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Taibu Tatenda

THE RETURN OF TATENDA TAIBU

In his new role as cricket administrator, the former captain aims to rebuild Zimbabwe’s cricket culture and act as a bridge between players and officials

I got a calling from the Lord, people thought I was going to start preaching, but I am not a pastor” © Getty Images
The popular narrative is that Tatenda Taibu quit international cricket four years ago because he had seen the light, specifically the light of the Lord. Now he is making a comeback to the game, in an administrative capacity, because he is hoping to to turn some lights on, specifically at the Harare Sports Club (HSC).

Taibu has accepted a role as Zimbabwe Cricket’s convener of selectors and development officer, a position he will take up next month, and one of his missions is to install floodlights at the country’s premier ground.

It may sound like that should be a peripheral priority but Taibu has a compelling reason for putting it near the top of his list. “Most ICC limited-overs events are played under lights and our players don’t get any experience of that at home, so they are not used to it at all,” he said from the UK, where he has been based for the last few years. “They need to be able to compete in those tournaments.”

Given where Zimbabwe cricket is at the moment, that is both a reasonable and realistic aim. Zimbabwe were the only Full Member not to qualify for the last two World T20 main draws. They have won only three matches in their last two 50-over World Cups, all of them against Associates. Given their ranking of 11th in ODI cricket, they cannot even dream of qualifying for the Champions Trophy. So while their absence of a Test ranking is worrying but rectifiable if they play enough matches, the need to do something drastic to improve their limited-overs record is pressing.

“Zimbabwe cricket needs to be treated with a little bit of love for now. We will have to look at the player base and see if there are players around who can eventually replace the ones who are already there”

Pylons have been up at HSC for years and the lights are also there, having spent months at Harare airport awaiting payment for being released. The only problem is that the lights are not on the pylons. If Taibu can arrange for them to get there, Zimbabwe can start playing day-night cricket, provided ZC has the funds to switch them on. And that would be Taibu’s next concern.

A year before he quit the game, Taibu criticised ZC’s structures, which included their financials. He stunned the international press by revealing how players did not have contracts and were not paid match fees on the eve of their Test comeback in 2011. Now he admits he does not know whether there is cash in the coffers but he intends to find out as soon as possible. “I don’t know anything about the current financial status. I am not involved there but I would like to know so I can get a clearer and better picture,” he said. “I’m sure when I get there, I will find out.”

That alone should reassure Zimbabwean fans: the knowledge that someone of Taibu’s calibre is committed to their cricket. But why now?

Since his international retirement, Taibu has been living in the UK. Contrary to popular belief, he has not become a pastor. “When I said I got a calling from the Lord, people thought I was going to start preaching, but I am not a pastor.

“I am just a Christian and I live a Christian life,” Taibu said. “If somebody wants me to pray with them or if there are families who want someone to speak to, if I can get an opportunity like that, I will take it because I believe as a Christian, you must be able to touch people’s lives and give them hope.”

“I have closed the door on coming back to play” © Getty Images
He has also been involved in club cricket a bit as a player-coach-development-officer, for Liverpool second-division side Hightown St Mary’s, who he joined in April. He is also working on his autobiography, which is what made him realise that he would have to return to Zimbabwe.

“In writing, I have seen that when I recall an incident from when I was ten years old, for example, then my understanding of the situation is that of a ten-year-old. I need to find people who have a better understanding of those situations,” he said. “For that I have to go back to Zimbabwe and talk to people like [former national coach] Stephen Mangongo and [former Under-19 coach] Walter Chawaguta, as well as some of my teachers from primary school and high school.”

While Taibu mulled a return to his homeland, he was also in touch with Peter Chingoka, former chairman and an honorary life president of the board, who has urged him to come back to contribute to the game. In the last month, Taibu decided to take him up, primarily because he believes there is something worth saving in Zimbabwe. “If I didn’t see that there was something there, I wouldn’t go,” Taibu said. “I believe there is something that can be done and I want to do it.”

The “something” that needs doing involves rebuilding a cricket culture, which Taibu thinks Zimbabwe has lost, and which he has had experience of creating in Liverpool, where he is also involved in recruitment. “You have to get players involved in the community, get kids from schools to play at clubs, that’s how you develop a system,” he said.

“Everyone I have played with and the administrative people know me as a person who does not beat around the bush. Whether I am liked or disliked, people trust me”

Replicating that in Zimbabwe will be tricky because even though the country is still home to prestigious sporting schools, the club structures have deteriorated and the domestic franchise system is in trouble. That will make Taibu’s task tougher as he aims to deepen the player pool. He intends to take a pragmatic approach to things by analysing what resources are already there, nurturing them and looking for additions.

“My own assessment is there is a negative vibe at the moment. It is quite tough in Zimbabwe – not just in cricket, the country as a whole is struggling. Zimbabwe cricket needs to be treated with a little bit of love for now. There are many areas that need fixing but we will have to fix them one thing at a time.

“We will have to look at the player base and see if there are players around who can eventually replace the ones who are already there. I want to start working with guys at a slightly lower level so that if those players go up to international level, they are at a certain standard already. Otherwise, as a group, they will be under pressure.”

Taibu speaks from experience. He was part of the young crop that succeeded the white-player walkout in 2004 and struggled because of inexperience. That bunch of cricketers was also up against an administration that seemed to constantly thwart their efforts – with regular changes in coaching staff, contract disputes, and infrequent fixtures – and Taibu does not want the current crop to endure those difficulties.

He intends to be the bridge between the players and their administrators, and has promised to be upfront with all parties – as he is known to be. “Everyone I have played with and the administrative people who knew me know me as a person who does not beat around the bush. Whether I am liked or disliked, people trust me,” he said. “I am trusted by the white community, the black community, the Asian community. Even if we disagree, it’s like brothers in a family. There will be fights but you hope that they don’t fight in public. They know that’s what Tatenda is like and they want to work with someone like that.”

Taibu is confident his suggestions will be taken seriously even if they involve reaching out to people ZC has cut ties with, such as former players. “I would definitely want to involve former players but not just them. I want to reach out to anyone who has dealt with Zimbabwe cricket and has knowledge of it. There are lots of people who have worked in the system who have something to contribute.”

For now, ZC have engaged the services of two big names from one of their neighbouring countries, South Africa. Makhaya Ntini is the interim head coach and Lance Klusener the batting consultant. Taibu hopes both will stay with the team in some capacity, if only because of their stature and the impact that can have.

“I knew Makhaya very well as a player. During the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka in 2002, I was in my early years and he was struggling to make the South Africa team, so we used to train together on the beach,” Taibu remembered. “He definitely has energy and that’s something we need in the country. We have to try and create a unique attitude among players so that cricket becomes known for something in Zimbabwe. Something good.”

For a while, the good in Zimbabwe cricket was known because of players like Taibu. His dedication and determination provided a boost, and already there is excitement over having that back. There is also an anticipation that, at 33, Taibu may consider a comeback of the playing kind too, especially as Zimbabwe are yet to announce a new Test captain. Those wishing for that will be disappointed. Taibu is adamant that is one light that has been turned off. “That’s really gone,” he said. “I have closed the door on coming back to play.”

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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