Zimbabwe are 0-4 down in their limited-overs tour of South Africa, but they do have at least one player who has stood up to their vaunted neighbours in every game. With a 21-year-old bounce in his step and frost-tipped dreadlocks on his head, legspinning-allrounder Brandon Mavuta has changed the dynamics in virtually every passage of play he has been part of on this trip.
In Kimberley, he dismissed Christiaan Jonker in his second over as Zimbabwe made South Africa's middle order sweat. In Bloemfontein, he bettered Jonker and Khaya Zondo's strokeplay with flight and drift to reduce South Africa to 92 for 6. In Paarl, his quick 18 helped boost Zimbabwe beyond 200 and his dismissal of Faf du Plessis sparked a fightback with the ball, with South Africa stumbling from 117 for 1 to 156 for 4. Suddenly, the game was on.
He was at it again in the first T20I. Du Plessis had just bulldozed his way through the Powerplay with five fours and two sixes when Mavuta was brought on, and with his very first delivery, he outsmarted the South Africa captain. Knowing that du Plessis would attack the cover boundary, Mavuta floated one full and wide with Tendai Chisoro positioned perfectly, just straight of an orthodox deep extra. The set-up worked perfectly, and at 52 for 3 South Africa were back under pressure.
That Mavuta would even attempt, let alone pull off, such a ruse with his first ball of the evening suggests he is a street-smart and confident cricketer. "I was ready for it," Mavuta said. "I made sure that by the time I went to bowl the first ball, I was on top of my game and I was mentally prepared. I'm quite happy it came off."
He finished with 1 for 19 to help keep South Africa to a gettable total, staying on top of his game by keeping things simple and playing within a T20 mindset that makes each ball an event. "I just took my time," Mavuta said. "I just took it ball by ball. It came out today. I bowled wicket to wicket, with a little variation, and tried not to let the batsmen get on top of me. If he misses, I hit."
That sort of strategy can only contribute to Mavuta's strength with the straighter one: he's a wicket-taker. In June, he took 8 for 38 to bowl Rising Stars to the Pro50 Championship title. Those are the best figures ever in List A cricket in Zimbabwe, breaking a record that had itself been set only a month earlier by Rugare Magarira, Mavuta's left-arm spinning teammate at Rising Stars.
Mavuta's scene-stealing performance capped a remarkable season for a team set up by Tatenda Taibu to get Zimbabwe's best young cricketers playing regularly and provide a route from Under-19 to senior national cricket. Taibu lost his position as the national selector in the spectacular fall-out following Zimbabwe's catastrophic defeat at the World Cup Qualifiers in March, but the team he created has successfully nurtured some exciting talent.
"It was the gel within the team and the motivation we had as a team that helped us win," Mavuta told the Dean At Stumps Zimbabwean cricket podcast of Rising Stars' Championship win. "Believing in each other and believing in working as a team and trusting our processes. We were confident and knew that we'd put the yards in to win the game. Everyone was confident with his game."
Blessing Muzarabani brought the sort of pace and bounce that Zimbabwe hadn't seen in years, quickly gaining attention on the county scene and signing a three-year contract with Northamptonshire. Ryan Burl, Ryan Murray and Tarisai Musakanda are making the transition to international cricket as batsmen. Tinashe Kamunhukamwe and Richard Ngarava are on the fringes. All have been part of a Rising Stars set-up that, tragically, is to be short-lived. Facing severe financial constraints, Zimbabwe Cricket is cutting back in all departments and it's unlikely that Rising Stars will be part of the next domestic season.
Even if it does disappear, the Rising Stars experiment fast-tracked the development of some skilful young cricketers, and if there's one thing that these rookies seem to have taken away from the experience, it's self-belief. One has got to have that as a legspinner, and Mavuta clearly has it in spades. It's a characteristic he also carries into his batting. His 53-run stand with Peter Moor at Buffalo Park on Tuesday night came close to turning the game on its head when Zimbabwe had been virtually KO'd at 70 for 7.
"I just kept saying to him 'keep believing, we can win this game'," said Moor, who had helped to stoke that belief with four sixes in a row off Tabraiz Shamsi. "He's a young guy, he's a fearless guy. His bowling has been unbelievable and he's a good fielder. I was so proud of him for the way he went about his innings. As a young man, being able to go out and do that against a top quality side sends a huge message to the world. He got out and was a bit unlucky with a low full toss, but he did really well. I was really happy with him."
Mavuta's confidence and self-belief are clearly infectious, and Moor still believed he could win the game when Zimbabwe were nine down. "When I and Brandon were batting, we thought we could get over the line," Moor said. "To be honest, until I was caught, I still thought we had a chance to win the game. I kept believing that."
If they can hold onto that belief, Zimbabwe might well spring a surprise or two in one of the remaining T20Is. Especially if Mavuta's star continues to rise.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town