Mary-Anne Musonda keeps the Zimbabwe flag flying as cricket creeps towards recognition back home
Batter to be the only Zimbabwean player to take part in the Fairbreak T20 starting next week
Mary-Anne Musonda is in elite company. She is one of only six women's batters, and only two since the year 2000, to have scored a century on ODI debut. Of the players on that list, Musonda is the only one to have also been the captain of the team she was playing for but at the time, she had no idea of the significance of her knock.
"In my head, I was cognizant of the fact that we were playing our first ever ODI and we had to try to get close to the score and try and win. That's the kind of mindset I went in with. I didn't think that I want to try and score a century. It did not even cross my mind," she told ESPNcricinfo from Windhoek, where Zimbabwe were taking part in a T20I triangular with Namibia and Uganda. "When I got to the 80s and 90s, it was not registering as much as it would register to other people and when I hit that hundred, I was very underwhelmed rather than overwhelmed. I didn't think it was a big deal."
It was October 2021, six months after Zimbabwe's women's team had been granted ODI status by the ICC, and they were hosting Ireland, who had set them a decent target of 254. Zimbabwe were 25 for 2 when Musonda's turn to bat came and 82 for 3 inside 14 overs. Given how desperate Zimbabwe were to gain official status in the two preceding years because, "we wanted to play against top sides," Musonda knew that it was important they gave a good account themselves to justify their place among the established teams. She single-handedly ensured that's what happened.
"I didn't think that I want to try and score a century. It did not even cross my mind. When I got to the 80s and 90s, it was not registering as much as it would register to other people; and when I hit that hundred, I was very underwhelmed rather than overwhelmed. I didn't think it was a big deal."
Given how desperate Zimbabwe were to gain official status in the two preceding years because "we wanted to play against top sides", Musonda knew that it was important they gave a good account of themselves to justify their place among the established teams. And she single-handedly ensured that that is what happened.
Musonda shared in three half-century stands, and guided Zimbabwe to victory with 37 balls to spare. Only then, she realised what she had achieved. Sort of.
"People were clapping me off the field, and social media was buzzing like crazy, and I was thinking 'Okay, this must be a big deal'. I think it was actually the day after that I realised it was actually a big deal."
A month later, Zimbabwe were hosting the World Cup qualifiers, and had the chance to go from being unknowns on the international stage to a global tournament in less than a year. A 114-run defeat to Pakistan didn't make for a good start, and their challenge ended when the event was cancelled after the discovery of the Omicron variant in southern Africa, but Musonda was proud of her team, who she had seen take big steps in a short space of time.
"I've seen where we've come from. There's a lot of progress thus far," she said. "We are not where we were two or three years ago. We're headed in the right direction."
Three years ago, Musonda had just finished her Masters in Development Finance at the University of Cape Town, and returned home to Zimbabwe to give herself a chance at a career in cricket. It was something she had flirted with a few times after discovering the sport in high-school and turning her back on the many other ball games that she participated in.
Musonda played basketball, volleyball, netball and hockey at KweKwe High in the Zimbabwean midlands, and took up cricket when she was scouted out by the school coach.
"Hockey was my main sport, though I was an allrounder. Once, when I was playing hockey, the cricket coach scouted me out and that's how I started," she said.
Coincidentally, at the same time, ZC was introducing girls' cricket at schools but at first there weren't any girls' teams for Musonda to join. "I started playing with the boys," Musonda remembers. "I played with the boys for a term or two, and really fell in love with cricket. I never went back to hockey."
Within a year, the school had a girls' team, and some of them competed in provincial trials. From there, Musonda was included in a probable 13 for the national squad, but without official status, there wasn't much hope of playing regularly. Still, she had hope of that changing; and she wasn't the only one.
"My mum said I should keep pursuing my studies but she also promised to keep supporting me with cricket. I thought that was a workable deal, so I continued with both."
Musonda finished her A-levels and then moved to South Africa where she first attended the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and did a degree in business finance. She kept playing, and made it into the Kwa-Zulu Natal Inland team.
"In-between or in study breaks, I would go back home, and if there was cricket training, I would join. Sometimes it would clash with maybe a week or two of my semester but I had to make those little sacrifices. I decided not to give up on either and see what would happen."
"It's such a great initiative. There's a world of difference between other leagues and this one. This one is very inclusive"Musonda on the Fairbreak T20, a competition where teams have players from Full Member and Associate countries combined
After her Honours' year, Musonda went back to Zimbabwe to try and find a job, but couldn't, so she decided to keep learning. "I needed to make sure I have a lot of options," she said. "My mum always used to talk about having a lot of options and not being restricted by one thing."
When she went back to Zimbabwe for the second time, she decided not to look for work immediately. "I gave myself to cricket for about six months, and started performing well. A year later, I was given the honour to captain the side."
She led Zimbabwe on T20I debut against Namibia, and realised she may not have to enter the corporate world immediately and could give cricket a go.
At first, it seemed like an excellent decision. Later that year, Musonda was due to play in the Kia Super League in England but her chance was scuppered when ZC and its players were temporarily suspended by the ICC for government interference in the cricket board.
"When that opportunity came, I was so excited," Musonda recalls. "Like everyone, you always want to get to the next level, and when you don't go there, you're disappointed. But it doesn't stop you from being ambitious or from trying to get the same opportunities and to improve yourself and your skills, and hope that in the future, you will get more opportunities."
Two years later, those opportunities started coming. In April 2021, the ICC gave Zimbabwe Women ODI status, and later that year, Musonda was selected to be part of the ICC's 100% Cricket Future Leaders Programme, a mentorship scheme for women in the game. She has since been paired with New Zealand double international Rebecca Rolls, who has played cricket as well as football for her country. The pair is halfway through their six-month engagement, and Musonda is already benefiting from the work they have done.
"We have good conversations about cricket. Not just about cricket but [also] about the kind of person I am and the kind of person I want to be," Musonda said. "She guides me and gives me good advice. Mentorship is so important.
"Most people want to go somewhere but they don't know how to get there. Mentorship is one way of helping - especially leaders - to understand themselves and the environment they are operating in, and to prepare ourselves as women who have never been in the places where men have been."
"I could see from the inter-franchise [tournament]. There's a decent pool that's coming up, especially at Under-19 level"Musonda is heartened by the increased interest in women's cricket in Zimbabwe
And next week, she will have another opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best by being the only Zimbabwean player to take part in the Fairbreak T20, a one-of-a-kind franchise competition in which teams are made up of players from Full Member and Associate countries combined.
"It's such a great initiative. There's a world of difference between other leagues and this one. This one is very inclusive," Musonda said. "Imagine having players from more than 30 countries with different backgrounds and the kind of environment that will be there. I'm sure we will learn a lot."
Musonda will play for Tornadoes, which will be captained by Stafanie Taylor, and includes other international captains Sophie Devine and Sune Luus; and she can't wait to get to know them.
"When we hosted the qualifiers last year, I had a conversation with Stefanie and we really got along. It's so cool that she is going to be my captain," Musonda said. "I know we'll have good conversations. I'm going to have a good time with my team-mates. And my opposition - every single person I've watched on TV is going to be a meter away from me. I am pretty excited about that."
Plus, there are other benefits to be gained from participating in the event. Musonda described it as "financially very lucrative", and an opportunity to observe how other people play the game.
"That's where you learn. You learn how they go through their processes, how bowlers respond to situations and the strategies they are implementing," she said. "The more you play, the more you understand yourself in different situations. It's a case of continuously playing games."
That is also what Musonda hopes will happen with the Zimbabwean team as a whole. "We need more games against strong sides."
That will happen later this year, in the T20 World Cup qualifiers for next year's tournament. For the first time, Zimbabwe will play T20I cricket against teams outside the African continent. They will be up against the likes of Bangladesh, Thailand, Ireland and Scotland, but with only two places available for the main draw, they are not favourites by any means. However, Musonda has patience with the process.
"It's a journey. It's not something that will happen overnight."
For now, she is heartened by the increased interest in women's cricket in Zimbabwe - from both player and media perspectives.
"I could see from the inter-franchise [tournament] we had a couple of weeks ago. There's a decent pool that's coming up, especially at Under-19 level," Musonda said. "ZC is also doing a lot of work promoting the game. That's the only way of making the world know there is women's cricket.
"And then, it also comes from us - the national team performing well and spreading the game. So far, people seem to know about us. They know who we are playing against, and the results. "
It is likely that the person they know best is Musonda, but she would never say. Perhaps she wouldn't even know.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent