The 52-year-old Houghton, who still does some consultant jobs in the UK as a batting coach for Northamptonshire county, talent-identification for the England and Wales Cricket Board as well as television commentary, this week spoke to IndependentSport and raised several issues of interest about Zimbabwe cricket.
“I’m here to give back to the game we love and the country we love,” he said.
Chief amongst Houghton’s overview of the situation is an appeal for an early return to Test cricket for Zimbabwe, much earlier than the two-to-three years timeframe targeted by the Zimbabwe cricket board.
Asked when he reckons the Zimbabwe team will start winning games at ODI level against stronger opposition, Houghton said an early Test return is crucial to that effect as it will give the team much-needed game time and practice.
“Look, Zimbabwe took the decision to withdraw from Tests,” Houghton said. “I think we can chose to go back again if we feel we are ready, and I really think it should be sooner than later. ODI cricket is a different game. It’s simpler to play Test. We must try to get going again.
“I know the administrators have their timeframe. But I think by playing in the longer version, it gives you time to hone your skills. It’s good practice for ODI cricket. In ODIs, it’s much more difficult for bowlers because they have to bowl in the right areas consistently; otherwise you get clobbered all over the park.
As a batsman you don’t just have to bat to survive. You take risks. Basically in Test cricket you get time to recover.
“By mid next year all franchises will have played 12 games each. The Zim A will also have played a good number of longer version matches in the Intercontinental Cup. We are getting enough experience. There is nothing to stop us.”
Zimbabwe’s Test comeback, Houghton said, should however start against opposition in the bottom half of the Test rankings.
“Let’s pick sides close to us and then work up the ladder. Let’s get Bangladesh, play them on non-turning wickets. Let’s get West Indies and play them on a turning wicket, because they don’t particularly like wickets that turn.”
The new franchise system in Zimbabwean domestic cricket also received approval from Houghton, who has been working with the franchises’ coaches with the assistance of Englishman Mike Hendrick, a bowling consultant.
“Well, I’ve been surprised by the standards,” Houghton said. “They have certainly been better than I imagined they would be.”
But with big hundreds having been scored so far in the season and excellent bowling figures having been recorded, does Houghton think these feats are anything to go by?
“Look, the hundreds are being scored against good opposition. On the bowling side the spinners have been the best. Don’t know why and how, but look, as a country we are blessed with very good spinners. But it has been good of late to see seamers taking wickets.
“Obviously you want your experienced and better players to be consistent. That’s what has been happening. Vusi (Sibanda) has been brilliant. Stewy (Matsikenyeri), (Brendan) Taylor, Hami (Masakadza)- they have all been consistent. That’s what you expect from your senior players. We’ve seen good contribution from the younger guys too. Jethro (Maudzi), Greg Lamb as well, we’ve seen contribution from a lot of people.”
He said the new spirit of competition in Zimbabwe’s domestic cricket has been the main success of the shakeup.
“We obviously now have strength and depth. You have a very good situation where Vusi was left out of the (national) team and when he went back to first-class cricket, he set the stage alight. That’s the pressure we want. Back in my day we didn’t have that.”
Houghton drew comparison between the Zimbabwe league and other countries.
“It’s obviously not as strong as the English county, South African franchise or Australian state cricket…but the second-tier English county circuit, I think we will be at par with them.
“Look, this is obviously a very good system. Five franchises each with a squad of about 20 players playing throughout the year. Suddenly you have 100 players getting exposure the whole year round. It’s a complete system, it takes care of much more than the technical side of the game. Ten to 15 years ago, we picked the national team from Harare and Bulawayo alone, from about 20 players or so.”
Houghton said of the strengths of the franchises squads: “I think looking at the logs and stats, Mashonaland are at the top. (Manicaland) Mountaineers are a strong side, (but) they lost two evenly-balanced matches. (Southern) Rocks at Masvingo are struggling a bit, for no real reason looking at the squad they have. (But) the most important thing is all matches are evenly-balanced.”
Still in its infancy, the franchise system has also attracted foreign professional players.
Southern Rocks were first to go international, signing experienced Kenyans Steve Tikolo and Thomas Odoyo at the beginning of the season. Few weeks ago, the Kwekwe-based Midwest Rhinos flashed out the cheque book to Riki Wessels, the talented 24-year-old son of former Australia and South Africa player Kepler Wessels.
The former Northamptonshire right-hander Wessels, who qualifies for England, hit a century on his debut against Matabeleland last week.
“It (the franchise system) has received good publicity throughout the world,” Houghton said. “It’s good to have professionals from all over the world. I worked with Riki some years ago. When I came here his dad kept calling me saying ‘will it be good for Riki to play?’ It adds value to have players like that.”
Houghton, who was Zimbabwe’s captain at Test inception in 1992, is considered to be one of Zimbabwe’s best two batsmen in the country’s short Test history.
The other batsman, current England coach Andy Flower, is regarded by Houghton as the finest cricketer this country has ever produced.
“Definitely it’s Andy Flower,” he said. “I think he was probably the best to come out of this country. Peter Rawson was a world-class fast bowler for us before he left. Heath Streak was very good. But Andy Flower would be the best.”