach the kids and endorse the extraordinary work of the development programme. But no-one really knew what to expect.
What we found was nothing short of a revelation - 50 or 60 children between 7 and 14 had come to the event, either as part of their lessons, or arriving on foot from a neighbouring school. Some took part in a disciplined net practice, others played a highly competitive game on a quality artificial wicket amidst coarse clumps of grass on a sandy outfield, younger children were drilled in fielding or running between the wickets. Even those not officially involved improvised a game on the edge of the field with a stick as a bat and a broken oil drum as the wicket.
And how they can play. What struck me most, apart from the infectious enthusiasm and the ubiquitous smiles, was the correctness of their play. Boycottesque forward defensives, wristy leg glances from the Tendulkar school (quite tricky with an irregularly shaped stick as your bat), a touch of Holding in the bowling actions, whirling spinners. These guys have real talent.
Henry Motsi, co-ordinator of the ZCU's development programme, is convinced that cricket is the number one sport for these kids. It's a claim that one would expect from a man who is expanding cricket's appeal by the day, a cricket missionary taking the game to new areas, particularly rural areas never previously touched by cricket's magic. But having seen what we saw, I can put aside my cynical English view, and believe his words wholeheartedly. Mark Alleyne said he was expecting soccer-mad kids, all yearning to be David Beckham or Dwight Yorke. But for these young sportsmen, cricket is the sport and Henry Olonga the man they want to emulate. Perhaps after Monday, they will add Nick and Mark to that list.
Henry Motsi can't send his growing band of coaches out quickly enough. He has 20 schools on his immediate waiting list, and a further 100 or so clamouring for cricket. A ZCU coach will be assigned to the school who will see what is needed in terms of support, facilities, staff training, and will work with the teachers to establish a cricket infrastructure. The schools will take part in the regular CricInfo schools cricket weeks, and talented players will be identified early and sent on ZCU scholarship to Zimbabwe's leading cricket-playing secondary schools. From there, the door to Zimbabwe's national teams, is open to those good enough to walk through it. And the relatively small cricketing population means that opportunities abound.
Aside from the huge talent in Zimbabwe's indigenous population that is starting to express itself, the other factor that convinces me that Zimbabwe's cricketing future is in safe hands is the way the game is played. The polite applause that greets a good shot, the joyous yet controlled celebration of a falling wicket, the willingness to listen and take advice from coaches, all of these exemplify the spirit in which these young Zimbabweans are embracing cricket.
The basics are being put in place now, and enough young people are playing cricket for the critical mass factor to start to come into effect. From this point on, perhaps schools will start to take their own steps to introduce the game, the newspapers and TV will accept the presence of cricket in the nation's consciousness and start to meet the increasing interest with more coverage, and kids will start to play in the streets of their own accord. But that doesn't mean the hard work has been done. ZCU, with CricInfo's $5M sponsorship behind them, will be there every step of the way to encourage, provide practical help, and harness the enthusiasm of these kids who have so much to offer.
And when was that moment that cricket reminded me this English observer of its power? Driving away from Chipembere School with all the visitors quite beguiled by what they had seen, I glanced to my left to the homes of the local people. Outside the garden wall, on a strip of earth slightly narrower than a conventional wicket, three twigs were sticking up out of the earth, and four or five youngsters, not more than six years old, had improvised their own game of cricket. Quite impervious to the passing cars, the batsman wielded his plank of wood, stepped forward, and drove the ball back to the bowler. We had seen the future of Zimbabwe cricket.