Down-to-earth, fluent in Shona, friendly and with a taste for life on the fast lane, Blignaut was a firm favourite with Zimbabwean cricket fans and teammates.
He was the golden boy of Zimbabwe cricket.
The first blow for his legion of fans was in 2004 when a bitter strike by the “rebel” white players not only robbed the national team of Blignaut, but 14 other experienced international cricketers.
Blignaut later made a brief comeback to the team, but another mass walkout by players dissatisfied with their contracts in 2005 saw the fiery all-rounder recoil to the periphery again.
Happily, the gradual return of exiled players to the fold has also lured Blignaut, who marked his comeback in Matabeleland Tuskers colours during the recent Stanbic Twenty20 series. He could not bowl in the tournament due to a strain on his groin muscle, but at the crease it was clear he had lost none of his trademark aggression in the mid-innings.
The veteran of 19 Tests and 51 ODIs is now heavily tipped to make Zimbabwe’s squad for the ICC World Twenty20 in the West Indies in May.
But the Andy who has re-emerged is a different man altogether, now married as he is to Kariba-bred Nicola and blessed with one-year old twins Kian and Michael.
He says settling down has been the “most meaningful thing” he has done.
“I’m a more mature man now,” Blignaut tells IndependentSport. “I’m less likely to do crazy things. Well, everyone misses those days when there was no responsibility, when you just lived the dream. But when you get mature other things take priority, as opposed to the glamorous lifestyle.”
Hailing from an Afrikaner family, Arnoldus Mauritius Blignaut (yep, that’s his real name) was born 31 years ago in Harare and had a rugged upbringing on the family farm in Chivhu.
These days Blignaut stays in Bulawayo where he has farming and mining interests in the region.
“Originally ndinobva ku Chivhu. Ndiko kunogara mai wangu saka ndinopota ndichidzoka (I’m from Chivhu. My mother still stays there and I constantly go back,” he says.
Blignaut is not new to Matabeleland. On leaving Ruzawi Junior School in Marondera he went to Falcon College in Esigodini before the magnet of Harare enticed him to Eaglesvale High.
“It’s a funny story. I grew up in the bush so I was kind of seeking the city lifestyle. Now I find myself looking for the quiet life again, where I belong. I live 6kms away from Falcon. Ku Harare ndinombouya, but kunotyisa. Isusu tajaira mudondo, tinotsvaga quiet life (I come to Harare once in a while, but it scares me. People like me are used to the bush), ” he explains.
“Bulawayo suits me more. It’s the place for the mature man. There is less of the carnival atmosphere. Nice, quiet place to live without the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
He links his childhood to his rapid rise in international cricket.
“I think it plays a role,” he says. “When you grow up on a farm or kumusha you don’t have too many people to impress. It allows you to be yourself, not a pretender. In cricket being yourself allows you to know your weaknesses and strengths without deceiving yourself and others.”
On his return, Blignaut was instantly drafted into Zimbabwe’s provisional squad for the ongoing West Indies tour. He didn’t make the touring party, but he will soon become a key figure in the team in the run up to the much-anticipated Test return.
“Basically when I went into exile I had outstanding issues with Zimbabwe Cricket, they owed me money,” he says. “We’ve since resolved the issues in good faith. For now I will continue to practise and get ready for any games I’m required to play.”
The time away from cricket made Blignaut appreciate how important the game is to him. “I missed the game, the atmosphere and the challenge of competing against the best in the world,” he professes. “I missed representing my country. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I played county cricket in England and first-class cricket in Australia, but I traded all that to come back and play for my country.”
Aggressive with both his right-arm pace bowling and batting, “Bligs” is a player who gives his captain options. Four years after he played his last international game against India in Harare, Blignaut still sees his role as that of a genuine, match-winning all-rounder.
“I think I bring ability to score boundaries in the middle of the innings, I enjoy fielding and I’m likely to make a run out or take a brilliant catch. I’ve got ability to change a game. On a good day I can win a game for any team.”
But his bowling is primarily his forte, and he remarks: “I always attack and try to get a wicket. I’m used as a strike bowler. I don’t see myself as a bowler who keeps the run rate down, my job is to take wickets.
Ja, I think I can still do the job, bowl 135 plus. I just need to make sure that the body is fit enough. The ability is there, as long as the body is able to sustain.”
Blignaut is happy to rejoin a team he believes is evolving.
“Basically the guys have turned a corner. They’ve got the talent to play, definitely. Experience will help, and obviously people like me who know what to do in pressure situations are needed.
I thing the franchise system is the right way to go about. We’ve improved our standards. We got good talent in batting. I feel we are lacking in the bowling attack. If we play franchise cricket like this, the whole year round, we will be closer to Test cricket.”