David Houghton Biography (27 February)

MAJOR TEAMS: Rhodesia and Zimbabwe (since 1978/79), Mashonaland (since 1993/94)

27 February
David Houghton Biography
John Ward
FULL NAME: David Laud Houghton
BORN: 23 June 1957, Bulawayo
MAJOR TEAMS: Rhodesia and Zimbabwe (since 1978/79), Mashonaland (since 1993/94). Club team: Old Hararians
KNOWN AS: Dave/Davy Houghton; or simply 'Coach'
BOWLING STYLE: Slow off-spin (known locally as `waterbombs'!)
OCCUPATION: Zimbabwe team coach
TEST DEBUT: Inaugural Test v India, at Harare Sports Club, 1992/93 scoring 121
ODI DEBUT: 9 June 1983, v Australia, Trent Bridge (Nottingham)
FIRST-CLASS DEBUT: Rhodesia v Transvaal, at Police Ground, Salisbury; 11-13 November 1978
BIOGRAPHY (updated March 1999)
December 1997 brought the end of an era for cricket in Zimbabwe, as Dave Houghton, at the age of 40 the oldest and one of the most remarkable players in international cricket, announced his retirement. He may well go down on record as the biggest single contributor to cricket in the country. He has made an immense contribution to the game, scoring at the time of his retirement not far short of twice as many runs for the country as the next best, and will continue to do so as coach.
With only two first-class centuries before the age of 30 and denied Test cricket until the age of 35, he had at the time of his retirement the thirteenth-highest average of any current Test batsman. He could still master any bowling attack in the world, particularly the spinners, and it seemed ridiculous that he retire when he was batting as well as at any time in his career. He remained totally loyal to Zimbabwe throughout his career, and has never been tempted away by fine offers to play elsewhere, as were several other leading Zimbabweans before Test status was granted.
Dave gave three main reasons for his retirement. The immediate reason was that he had been battling with nagging back and knee injuries, mostly niggles which troubled him the next morning after a long day in the field. This was particularly unfortunate, because his expertise against the home team's spin bowlers in conditions that favoured them would have been absolutely invaluable. Secondly, he had been so busy with his job as the national team coach that he had had insufficient time to concentrate on his own game. Finally, he now felt, especially with the return of Murray Goodwin, that Zimbabwe had enough young batsmen of high calibre and that he should not stand in the way of their progress.
Dave was born in Bulawayo, the youngest of three brothers, but the family soon moved to Salisbury (now Harare). Each of the brothers was a fine sportsman in a very sports-oriented family: Ken, the oldest, played hockey for Zimbabwe, while Billy also played first-class cricket, for Rhodesia B in the Currie Cup B Section. They lived in a cul-de-sac, which enabled them to play cricket in the street when young. Their parents gave them full support and encouragement in all their sporting activities. They all attended Blakiston Primary School, and in his final year there Dave played for the national junior schools team, known as the Partridges, hitting a couple of fifties against South African provincial teams of the same age.
He was also a wicket-keeper at that stage; he 'just happened' to be a keeper at all the sports he played, keeping goal in soccer and hockey -- in fact, he was the national side's hockey goalkeeper for several years. Kallimullah, the Pakistan hockey captain at that time has gone on record as saying that he regarded Dave as the greatest goalkeeper he had ever played against. As a boy he enjoyed being involved in the action all the time, and he continued to play behind the stumps until his early thirties when, as he puts it, he `saw the light'; he had long since ceased to enjoy the job. A painful hand condition, caused by the constant battering of the ball, was also a major factor.
He attended Prince Edward High School, and scored his first century for the Under-13 team. The following year brought a double-century against Sinoia High School (now Chinhoyi), and centuries against Churchill and Mount Pleasant; these brought immediate promotion to the school first eleven. He recalls how fortunate he was in his coaches during those years; Colin Bland had played a part in his Blakiston years, and now he had Mike Procter and several overseas coaches, as well as Prince Edward coach Rex McCullough. After his schooldays, Peter Carlstein was a major influence. Dave represented the national Under-15 team, the Fawns, in Johannesburg, and the high schools team in the Nuffield Week in Kimberley, after scoring two or three centuries in his final school year. A fifty against Transvaal B was his only major contribution.
After leaving school, he was a policeman for several years, which meant he was required to leave his original club, Alexandra (known universally as Alex), and play for the Police team, which was then in the first league. When he left to become a sales rep with Rothmans, he joined Universals for a season, helping the primarily Pakistani club to find their feet in the first league. He then joined Old Hararians, the Prince Edward old boys' club, and stayed with them until the end of his playing career.
In 1984, he received an offer to play for Blossomfield in the Midlands League in England, so he resigned from Rothmans, and on his return the Zimbabwe Cricket Union decided to employ him as a professional coach during the local season to enable him to continue as a full-time cricketer. He also played for West Bromwich Dartmouth for three years, and spent three years with Quick in The Hague, Holland.
As far as the first-class game was concerned, Dave made his debut in the Currie Cup for Rhodesia against Transvaal at the Salisbury Police Grounds in 1978/79, at the age of 21. Despite the fact that the Rhodesia B team was adjudged to be first-class and was playing in the B Section, Dave was rather unexpectedly brought into the full national side as a batsman to replace the injured Stuart Robertson. He retained his place throughout the season and for most of the next in place of Gerald Peckover as wicket-keeper/batsman. Batting low in the order, though, he found it difficult to make many runs, and after two years, when Zimbabwe became independent, his highest score for the full national side was only 41. His solitary fifty had come for Rhodesia B against Western Province B, when he and his brother Billy added 116 for the eighth wicket in a losing cause.
After independence, he usually continued in his dual role, although occasionally played as a batsman only, while Robin Brown kept wicket. However, it was generally agreed that Dave was the better of the two, and many judges still rate Dave as Zimbabwe's best keeper since independence. His ability as a hockey goalkeeper stood him in good stead; he had very quick reflexes, was very agile standing back, and also achieved some brilliant dismissals when standing up to the stumps.
During the early 1980s Dave and Andy Pycroft were the mainstay of Zimbabwe's batting and frequently had to rescue the team between them after a bad start. Yet Dave reached fifty on 15 occasions before he finally broke through with his maiden first-class century, in England in 1985, just before his 28th birthday. He added 277 for the fourth wicket in partnership with Graeme Hick, another former Prince Edward pupil, who also hit his maiden first-class century.
Why did it take him so long? Part of the reason was that, for a while, he was batting low in the order while keeping wicket. "I don't think at the time I actually knew enough about my batting to make hundreds consistently," Dave explains. "Up to the age of about 29 or 30 I was just batting instinctively as opposed to knowing my technique and knowing how to bat. It's actually been during the last ten years that I've made the majority of my runs. I wasted quite a few possible centuries, and when I'm coaching now that's one of the first things I bring up. When I see young players with talent who just get pretty forties or fifties, I relate my own story and tell them, `You're just wasting it.' When I look back now, I can see that I wasted the first eight years of my batting life getting forties and fifties. At the end of the day, all people look at is the last two columns: how many hundreds you got and what your average is."
Dave did not feel that he had really established himself in first-class cricket until the age of 33 or 34, despite carrying the fragile Zimbabwe batting, along with Pycroft, through most of the eighties. He first established himself in the national side against the Young West Indians of 1981/82, when he scored a gallant 87 against such bowlers as Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniel and Hartley Alleyne, although facing their slower bowlers for much of his innings. He was approaching his century when he was struck on the cheekbone trying to hook Daniel; with the last man at the crease, he was unable to retire and take a breather, and was out shortly afterwards. In those early days he did appear to have a weakness against genuine pace, not surprising considering the lack of genuinely fast bowlers in the country, but his ability and confidence to handle these bowlers gradually developed over the years. He also tended at times to carry too much weight in his youth, but he has kept himself trim since his mid-twenties. Another change in image in recent years has been that from a bushy, curly hairstyle to his present closely-cropped head.
He batted consistently well over the following years without making any centuries in a representative international match. He opened for a while before going in at number five, just below Pycroft, and many were the valiant fourth-wicket stands in those years after the first three had gone cheaply. He himself was often out for single-figure innings, but once he settled in he frequently passed fifty. By the time Zimbabwe were playing Test cricket, he proved his ability to convert fifties into hundreds more frequently than his contemporaries.
After his century in England, he took over a year to score another, for a President's XI against a Young West Indian team, and a third the following year, when captaining a Zimbabwe B team against Sri Lanka B. At the age of 32, at the start of the 1989/90 season, his highest score in a representative first-class international match was 96, against Pakistan B in 1986/87. This excludes, though, his brilliant 142 in the World Cup of 1987/88, against New Zealand at Hyderabad in India. Magnificent batting against the medium-pacers and spinners took his team to within sight of a glorious victory, only for Zimbabwe to fall at the final hurdle. Dave rates this as the finest innings of his career, along with his Test double-century.
He was becoming increasingly streetwise in big cricket, although admitting that he left it late in his career. Now he always appeared to know where the fielders were, and the best way to fashion a big innings, whatever the situation and conditions. His technique was still in many ways unorthodox, but it suited him and he adapted it well. He developed the ability to score on both sides of the wicket, always seemed to know where to place the ball, and was well able to improvise, especially against the spinners. He became known as a supremely talented touch player, able to decimate any attack on his day.
His first great season came in 1989/90, when he was captain and, by his own admission, he had finally learnt how to build a big innings. With Pycroft having temporarily retired, the Zimbabwe batting was at perhaps its weakest ever. Thanks to innings of 165 out of 344 for nine wickets declared and 56 not out, Zimbabwe managed to draw the first unofficial Test against another Young West Indian team. The tourists struck back in the second match, to win by an innings, with Houghton scoring 36 out of 106 and 48 out of 102. He missed the third, accepting an invitation to play in an exhibition game in Toronto, and Zimbabwe succumbed in his absence to another innings defeat.
Against England A, he was helped by the return of Pycroft and the general improvement in morale due to the ICC decision to play Zimbabwe's unofficial Tests over five days. 108 in the first match was followed by his first double-century, a fine 202 in Bulawayo. Since then, he has never looked back, and further centuries came against Pakistan B and Australia B.
"Round about that time I felt that I was consistently scoring hundreds, so it was about that stage when I felt I had my act together," he says. "Then, when Test cricket came, I have been fairly consistent, scoring four hundreds and a few fifties in 18 Tests. The way I work it out is that if I can be scoring fifty or a hundred every three or four innings I'm going quite nicely, and the way things are going at the moment I feel this is roughly where I am. Obviously if I can turn those knocks from 50 into 150 it makes a big difference overall."
Dave was appointed captain of the national team in 1985/86 but held the job for only one year before resigning; by his own admission he did not find it easy to communicate with the players under him, especially when he had to keep wicket and play the role of leading batsman as well. He was considered by some not to be tough enough to captain a team easily. In his youth he had at times lived a rather bohemian lifestyle and was still very much one of the boys. However, he had become a superb tactician with the ability to read a game and an excellent eye for an opponent's strengths and weaknesses, and was to be a pillar of strength for several other captains under whom he served and whose tactics he regularly influenced.
In 1989/90, with the absence of Andy Waller through injury and the absence of any other senior player who wanted the job, he was appointed again against England A and kept the job until 1993/94, when he handed over to Andy Flower who was now ready to assume the role.
So it was that Dave led Zimbabwe into their first-ever Test match against India in 1992/93. This was to be a memorable occasion for Zimbabwe, who had the better of that match against India, but even more so for Dave himself, who became the first player to score a century on his Test debut when captain as well, and only the second to score a century for his country in its inaugural Test (the first being Charles Bannerman for Australia in the very first Test of all, in 1876/77). He hit a chanceless 121 from 322 balls, batting for almost seven hours, and it was an emotional moment for the home crowd when he pulled a ball through midwicket to reach his historic century.
He struck another purple patch when the Sri Lankans toured Zimbabwe two years later. After warming up with 58 in the First Test, he christened the Queens Ground in Bulawayo in its first Test match with a superb 266, an individual Zimbabwean Test record that may well remain unbeaten for many years. Then came 142 in the Third Test.
By the time the tour to Australia for the World Series Cup came round that season, Dave had the remarkable record of having played in every one of Zimbabwe's Tests and official one-day internationals, but he missed his first one in Australia, returning home in time for Christmas to be with his family, who have had to endure much separation from him over the years. Then he missed the 1996 World Cup after breaking a toe during the course of an invaluable Test century in New Zealand. Finally he was forced to miss Test matches for the first time, the two in Sri Lanka which coincided with his Worcestershire duties at the end of the English season in 1996. In conditions blatantly prepared to suit the home team's spinners, this was the tour for which Zimbabwe could least afford to lose him.
To Dave goes the greatest credit for Zimbabwe's fine performances against England in the 1996/97 series. He knew most of the England players quite well from his time at Worcestershire, but he recognised Mike Atherton and Darren Gough as the two key players in that team. By concentrating their attention on pitching the ball well up to Atherton and swinging it early in his innings, before he got his feet moving, the Zimbabweans ensured that the England captain scored few runs on the tour, and they concentrated on keeping Gough at bay. Dave made no high scores against the English, but batted consistently, often frustratingly getting out when he seemed well set. Prior to the Test series, he had made big scores in virtually every match, so he considers it a strange season from a personal point of view. He felt in good form, but never really capitalised in the international matches. It was clear that he still had a great deal of cricket left in him and a great deal still to offer.
In 1994 he was appointed coach of the Worcestershire county team in England, and in 1996 of the Zimbabwe national side, in succession to John Hampshire. Very quickly he made his mark on both teams, but the jobs tended to conflict, and in 1997 the Zimbabwe Cricket Union persuaded him to become the country's national coach full-time, as well as to continue as a player. It was good that he finally reached a suitable agreement with the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, as he had had difficulties with them in the past and actually announced his retirement in 1993/94, only to reverse his decision when they finally attended to his grievances.
As coach, he has brought new, interesting methods into practice, and the national players speak very highly of him; many of them consider him their mentor. Worcestershire were also very sorry to lose him; during Dave's four years there they won the NatWest Trophy once, in 1994, but his final season was marred by rain which frequently frustrated the team when in a good position in a match. However, they have a strong squad now and Dave expects them to win more trophies in the near future.
Despite an uninformed rumour that he had retired from one-day internationals, Dave continued to play a full part as a player for Zimbabwe against the New Zealand tourists. However, he dropped lower in the batting order, at his own request, so as to give extra experience and responsibility to the younger players whom he hoped would be his successors. Against the New Zealand tourists, as against England, he made no high scores, although his strokeplay was as superb as ever. He had a tendency to give his wicket away unnecessarily through faulty stroke selection, but no doubt physical and mental tiredness after a hard season at Worcester played a part, as well as the fact that his duties as coach prevented him from paying as much attention as he would have liked to his own game. He proved fallible in the slips and retired to the outfield in the Second Test, but he still managed to effect a vital run-out through sharp fielding. There was no indication that this was to be his farewell to international cricket.
"The player-coaching job was always good while I was playing," Dave says. "But in preparation it wasn't good enough because I was spending too much time worrying about everybody else's game and not enough worrying about my own. The end result was that I wasn't preparing myself as well as I should have done, and I didn't think I was going to do anybody justice by going out without having had the right quantity and quality of practice. I think also I had set my sights on retiring when I was 40; I had had a good run and it was time to go. I look back now (two years later) and it was exactly the time to go, because our side has developed now, and with Neil Johnson and Murray Goodwin in the side they don't miss me in the least."
When it was suggested that the team did miss his on-field tactical awareness, he answered, "As a coach I can still have an input, and although I have to wait until drinks or tea breaks to get it across, if it's urgent you can always get a message to a fielder on the boundary, or send a runner on with some water if they are batting, although it's a little more inconvenient than actually being on the park." After a jocular suggestion about the use of cell phones, he continued, "I am hoping one day they may come up with batting helmets with microphones on so I can just talk to the bloke as they do in American football."
His first tour as full-time coach was relatively simple, to Kenya to take part in a triangular one-day series also involving Bangladesh. Zimbabwe played fine cricket, determined not to slip up against the two associate members, and won all six games easily, including the two finals against Kenya.
Sri Lanka and New Zealand were to prove a much stiffer Test. The nadir was the infamous Second Test at Colombo, where in the vital fourth innings the umpires rejected numerous Zimbabwean appeals to allow Sri Lankan batsmen Aravinda de Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga to bat on until they had won for Sri Lanka a match that Zimbabwe had dominated from the start. Dave commented at a press conference that he felt 'the umpires had raped us', and was duly fined by the ICC and banned from attending his team's concluding matches on that tour. Dave said that he made this comment with his eyes open, knowing he would be fined, but felt it necessary to let the rest of the world know just what had happened. He was able to send to the ICC ample video-tape evidence to prove his point.
This match had a shattering effect on Zimbabwe's morale and they performed very poorly in New Zealand, the batsmen in particular. After his team had lost by an innings to New Zealand A and then slumped to 140 for six against Canterbury, Dave felt so frustrated he didn't trust himself to speak to his players at the close of play. However, he did get his message across temporarily, as Alistair Campbell and Paul Strang proceeded to set up a new Zimbabwean seventh-wicket record and they won that match by an innings. But the tour itself ended with six defeats and only one narrow victory in the international matches.
Asked which innings he rated as the best of his life, Dave immediately thought of his 142 in the 1987 World Cup against New Zealand: "I didn't make too many mistakes during the day and nearly won the game as well from a 'nothing' position. Also I think of the double-century (266) I scored against Sri Lanka, when I only played and missed about twice during that time."
As a batsman Dave had all the strokes, though he perhaps became most famous as a leading exponent of the reverse sweep, which drove spin bowlers to distraction. Several years ago he was rated as the best player of that stroke in world cricket, and it rarely got him out. In his 266 against Sri Lanka, he had the confidence and skill to bring up both his 150 and his 200 with reverse sweeps for four.
One minor regret that Dave has is that he never had the opportunity to play in county cricket. He was never prepared to abandon Zimbabwe in favour of a county career as several other top Zimbabwean cricketers did before Test status was granted. Zimbabwe has never been a fashionable country for counties seeking overseas players, and in any case Dave was into his thirties before finding the sort of form that would attract attention.
Now that he has retired from international cricket, Dave has plunged himself into new initiatives in the cause of Zimbabwe cricket. For years there had been talk of starting a proper Zimbabwe Cricket Academy, rather along the lines of the Australian Academy, but nothing had actually been done about it. After leaving Worcestershire he decided the time had come to take the initiative. He organised much fund-raising, most notably doing a sponsored walk himself from Bulawayo to Harare, and secured sponsors from numerous commercial organisations. He was involved in securing a ground at Country Club in Harare, and the new academy, which opened in January 1999, is a tribute to him and would not be in existence today without his efforts.
Dave still enjoys playing cricket at a social level, for the Old Hararians Saturday afternoon team which plays in a friendly league consisting mainly of older players. He is still in a class of his own, though, and likes to concentrate on 'my cunning off-breaks' and bat down the order at number eight -- but "it all depends on my captain and how much he hates the opposition. If he doesn't like the opposition I have to open the batting; if he gets on well with them, I can bat seven or eight and bowl off-breaks."
"It's really good fun," he says. "It's back to what cricket was like when I first started, when we played a game reasonably hard in the afternoon without too much sledging and sat around over a crate of beer in the evening afterwards and had a good talk and a good laugh. This is something that's gone out of the professional game completely -- there is no mixing, there is no social drink with the opposition or anything like that, so for me I really enjoy it."
Before the New Zealand tour, Dave still saw his future as lying with Zimbabwe cricket, certainly for the next three years as player-coach. "How long I carry on playing for will be determined by how quickly I can get some of the young lads through," he said. "Obviously my own personal goals tend to go out of the window now in favour of a team goal. The first thing is to win a Test series, and to continue going well in the one-day games, with a view to being in the last six in the World Cup in 1999." However, shortly afterwards he was to announce his final retirement from the game.
When asked what he missed most about no longer playing international cricket, he replied, "I think the buzz of being in front of a crowd, to entertain them; to hit a four or a six or take a good catch and get the crowd roaring. Now I'm coaching I'm still involved with the team but I don't get that same buzz I got as a player when I felt I had contributed significantly on the field in front of a big crowd. Everything I do as a coach is done behind the scenes and off the field. I get a lot of enjoyment out of our guys doing well, but I miss the attention of being out in the middle."
He rates Wasim Akram without doubt as the bowler who has given him the most trouble during his career, and expects that he will continue to do so. "There have been great bowlers in world cricket, including a few that I haven't faced," he says. "But Wasim, for his all-round ability and speed, is by far the best bowler I've ever played against."
Outside cricket, Dave is interested in all sports and is a keen spectator, although at present he has very little time to participate. He enjoys watching golf and tennis in particular. He would like to do some fishing and get up to Kariba, but hasn't had the time to do this for five years or so. He is married to Shirley and has three daughters: Kirsten (19), Carley (17) and Jamie (10). Although some have accused him of 'knowing how to look after himself', he always remained loyal to cricket in Zimbabwe, and others can testify to his helpful, generous and easy-going nature.
Dave sees his future as continuing to be involved in cricket in one form or another. He does not plan to stay on as national coach for more than another two or three years, feeling that the players by then will have become bored with him and will need someone with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. He is currently taking umpiring exams and considers this a possibility, or perhaps to stand as a match referee. If he does continue with coaching, it will probably be with the Academy.
Alistair Campbell says, "He's been around a long time and has a lot of experience; he was one of the finest players of spin bowling in the world. He was one of the match-winners, able to win a one-day game on his own. Technically and tactically he is very sound; I'm always picking his brain to hear what he has to say about certain situations and certain bowlers. He's a great batting coach; Graeme Hick in his articles points out how much he owes to him. He is to Graeme what Dave Ledbetter is to Nick Faldo, so that's pretty high praise and sums up the man's capabilities.
"Since he has come in as coach, there has been a major turnaround in the fortunes of the Zimbabwe team, and a lot of the credit is due to him. He has revised all our training and practising schedules; he has given guys greater belief in their ability and made us very positive, even when we're playing the best sides in the world. It has worked wonders, and I'm glad that the Zimbabwe Cricket Union has signed him for three years. I have a good working relationship with him and hope we can continue improving as we have been doing."
Andy Flower says, "I think it's good that Dave has been brought back as coach. He's a very good tactician, very good with the team, and it was important for Zimbabwe to re-sign him. I also think it's important that he carries on playing for us. In the middle order he was not only a stabilising influence but a presence that gave the batting side confidence. But he could also when necessary produce those attacking innings that can turn games. He has been a brilliant cricketer for Zimbabwe over the years. Given the opportunities, had he played in another Test-playing country, he would have been a world-renowned batsman, but with playing in this country, with such limited opportunities in the past and limited media exposure, he hasn't had the recognition a guy of his talent deserves."
Grant Flower says, "Dave is a role model for everyone, including those of us in the team. I admire the way he thinks about the game, and he has become more professional in his own game from his time at Worcester. He took a pride in showing that he could still play the game himself! He was still our best bat when he retired."
Craig Wishart says, "Davy is a mentor to me; I learn so much just from watching him at the crease, and he always seemed to come up with the goods at the right time and score runs under pressure."
Guy Whittall says, "The bit of coaching he did at Worcester has really rubbed off on the players. We are having really quality practices, nothing routine. He has revived our fielding after the practice was becoming a bit of a bore. He has been building up our confidence and we just know we can do it. Having no fear is an important part; for example, his policy is that if we want to hit over the top, then hit over the top and have the confidence to do whatever you want."