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Masvaure makes it

Meet the Zimbabwe batsman who got religion, shed weight, and made his Test debut last week

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Prince Masvaure looks for a run after playing the ball to the off side, Zimbabwe v New Zealand, 1st Test, Bulawayo, 1st day, July 28, 2016

"When we went out there and I received the cap, I was so emotional"  •  AFP

Prince Masvaure did not enjoy fitness tests until about a week ago. By his own admission, the batting allrounder is carrying a few extra kilograms, and he was dropped by the Mashonaland franchise for that exact reason - but this time he had reason to run a little faster by the time the stopwatch started.
"I saw Hamilton Masakadza in the car park when I got to the ground," Masvaure said. "He came up to me and said, 'Congratulations on making the Test side.' I asked, 'Oh really, did I?' Because I didn't get a call or anything. And he said, 'Yes, you made it, it was announced this afternoon.' I couldn't believe that after so many years of hard work, it was actually happening."
Masvaure's cricket journey began with baseball. He was the junior school vice-captain and slugger, capable of hitting the ball a long way. When the fifth-grade team cricket team found themselves a player short, they asked him to fill in. "From there, I just fell in love with the game," he remembered.
And he was good at it too. He earned a scholarship to Churchill Boys High, the same institution that schooled Tatenda Taibu, Hamilton Masakadza, Douglas Hondo and Prosper Utseya. He played cricket in the summer and rugby in the winter. He was a batting allrounder, and alternated between centre and fly half, and was also a "lot smaller than I am now".
In 2003 he made the Zimbabwe Under-16 side and toured Namibia. "That was my first time on a plane," he said. "I just realised, if I keep on working hard, I can go somewhere."
The next year Masvaure was selected for Zimbabwe's U-19 side, the youngest player alongside Gary Ballance. He represented the team in four successive years, including at two junior World Cups: at the 2006 tournament he played just one match and did not bat, but in 2008 he was the captain. It was not a great outing for either Masvaure, who scored 39 runs at 6.50, or the team, which lost all six matches, but it gave them an idea of how tough international cricket was going to be.
"Everyone in my family is quite big. If I tell them I am running, you never know what they will think"
Masvaure came up against a New Zealand side captained by Kane Williamson in the opening match. While Williamson would go on to rise through the ranks, Masvaure battled his way (and his weight) to get ahead.
In the first season of Zimbabwe's franchise system, the 2009-10 summer, Masvaure was contracted to Mashonaland. He was not among their outstanding performers but he held down a regular place. Then, "I got dropped because of my fitness."
That forced him to move to Masvingo, where he played for Southern Rocks but struggled. In his first season there, he averaged 10.66 and considered giving up cricket altogether. "I didn't have a good season, and at the same time, things with Zimbabwe Cricket were going up and down. Maybe I didn't do myself any favours since I couldn't get selected in teams because of my fitness. I thought I was pushing hard but people told me the same thing: that I could play well but I needed to improve on my fitness. So eventually I thought of trying something else instead, like maybe pursuing my education."
Instead of the books, Masvaure eventually turned to farming and tried to grow Zimbabwe's largest cash crop, tobacco. "It was extremely hard, because with farming you need to be there 24/7," he said. "And I also found that with doing other things, I was not putting as much time into cricket. I needed to do something that could actually make me earn a living. It was difficult to balance the two."
Eventually several senior players convinced Masvaure that he had what it took to make it and persuaded him to make another move, to the Kwe-Kwe based Mid-West Rhinos. It paid off.
In the 2014-15 season, Masvaure finished sixth on the Logan Cup batting charts, with 472 runs at 33.71, which included five fifties. He did not manage to follow that up with a strong 2015-16, but word had spread that he had promise. With Zimbabwe struggling for depth, especially in the batting department, after the retirement of Brendan Taylor, Masvaure was included in Zimbabwe's A side to play South Africa A last month.
For the first time since his U-19 days, he would face international bowlers like Vernon Philander. To ready himself for the challenge, Masvaure turned to religion.
"I am someone who believes in Jesus Christ. Just reading the Bible and knowing about God's work gave me so much faith and belief in myself," he said. "I told myself that if this is what happened, if Jesus did this and that, why can I not do the same thing? I told myself, I need to back myself, I need to believe I can do it before I go out there. The main thing that happened is that I believed I will make it before I even started playing the games."
Getting players into the right mindset has been a problem for Zimbabwe, but Masvaure has showed what can happen when they are. He scored an unbeaten 88 in the first game and 146 in the second, against an attack that included Test bowlers Philander and Dane Piedt and promising quicks Andile Phehlukwayo, Sisanda Magala and Duanne Olivier.
"Those guys are world-class bowlers. I respect them a lot but what I told myself is that these guys are there to get me out and I am there to score runs, so if I try to play the names, it's going to be hard. I tried to brush that off my mind and I said, let me just play the ball as it is. And then I scored against them," Masvaure said.
Ten days after that, he was told he would have the opportunity to repeat the feat at the highest level, against New Zealand. Masvaure found out he would receive his Test cap the night before the first match, and admitted he was overawed. "I tried to tell myself I am all right but I kept on breathing heavily. I had a lot of nerves. To be honest, I was scared," he said. "But when we went out there and I received the cap, I was so emotional. And then when they sang the national anthem, I felt I was all right, I was ready for it, I was ready to give it a go."
He had to be, because by the time he was called on, to bat in an unfamiliar position, No. 7, with the score at 72 for 5, Zimbabwe were in a precarious position. Before Masvaure had faced a ball, they lost three more wickets at the same score. He would have been forgiven if he had perished without adding to the total, but he remembered what had served him so well against South Africa A and tried to repeat it.
"It felt a bit different because when I went out there, I had to face spin first, whereas I am used to facing seam. I just had to adjust and get on with it," he said. "I was very disappointed as well, because I know the guys were very good cricketers and what we displayed out there wasn't the way I have seen most of the guys play. It felt like this is not how we should be playing our cricket. We are better than that. I was disappointed. Everyone was getting out to the same delivery. That frustrated me a little bit."
"With farming you need to be there 24/7. And I also found that with doing other things, I was not putting as much time into cricket"
Masvaure saw off Neil Wagner's short-ball spell and posted an 85-run stand with No. 10 batsman Donald Tiripano, to save his side some blushes.
"Zimbabwe cricket is in a state where people are saying cricket is dead," Masvaure says. "My goal is to try and see if I can perform consistently so that people can recognise that there is still something in Zimbabwe cricket, to bring back the hope we used to have, that we can put up a good fight and try to win, not just to compete. It's something that really hurts me when you get to hear some of the comments people pass on from other countries. It's something that really touches me."
He knows he needs to work on his fitness as much as on his batting. With Makhaya Ntini calling the shots as coach, Masvaure has taken up running, although he is still a little unsure how he will sustain that when he gets home. "Maybe it's because of my family. Everyone in my family is quite big. If I tell them I am running, you never know what they will think," he laughed.
"I have lost a bit of weight, that's what people say, but if I look at it, I feel the same. I still feel I need to lose more weight and that there is more work to be done. I am working hard on it. I feel I shouldn't look the way I do." But he knows he should keep playing cricket the way he does.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent