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DIY star Ryan Burl embodies new Zimbabwe's ethos

The allrounder talks about his turn to legspin, learning from Rashid Khan and Ish Sodhi, and finding himself in a newly positive national side

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
16-Oct-2022
Burl on discovering his love for cricket over squash: "Being a team game [it] appealed a little bit more to me, and winning as a team felt a lot better for me"  •  Getty Images

Burl on discovering his love for cricket over squash: "Being a team game [it] appealed a little bit more to me, and winning as a team felt a lot better for me"  •  Getty Images

"'n Boer maak n plan" is a phrase used in much of southern Africa. Literally translated it means, "A farmer makes a plan", but that doesn't quite do it justice. The expression is used to explain the can-do attitude and ingenuity of people in a place where resources are often lacking. It tells the story of how they have learn to live with long-running electricity cuts, drought, government corruption, inflation, unemployment, and other kinds of lack.
The people of the continent are known for their DIY solutions to all kinds of problems, including ones like ripped bowling boots. Zimbabwe's Ryan Burl used to fix his with a clamp and some superglue.
"I always like tinkering with stuff," he says on the eve of the Zimbabwe squad's departure to the T20 World Cup in Australia. "It's one of my traits. Sometimes I will be fixing a grip or something else on the bat, sometimes working on the shoes. So I took a picture to show people what kinds of things we do in the background."
Burl says he wasn't asking for any favours and simply ended up with much more than he bargained for when his tweet caught fire. "Overnight there were so many messages coming in. My wife was like, "Have you seen what's going on? This is crazy."
Then he got a message from Puma India, who agreed to sponsor him and some of his team-mates with new boots and additional kit. "You'll have to wait and see at the World Cup how many of our guys will be wearing Puma," he jokes. "And it's also just shown a lot of other sponsors that have maybe been sleeping on us that there are countries and cricketers out there that do need a bit of help." 'n Boer maak 'n plan indeed.

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Burl grew up on a farm in Headlands, 130km south-east of Harare, and was schooled at the prestigious Peterhouse, widely regarded as among the country's top schools. His main sport was squash and he admits to being better as a squash player than a cricketer, but he found the sport a little too much of a solo pursuit. "Being a team game [it] appealed a little bit more to me, and winning as a team felt a lot better for me," Burl says. "Playing squash, you win and it's nice, but there's not too many people you can celebrate with. It meant a lot more winning, with not just the XI on the field but the technical staff and the players on the bench as well."
Burl decided to concentrate on his cricket instead, where he was a top-order batter and initially, a seam bowler who took the new ball. Throughout Zimbabwe's age-group teams, he shared that job with Tom Curran, who is now with England, but grew weary of the grind. "When I was about 16, I was really tired of batting long and then coming and opening the bowling. It was tough," he says. "One day I said to the coach, 'I am not bowling seam anymore. I am tired. I am bowling spin.'"
Not just any kind of spin - legspin. Which he taught himself in true Boer maak 'n plan style: by watching videos, mostly of Shane Warne. It would turn out to be a masterstroke because his bowling was a big part of why Burl was eventually considered for the national side. "When I came into the squad [in 2016], we had the likes of Brendan Taylor, Hamilton Masakadza and Craig Ervine and there wasn't really a spot at the top of the order for me. I had to fill the role of a middle-order batter and I wasn't overly happy about it," he said. "But the one thing which made me feel more content with the role was that I wasn't really a bowler at all at the time, I was only really a part-timer, and if I was going to really embrace it, I'd have to work really hard on my bowling as well."

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Burl was due to make his debut in an ODI series against India in June 2016 but tore his ACL the day before the series was due to start. That delayed his first appearance until February 2017, when he played in a series against Afghanistan. He didn't bowl then, but met someone who would inspire him from that day.
"Rashid [Khan] is one of my very good friends and I am always picking his brain, along with Ish Sodhi - it's almost like a legspin community that we've got," Burl says. "There's so few of us, we've got to look out for each other. Guys are really more than happy to help each other out with different grips, different lengths and different field settings. Rashid plays around with his grips a lot and he mentioned that was something I should bring into my game."
And that is how Burl has developed what he believes is his best delivery. "I have a ball I release from the back of the hand with a googly grip but it comes out as a legspinner, so players often play for a googly but it comes out the other way. That's the one I haven't seen a lot of other guys do," he said.
Despite that, Burl doesn't see himself as particularly cryptic. "I don't look at myself as too much of a mystery bowler. Sometimes when I bowl a googly and someone doesn't pick it, I think, 'How did you not pick that?'" he said.
Whatever he is doing is clearly working. In the last two years he has bowled a lot more, and had a lot more success. He has delivered 61 overs in 28 T20Is, compared with 36 overs in 19 T20Is between 2018 and 2020, and taken 21 wickets at 18.85. That's almost double his previous haul of 11 wickets at 27.81 while in ODIs this year, he has taken ten wickets in 13 games at 21.00. Half that haul came against Australia, when Zimbabwe made history by winning in that country for the first time. Burl's haul ripped through the middle order and cleaned up the tail - Australia lost 5 for 12 and were dismissed for 141.
While it was a surreal experience for him, he also saw it as a culmination of a period of success that kicked off for Zimbabwe in June. "It all started off with the World Cup qualifiers for us and then we won the T20 series and the ODI series against Bangladesh, which was a long time coming," he said. "So in Australia it was always about believing. We were confident."

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Zimbabwe's turnaround coincided with the re-appointment of Dave Houghton as national men's head coach in June, in an eleventh-hour attempt to ensure they would qualify for the T20 World Cup. Zimbabwe have not been at an ICC event since 2016, after missing out on the 2018 T20 World Cup, the 50-over World Cup in 2019, and the 2021 T20 World Cup, which has affected the nation's pride and their cricket bottom line. Apart from the FOMO of their players not being able to join the big dance, Zimbabwe also rely heavily on the participation fee from ICC events, and could have ill-afforded another absence.
Their form before June's qualifiers was wretched. Since their last major tournament appearance, they had participated in 17 T20 series and won just two: a triangular involving Nepal and Singapore in 2019, and a three-match rubber against Scotland in 2021. They were hamstrung primarily by an inability to score quickly enough and in 55 innings, only crossed 160 nine times. To make it to this World Cup, that had to change.
"The coaching style that Dave and Lance [Klusener, batting coach] have brought in is based on freedom and positivity, and it's something we haven't really had," Burl says. "We always felt a little bit caged up and were intent on sticking to our exact roles, but we all know things in cricket never go according to plan. Having freedom has allowed us to adapt to different situations and guys are in a different headspace. Guys have come out of their shells and played a lot of positive cricket, and if it does come off, you score 200, and if it doesn't come off, you lose."
Since Houghton took over, Zimbabwe have played nine T20Is and topped 180 four times. Klusener, who has had two stints with Zimbabwe as batting coach and was also instrumental in developing the team's ability to post bigger totals, resigned his post before the T20 World Cup but Burl is hoping the team will keep the same mindset. "We want to put our best foot forward with the T20s. It's quite a ruthless format - you play that first round and you could be there a week and you get kicked out - so we want to progress and play the likes of England, Australia and South Africa. If you don't play them, you can't cause an upset," he says. "We want to play and we want to win. We want to cause some upsets and put some smiles on the fans' faces."
Cricket in many countries - most notably across the border in South Africa - is dealing with issues of racial discrimination - which Zimbabwe have been talking about since the late 1990s; it is a matter they have confronted, and perhaps even managed to put behind them, to some extent. "We are very united and very wholesome and together,'" Burl says. "We don't have any problems in our changing room. I am very happy and proud to say that we are in a good space and everyone gets on well. We are all happy. These guys are my friends, black, white or brown, and we want to do well together."
Zimbabwe's immediate goal is to get to the main draw of the T20 World Cup and then turn their attention to their 50-over game, where they lie 12th on the World Cup Super League points table and will host the qualifier for the 2023 World Cup in March. "We haven't done as well as we would have liked to in the Super League, if we are really honest with ourselves," Burl says. "So the 50-over qualifiers will be something to look forward to."
In-between that, Burl will busy himself with as much physical activity as he can as he makes the most of life as a professional sportsperson in a place where that's not too different from just being an ordinary guy. "I enjoy playing a lot of sports: tennis, hockey, anything to be honest and I like doing some DIY or home improvements," he says. "There's always something to do. We've renovated a couple of bathrooms and just this morning, I was putting up our new washing line." 'n Boer maak a plan.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent