THE sight of any professional athlete, who could have represented Zimbabwe plying his trade for another nation at the expense of his country of birth, has always stirred mixed emotions among local sports enthusiasts.
BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
While the natural reaction is usually of disappointment at seeing “the one that got away” excelling for another nation, there is also an unmistakable sense of pride towards athletes who would have reached lofty heights for their adopted countries.
For the Zimbabwe cricket community, it will be another bittersweet experience as they will have to watch with both envy and pride as players that could have represented the country line up for their adopted nations — England and Australia — in this year’s eagerly-anticipated Ashes series.
The Ashes series, widely considered one of the biggest rivalries in world cricket and sport in general, will be played at five venues across Australia between November 23 and January 8 2018.
And for the first time in its 135 year-old series history, both England and Australia are expected to feature players with Zimbabwean roots.
Three players who trace their roots to Zimbabwe are expected to showcase their talent in this year’s edition of the game’s oldest rivalry, which promises to be as nail-biting as ever.
The duo of Tom Curran and Gary Balance have already been included in the England squad while another Zimbabwe-born player, Hilton Cartwright, is being widely touted to be included in the Australia squad which will be announced this week.
Curran (22) became the third player in a select group of cricketers with Zimbabwean links who have donned the Three Lions colours in a period stretching for more than three decades from the time of Bulawayo-born Paul Parker.
Parker, a stylish middle order batsman, who was considered unlucky to be limited to a solitary Test at the Oval against Australia, blazed a trail by earning his first and only England cap in 1981.
A decade would pass until another Zimbabwean represented England when Graeme Hick made his debut against the West Indies in 1991 before Balance got his chance 12 years later in 2013.
Curran, the son of former Zimbabwe an player and coach Kevin and the oldest of three brothers, who have been tipped to take English cricket by storm in the future, completed a hatrick of Zimbabweans who have represented in England when he made his debut five months ago.
Below, The Sports Hub profiles the three Zimbabwean players, who will feature for England and Australia in the upcoming Ashes series in Australia.
Curran was born in Cape Town, South Africa but grew up in Zimbabwe with his brothers, Sam and Ben (who were both born in Northampton), attending Springvale House preparatory school and St George’s College in Harare.
Sam (19) is at English County side Surrey together with Tom while Ben (21) was part of the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) Young Cricketers programme last season.
The family endured terrible upheaval in 2004 when they lost their farm in Rusape in the Eastern Highlands at the height of the controversial land reform programme.
Tom left Zimbabwe to attend boarding school at Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and it was there that his cricketing talents caught the eye of Surrey, who facilitated scholarships at Wellington College in Berkshire for all three Curran brothers.
A month after they had started at the school in 2012, though, tragedy struck back in Zimbabwe as their father, who represented Zimbabwe at the 1983 and 1987 World Cup tournaments, suddenly died after collapsing while out jogging.
Kevin, the former Zimbabwe coach, was just 53 and had a reputation for being one of the fittest cricketers to have played the game.
“We’re glad that’s behind us,” Tom, who made his debut for England in a T20 international against South Africa in June, said recently.
“We stuck together as a family and we’ll crack on. We have many inspirations but we think a lot about him when we’re playing and if he was here, he would be very proud. We know he’s watching us from up top.”
Curran, who was also eligible to represent Zimbabwe, Ireland and South Africa, was quickly snapped by England, who handed him his maiden call-up for the Twenty20 series against South Africa in June
He immediately made a positive impression when he took five wickets in the two T20 internationals against South Africa.
Curran’s major highlight so far came when he claimed the prize wicket of the big-hitting West Indies superstar Chris Gayle on his One Day International (ODI) — stopping him in his tracks after the big-hitter smashed four sixes and three fours for his 40 off just 21 balls.
Much is expected of Curran as he won the Cricket Writer’s Club Young Cricketer of the Year in 2015 and the PCA Young Player of the Year in the same campaign. The same awards have been won by the likes of Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Andrew Flintoff, and previously Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham and David Gower.
Sadly, it will be for the Three Lions and not for Zimbabwe — who would be wondering what a valuable addition he would have been to the Chevrons.
Born in Harare on February 14 1992, Cartwright spent most of his early childhood at his family’s farm in Marondera, where his parents farmed tobacco and paprika before they relocated to Australia after being forced to abandon their property during the chaotic land distribution scheme at the turn of the millennium.
He was only 11 when his family moved to Perth, where his cricket prowess was evident early. Until that time, Cartwright’s ambition had been to follow in the wake of players such as Heath Streak (now national coach) and the Flower brothers Andy and Grant (the latter now Pakistan’s batting coach) who were stars in the golden era of Zimbabwean cricket.
“Since I was five, it had always been my goal to play for Zimbabwe, but when our situation changed and we came here [Australia], I wanted to get that Baggy Green [Australian Test cap],” Cartwright said recently.
“My mum, the other day, was telling me how when we moved over [to Perth] I said ‘oh, I can’t play for Zimbabwe anymore’,”
“And then mum was like ‘but you can play for Australia now’, and I just flicked the switch then and there.
“I was like ‘okay, I’ll try and get a Baggy Green [cap] then’.
“So I [was] pretty easily convinced when I was younger, it didn’t take much.”
The promising batting allrounder, who grew up idolising South African great Jacques Kallis, is currently the favourite for Australia’s Test number six berth and recently received the backing of Aussie Test great Justin Langer.
Cartwright currently leads an open race for the middle order berth with Glenn Maxwell, while the likes of Shaun Marsh, Kurtis Patterson, Marcus Stoinis, Daniel Hughes, Travis Head and Joe Burns, among others, are also under consideration.
He averaged 27,5 in his only two Tests for Australia thus far against Pakistan and Bangladesh — and he also offers handy right-arm pace that could prove useful if Australia decide against playing a genuine allrounder.
Gary Ballance looked destined to pursue an international cricket career with Zimbabwe when he represented the country at the 2006 ICC Under-19 World Cup aged just 16 years old.
The young side featured several players who would go on to represent the country, including current national team captain Graeme Cremer, Sean Williams, Chamu Chibhabha, Taurai Muzarabani and Keegan Meth among others.
Ironically, Ballance’s highlight of the tournament was taking three wickets and top-scoring with the bat in a win over England, the country he had already settled on moving to in order to pursue a career after being offered the chance to attend Harrow School in London on a sport scholarship.
He said his decision to move to England was “tough”, but “right”. “It was just in the interests of my career. I knew that if I wanted to play cricket, England would be the best place to do it. When I came over, I got a lot of help from Dave Houghton and that made the decision easier.”
While at Harrow, Ballance briefly played for county side Derbyshire, where his uncle, the legendary former Zimbabwe Test batsman Dave Houghton, was coach from 2004 until his resignation in 2007.
He signed an academy contract with Yorkshire in 2007, making his debut a year later alongside his soon-to-be England colleague and current skipper Joe Root.
During the winter off-seasons, Balance plied his trade for Mid-West Rhinos in Zimbabwe’s domestic competition.
Although Balance enjoyed a storming start to his England career after his debut in 2013, the former Springvale House and Peterhouse Boys’ School pupil has endured an indifferent run of form in international cricket.
Ballance has enjoyed a solid season with Yorkshire, but his record with England has faltered since 2015.
Having scored higher than 50 runs 11 times for England, the fact that only two of them have come in his last 13 appearances, raised eyebrows about his inclusion for the series Down Under.
The resulting pressure has left Ballance facing a challenge that he’s relishing.
“It will be a massive challenge, probably one of the biggest I will face as a cricketer. I love a challenge and can’t wait,” he said.
“I’m going to work as hard as ever. I’m going to have a week off now and then work as hard as I can. When I do go to Oz, I’ll be ready to perform.”