Not by design which might well then pass as bias, but for the simple reason that their sheer determination in the face of adversity is truly remarkable. It is a cause for great concern and pity to me and everyone who loves rugby in Zimbabwe that these proud ambassadors and unsung heroes of our nation’s sports do not get rewarded and recognised as much as their sometimes mercenary football and pampered cricket counterparts.
I keenly follow rugby from the schoolboy (which is of a very good quality by international standards) to the Sables level; in fact ever since our own schooldays when pulling over one’s provincial or national colours made you the pride of the whole school and community. To this day that passion still spills to the national team. Those who are old enough and lucky to have witnessed the best of Zim rugby still speak and write glowingly of the heyday when the British Lions, Wales or All Blacks would come to the Police Grounds in Harare and get a good run for their money. Their nostalgia is indeed justifiable.
But I refuse to admit, hopefully not naively, that the present-day Zimbabwe rugby player is less talented and less dedicated to his sport and country. It is just the circumstances that are different. For us among the younger generations, when Tonderai Chavhanga — regarded by Jake White as the fastest Springbok of all time — says he doesn’t believe he is the best player of his generation during his days in Zimbabwe, we do not think he is just being humble because we were around when the likes of Piet Benade, Alfred Sairai, Daniel Hondo and David Cloete were probably the better-rated players.
And that players like Hondo and Sairai are still bona fide Zimbabwe national team players speaks volume of this country’s wonderful potential. To go with the talent, the passion has never ebbed. I’ve seen guys in the national side — black and white — getting lost in a wave of emotion and failing to suppress tears at the national anthems, all singing along heads raised high.
Just the one problem with rugby players in Zim is that they don’t react that well if someone screws them up. They understand that there is no money in their sport, but if you say for example you are going to pay them a dollar for allowances or any form of payment, it must be delivered when it is due. In some instances someone has tried to be clever and deprived them of even that dollar.
I’ve seen the Zimbabwe Sevens team players being flown to Dubai and Hong Kong and different places in Africa, being booked in five-star hotels before returning home with nothing but their sponsored kits, with no money to even buy and bring home presents for families who are so patient with them through their unrewarding rugby careers.
But with time, the perseverance usually pays off and that is why Manasah Sita, a red hot talent from Mbare, is sending shock waves across Germany right now with a lucrative move to France on the cards. That is why Augustine Mberi, dusty beginnings and all at Shabanie Mine, has made a mark on the club scene in England for the better part of seven years.
Yet despite better circumstances and more money, broader opportunities and better facilities and conditions, our cricketers have continued to take the nation for a ride.
And they really cannot make any more excuses now. The excuse about lack of experience that had become a template can no longer hold water. What do they have to say for themselves now?
Bangladesh, a younger, less experienced and far- less remunerated side — in fact, a team whose senior players’ contracts are dwarfed by most of the Zimbabwe team — came here and won 4-1 last August. And some of the people in the Zimbabwe team had the temerity to tell us how close the games were, how the team was in it four out of the five times, nudging us to celebrate mediocrity.
And it is the same story, day-in-day out. We saw the horror show in those ODIs in the West Indies.
What rubs it in is that we’ve seen players from other countries, barely 20 caps under their belts, become consistent international performers and match-winners for their countries.
There are guys in that Zimbabwe team who have over 100 caps that haven’t done anything worthwhile for the team and country. These are so-called senior players who when called upon to carry the team on their shoulders often crumble apart under pressure. The call for these players to start taking ownership of their game has been unanswered for too long.
In all honesty, everything that had to be been done has been done for this crop of players. Considerable sums of board funds have been invested into their development. And then the best they can give back is bullying little Kenya, set artificial records — only to shun responsibility when it matters most.
Its time our cricketers find themselves again, become ordinary men again off field and performers on it.
When I was at the IPL in South Africa last year, fans and journalists alike were touched by the great humility and good nature most of the greats of the game ooze. Their demeanour belies the illustrious achievements and records; career feats which reduce our egocentric cricketers into triviality.
Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya, Matty Hayden to name just a few have the right to blow their own horns. You almost expect them to, but what you see behind the huge wall of those staggering records are normal human beings who seem burdened by their iconic status which they just want to shake off. Unlike footballers, international cricketers have a liking for the laid-back life — enjoying a chat over a beer and a laugh as much as the next guy.
I can use examples closer to home. As schoolboys we collected autographs from Andy Flower, Heath Streak, Paul Strang and Eddo Brandes when they were Zimbabwe internationals. They are still the same men now: approachable, dedicated and unassuming.
But then when you think about it again, you see exactly why these guys are the distinguished blokes they are. There is a fine dividing line. It’s not just the talent; all-round qualities contribute to sporting greatness.
That’s where our friends in this Zimbabwe national team miss it.