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From Zimbabwe, with love

Alan Butcher's memoirs of his time as the country's coach are full of affection, if also marked by disappointments and frustrations

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Alan Butcher tried to unify the players against an administration that often thwarted their efforts  •  Associated Press

Alan Butcher tried to unify the players against an administration that often thwarted their efforts  •  Associated Press

Alan Butcher's The Good Murungu: A Cricket Tale of the Unexpected , a sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking account of his three years in charge of the Zimbabwean national team, spares no one, least of all himself.
It begins with a confession by Butcher, infected by self-doubt and depression, having just lost the coaching job at Surrey and unsure of his cricketing future. A chance phone call makes him aware of the Zimbabwe job, and his genuine curiosity and dedication to coaching make him take it, though he knows it will be far from easy.
Butcher's first sighting of Zimbabwe in his coaching capacity was on their West Indies tour in 2010, before he had officially signed on. He was frank about the lack of quality. "Neither they nor the West Indies could by any stretch of the imagination be called quality teams," he writes, but he could also "visualise myself working with them".
Among his first observations was that there were too many messages being sent from the coaching staff to the team on the field, and that the players were not being empowered. It was a shortcoming Butcher battled with throughout his time in charge, and he notes that the players "did not own their team", and he would come to see that he would not be able to either.
The book is mostly a celebration of the thrills of moving to a foreign land and truly becoming part of it. Butcher immersed himself in Zimbabwe, everything from the safaris to the nightlife to the country's notoriously bad roads. He took road trips to watch domestic matches, stayed in dodgy hotels, and became well acquainted with police speed traps. He writes good-humouredly about the months at two different Harare hotels while his home was being readied for occupancy. In that time Butcher overheard things like government-backed businessmen attempting to seal mining deals with their Chinese counterparts by threatening them with words such as, "You don't know who you are dealing with."
Butcher developed connections with his players. He became particularly close to Chris Mpofu, who he called "Son" and who responded by addressing Butcher as "Dad"
And then he heard something similar in his own role. Zimbabwe Cricket's head of communications warned Butcher early on that the coach would not want men in dark suits following him. Only much later does Butcher understand the powers he must appease.
By and large, ZC is a paranoid organisation, afraid of being exposed for its lack of funds. As a result, Butcher's attempts to hire psychologists or sports medical experts are dead-batted. "This was the modus operandi in pretty much all difficult situations," Butcher writes. "Rather than coming clean and admitting there was not enough money, which we could all understand, we were made to go through a process which ultimately led nowhere."
There were times when he and other members of the coaching staff dug into their own pockets to assist players with transport money. On one occasion Butcher lets three players stay at his home during a training camp because no other accommodation had been organised for them, only to be told by ZC it was improper and that they had to be sent away.
Overall, Butcher developed connections with his players. He became particularly close to Chris Mpofu, who he called "Son" and who responded by addressing Butcher as "Dad".
A standout feature of Butcher's approach was that he did not judge any of his players, even when it appeared they were disliked by their peers. An example is Prosper Utseya, who was captain when Butcher was appointed and later was involved in a controversy where he alleged he was a victim of racism. Utseya has since been written about as a lackey for ZC management, which Butcher hints at, with understanding, early on.
"A black captain appointed by a black administrative hierarchy and distrusted by a mainly white cricket establishment was between a rock and a hard place," he writes. "It was not unusual for [Utseya] and others to be summoned to the head office and pumped for information on this matter or that."
Despite Utseya's belief that some coaches like Grant Flower had an agenda against him, and his feelings of being targeted, Butcher praises him as an "an intelligent cricketer, has good tactical awareness, has made the most of his ability and is a very shrewd bowler, as his one-day international record shows".
Butcher tried to unify the players against an administration that often thwarted their efforts. He did that by, in his own words, "giving them some love", even if it sometimes was tough love. This included admonishing Ray Price for making fun of Craig Ervine during a session when players were required to give oral feedback and Price took the mickey.
The biggest reward for Butcher's efforts came when Zimbabwe achieved a historic victory on Test comeback, and an ODI series win over Bangladesh, but they could not sustain that momentum. Butcher admits his results on the whole were not good enough, especially away from home. He also seems to know why.
A significant reason for Zimbabwe's underperformance was the players' lack of self-belief. In the book, Butcher recalls a incident in which Hamilton Masakadza, one of the most senior players, confesses to his batting mantra being "I must not make a mistake", because "I must set an example" - which Butcher saw as being at odds with Masakadza's otherwise easy-going nature.
Team selection was the other major stumbling block, and Butcher is most critical of it. He details his battles against the convener of selectors then, Givemore Makoni, a man who he would "never get on with in 20 lifetimes of trying". Their tense relationship came to a head at the World T20 in 2012, where a selection decision altered the course of at least one player's career.
The book tells of the copious amount of beer, wine and spirits Butcher consumed, but there is enough else to know that he was not living in a fool's paradise. And there is more than enough raw emotion and sincerity.
Butcher writes about his family visiting him in Zimbabwe, his father's death, and his relationships with ordinary Zimbabweans, including a waitress named Suspicious. The title of the book was inspired by something his housekeeper, Simon, said. On seeing Simon's sleeping quarters, which did not include a bed, Butcher bought him one. Shocked, Simon called him a "good murungu". A good white man.
In Zimbabwe, like in so many African countries, race is still important because of the colonial hangover. Butcher saw the impact that has on everything in the country, including cricket. As a murungu, maybe he also accepted that he could not change that.
The Good Murungu: A Cricket Tale of the Unexpected
By Alan Butcher
Pitch Publishing, 2016
287 pages, £12.99

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent