'I was too immature to understand what was happening in Zimbabwe cricket'

Mluleki Nkala was a talented fast bowler with a privileged cricket education who found himself stuck in the middle when the country's cricket plunged into crisis in 2004

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Mluleki Nkala: "The one thing I would do differently if I had the opportunity is learn how to operate in a professional structure"  •  Getty Images

Mluleki Nkala: "The one thing I would do differently if I had the opportunity is learn how to operate in a professional structure"  •  Getty Images

Mluleki Nkala knows how it feels to be beaten. Zimbabwe lost eight of the ten Tests he played in, 43 of 50 ODIs, and his only T20. Naturally the memories of the few occasions they triumphed are vivid. Jodhpur 2000 is one of them.
"I was part of some great games, like the time we beat India. When you play for Zimbabwe, it's those few times when you win big matches in front of important crowds that stay with you," Nkala said.
"Neil Johnson said to me, 'Every time you win a game, you have to enjoy it. We fight hard. It's very tough for us to win games, so every time we win, we've got to enjoy it.' There were times when we were getting beaten heavily, and he reminded me that those days happen to us often but we have to keep going so that when we won, we could enjoy a wonderful feeling."
Nkala's career began during the country's so-called golden age - the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sentimental fans will tell you if politics hadn't intervened, that group of players could have gone on to accomplish bigger, better things. But those who supported the change in administration will tell you Zimbabwe won and lost about as much then as they do now. Ask Nkala and he will tell you he isn't sure what would have happened.
"It was such a difficult time. I would never underestimate the divisions people were talking about - and there were clear divisions - but I think I was too immature to understand what was really going on."
What was going on was that the players were threatening to boycott, either because of problems over salaries or racial politics between those who wanted transformation and those who didn't.
Nkala had a privileged education in the game, "which I have my dad to thank for taking the initiative to get my brothers and me into good schools". He attended Whitestones, a private junior school in Bulawayo, on an academic scholarship, and his sporting ability shone through at a young age. It earned him admission to Falcon College, the institution Heath Streak, the Strangs and the Whittalls emerged from.
There, Nkala excelled in both cricket and rugby. He played in Craven Week, South Africa's prestigious schools rugby tournament, and also played age-group cricket. "It was a school with very rich sporting traditions, so it was all about winning and being as good as you can."
It was obvious he would have more opportunities than some of his peers could hope for, and his brothers tried to make him understand the importance of it. "My brothers were a bit older and they would say stuff like, 'You could be the first age-group black captain', or things like that, but it really didn't mean much to me at the time."
His cricket career began in earnest when he was picked for a Zimbabwe Under-19 tour to England, and when he was selected for the 1998 U-19 World Cup squad, alongside Mark Vermeulen and Dion Ebrahim, Nkala knew he was on his way to the national side.
Age groups, A teams and board XIs were the route to the Zimbabwe team, because the regional structure wasn't strong enough. "The professional pool was quite small and there was a push to get youngsters involved in the A side, and I was a beneficiary of that. I remember I actually played a Test match before I played for Matabeleland".
Nkala made his one-day debut in 1998 and in Tests two years later, against England in Nottingham, where he took five wickets. It was around that time that the first signs of unhappiness over payments became visible.
"People were trying to make a living and guys were trying to be professional cricketers. The world was changing in terms of professional sport. We heard of guys getting central contracts and that there was television-rights money. We wondered why we weren't seeing any of that, especially because when we went on tour we were competing with guys who were getting paid better."
In his autobiography, Henry Olonga recounted the players threatening a strike, but Nkala, as one of the younger members of the side, couldn't decide whether or not he agreed with his team-mates' reasons for a boycott.
"People were introducing new concepts about money to me," he said. "I came into a professional structure and I had no understanding of any of it. The worst thing was that I thought I was smart enough to understand and I was so easily pulled this way and that. My belief at the time was that I wanted a career in cricket. People I played with and practised with were telling me, 'This is how cricket should be run, this is how much you should be paid', and all I wanted was an opportunity to play. The one thing I would do differently if I had the opportunity is to learn how to operate in a professional structure."
In the end there was no boycott and a better payment structure was negotiated, but tensions remained, some of them now with racial overtones.
"There was definitely an issue at the time and maybe I didn't feel it that much because I came from a different environment," Nkala said. "There was some discomfort with people coming in, playing differently and being from different backgrounds. People were used to cricket being run a certain way and the team being selected a certain way. Many were uncomfortable when people tried to instil change."
"A lot of our guys get out-thought rather than outplayed. If you go to a net session and watch some of the Zimbabweans play, you will notice there is a lot of talent, but when it comes to tactics, you don't see a lot of that"
With all that going on, Nkala felt he was being swamped as he tried to deal with his own cricket problems. "I had my own issues of form and injury. I wish I had blanked it out and focused on being the best cricketer I could be, but those issues were real too."
Luckily he had "the best coach I played under" to turn to. Former Australia batsman Geoff Marsh was in charge and he tried to isolate and protect the team from the external factors that could derail them.
"There is always stuff going around the team, but as a coach he was able to step away," Nkala said. "He never got himself involved in the politics, the infighting, and he made sure he stuck to his job. He knew he couldn't be on anyone's side, and that it was all about trying to get the team ready and trying to win games. He realised he did not have to sort out the whole structure and everything that went with it. He focused on being national coach rather than trying to sort out the big picture."
When Marsh took over, Zimbabwean cricket appeared quite healthy. They beat Bangladesh 2-0 in a Test series in April 2001, the last time Zimbabwe won two consecutive Tests. Nkala has fond memories of that rare period of dominance.
"It was a weird feeling, because for the first time we were expected to win," he said. "There was some pressure to try and get recognised in the team, and I was always fighting to have a bowl.
"Andy Blignaut made his debut and had a really good tour. Heath was there too, and Brighton Watambwa also did well." Nkala puts the victory down to being comfortable in home conditions, which Bangladesh weren't used to.
After that there was a steady decline in the fortunes of Zimbabwe and Nkala. When Marsh left in 2004 and Zimbabwean cricket was shaken to the core by the player rebellion, Nkala was troubled by ankle injuries. He was forced out of action the next year and spent two years out of the game. "I wish my ankles had been fixed earlier, because I was always sore and getting injured and my bowling didn't progress as I would have liked it to."
He made a return before the 2007 World Cup but was not named in the squad, "which was a major disappointment", and he soon realised he would have to find other ways to make money. He played provincial, and later, franchise cricket at home and club cricket in the UK. He also began commentating and studying, and will complete a degree in finance this year.
He remains passionate about Zimbabwean cricket and is pained by their struggle.
"In Test cricket the guys are babies and we can't judge them on those records. More cricket would give these guys a better opportunity to show what they could do. It would also mean that you will be able to identify those who can't do that, and it will give you a chance to push other guys in. That's how your cricket structure grows and gets stronger. Teams like New Zealand and Bangladesh have rotated players. They have been able to say which ones are not good enough. You can't do that if you don't play games. I'd love the guys to get the opportunity to show what they can do on a consistent basis with a decent schedule.
"A lot of our guys get out-thought rather than outplayed. If you go to a net session and watch some of the Zimbabweans play, you will notice there is a lot of talent, but when it comes to tactics, you don't see a lot of that. They will only learn game situations when they play more."
Nkala is not the only one who has called for more regular series for Zimbabwe, and he will be pleased with their schedule this winter: they host Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The players' techniques and temperaments will be thoroughly tested but the hope is that they will come out stronger from the experience.
For those who don't make it to the national side, Nkala has some old-fashioned advice. "If you are going to be a professional cricketer and you are not in the national squad, then at the end of the season you've got to make a plan to play club cricket in England. People have been doing it for years. You can't just say, 'Zimbabwe cricket should look after me 365 days a year.' It might not be a wonderful, top-class living, but the opportunities are there, and in the off season, you must make your own plan."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent