Tristan Holme is a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe
It doesn't look like much, but the concrete slab at Seke One High School in Chitungwiza might just be a genesis point for Zimbabwe cricket's recovery. Every weekend dozens of young cricketers gather from around the sprawling township to receive cricket coaching at Ramah Sports Academy from a few dedicated men.
Some might hesitate to term it an academy, given the state of facilities. In the middle of a field a concrete strip represents the pitch, but the AstroTurf covering, installed in 2002 by Zimbabwe Cricket, has long disintegrated. The nets that were built at the same time are in a state of disrepair, and because the field has to be shared with other sports such as football and rugby, the cricketers often end up practising on the concrete slab that is meant to be the basketball court.
It's not ideal, but development has to start somewhere, and there is no sign of Zimbabwe Cricket driving it. The board used to install and maintain facilities in township schools around the country, and even pay for emerging talent to attend strong cricketing schools. Tatenda Taibu, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Vusi Sibanda, Elton Chigumbura, Hamilton Masakadza and Prosper Utseya were all products of that programme, but it has fallen by the wayside over the past decade.
Ramah was started in 2012 by Sylvester Mutusva and Cromen Zinyama, both of whom are residents of Chitungwiza, the high-density dormitory town just outside of Harare that 350,000 people call home.
Mutusva has a long history in coaching, going back to 1994, when he began performing the role part-time. In 2000 he became a full-time coach with ZC, and rose through their development programme. At the end of the decade, as one of the most respected junior coaches in the country, he was sent to Australia by ZC to complete his Advanced Level Two coaching certificate. He went on to coach Zimbabwe's women's team before leaving his post in 2011 for "family and spiritual reasons".
Mutusva has used his knowledge to run Level One coaching courses in Chitungwiza, where Zinyama, a former Mashonaland Eagles player, became one of his students after realising that he wasn't going to make it at the highest level. The courses don't carry an official certificate, but they are at least providing knowledge to prospective coaches who are subsequently being employed by township schools. All of which is ample evidence of a hunger for cricket.
There has been no shortage of opinion in recent weeks about how Zimbabwe cricket has reached the lows that it displayed during India's recent tour, but not enough positive discussion on how it might be revived. That is in no small part down to the negative vibe around Zimbabwe at present, where a cash crisis has pushed unemployment to an all-time high and protests against the government have flared up over the past week. With ZC crippled by mismanagement and a debt of US$19m, it is difficult to see signs of hope in an increasingly barren landscape.
The revolution, it seems, might need to be privatised by those who genuinely care about the game. Mutusva and Zinyama do not rely on Ramah for their income. They both carry jobs during the week and coach on weekends. They have recently expanded their operation to the towns of Chiredzi and Ruwa, and struck a deal to rent fields at Alexandra Sports Club in Harare for the big occasions when their 150 children come from the three areas in which they operate. Although they ask for a $35 registration fee and a monthly membership of $40, they say that not many of the kids are able to pay the full amount.
"But we can't stop them from coming, because they have talent," says Zinyama, who is the driving force behind the academy. "We want to develop that talent, so at the end of the day they just pay what they can so that there's continuation in the day-to-day running of the academy."
The pair has also become an affiliate of the National Twenty20 Cricket Federation, which has enabled them to send players to India and host teams from the subcontinent. Mutusva travelled to India in 2013 and 2014, and will be taking some senior players over again this year. "I've learnt a lot in India," he says. "They can play cricket anywhere, in any open field. It's not all about resources where we say that we don't have a cricket facility. In India any open space is a cricket facility."
Of course that may be good enough at the lower levels of the game, but if Zimbabwe are to truly rise up as an international force once more they will need somewhere to develop their top players. Which is where Howzat Academy on the other side of Harare comes in.
With the disintegration of facilities around the country, Howzat feels like a cricketing oasis. Housed at Heritage School in Borrowdale, one of the most privileged schools in the country in one of the country's most privileged suburbs, this indoor facility has floors lined with fresh green AstroTurf, brand new nets, and an armoury of bowling machines. Although it feels a world away from Ramah's Chitungwiza headquarters, the two are linked: Howzat regularly hosts coaching sessions for Ramah's boys free of charge, and arranges matches between the two academies.
Howzat has been set up by Sean Bell, who is also Zimbabwe's fitness and fielding coach, and former Zimbabwe seamer Gary Brent. Both have Level Three coaching certificates from the ECB, and are probably the only Zimbabweans in the country with such a qualification. Zimbabwe used to have an army of well-trained coaches in its schools, providing the foundation for a national team that rose above its station. But that is no longer the case. "I'd guess that 80% of our coaches in the school system are unqualified," says Bell.
Earlier this year Howzat got in touch with the ICC Academy in Dubai to see if they could send Zimbabwe seamer Donald Tiripano over for a coaching course, after Tiripano and Sean Williams got involved in some coaching sessions. The ICC Academy's response was that, given Howzat's facilities, it might make sense to send some facilitators to them to run Level One and Two courses. All Howzat need is a letter of approval from ZC, which the board is yet to provide, despite numerous requests. Bell remains optimistic, though, and says that up to 60 coaches could go through ICC programmes at Howzat this year if it comes off. "That's our big scheme - to develop coaches and send them back into the schools," he says. If the letter is not forthcoming, he intends to bus a load of coaches up to Zambia to hold the ICC course there.
Howzat, which opened its doors last year, has other big plans. "We don't just want to be coaching Little Johnny," says Bell, "although that will still be part of it." With ZC's academy at Country Club in Harare now effectively dismantled, it makes sense for Howzat to become the new high-performance centre.
Bell suggests that in time the academy could incorporate some of the promising Under-19s and form a fifth franchise. Proposals have been put to ZC, and one imagines that Taibu will be an interested visitor - to both Howzat and Ramah - once he returns from England to begin his role as a development officer. ZC chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani and director of development Givemore Makoni have toured the facility, although attempts by ESPNcricinfo to gain Mukuhlani's thoughts on Howzat's proposals - or his plans for the Country Club academy - were unsuccessful.
An outdoor net facility is also being established at Howzat, and the school where it is situated recently built dormitories that the academy could use in school holidays. Walking through the accommodation, it's strikingly unlike the usual Zimbabwean boarding schools. There are four beds per room, each with en suite bathroom, and communal areas with huge flatscreen TVs. Howzat hopes to lure touring teams from abroad - including counties looking for pre-season venues - which would give Zimbabwe's cricketers some fresh opposition.
It all sounds positive and possible, especially if ZC comes to the party. Ramah say that with additional funding they want to take their programme to the rural areas.
It is also worth noting that Bulawayo has two academies of its own - one operating in the high-density areas and the other, which was set up by Heath Streak, servicing the higher end of the market.
"Let's look at where we're at and how we've just performed against India," says Bell. "You go on social media and everyone is cussing us, 100%, but what are guys doing about it? I see it as a bad series, very disappointing, but I still see talent there. There are some guys who have played a lot of games, and there are still some good brains in that changing room. But where's the next generation? Where are they going to come from?"
"We've got to rebuild from somewhere," adds Brent. "We've got to rebuild from the bottom."