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Cricketer Tatenda Taibu talks Battling Oppression, Becoming Test Cricket’s Youngest Ever Captain & Keeping the Faith

Cricketer Tatenda Taibu talks Battling Oppression, Becoming Test Cricket’s Youngest Ever Captain & Keeping the Faith

Tatenda Taibu throwing a cricket ball in the air outside Formby CC. © The MALESTROM / James Johnson

The story of Zimbabwean cricketer Tatenda Taibu is a remarkable one. From humble beginnings in the township of Highfield, Harare, he made his way through a developmental programme working his way up the sporting ranks to become the youngest captain in the history of Test cricket, and the first black player to skipper Zimbabwe at the tender age of 20.

However, life under the regime of President Robert Mugabe wasn’t easy for the inexperienced new skipper. Suffering threats to his life and that of his wife Loveness, he was even forced to look at images of dead bodies as an intimidation tactic by a government minister, all of which led to him going on the run with his family and temporarily quitting the game at the age of 29.

Thankfully Tatenda Taibu’s story, as told in his brilliant autobiography Keeper of Faith, has a happy ending, and is an inspiration to us all. By maintaining his dignity, standing tall in the face of adversity, and holding firm to his beliefs, he was able to face the forces of oppression, and become a shining light for the greater good.

Right now life couldn’t be more different for Tatenda, as we caught up with him at his new club Formby CC in Merseyside, to talk about his journey into the game. The pressure of taking the captaincy at such a young age, while negotiating the murky and politically charged atmosphere that came with it, while also grabbing some thoughts on the current state of the game.

The MALESTROM: Can we start by talking about your formative years and how you began your journey into the game?

Tatenda Taibu: It all started at a primary school called Chipembere when Zimbabwe cricket had a developmental programme to try and spread the game into the four corners of the country. Because cricket was known as a minority sport, so only the rich played. And Chipembere was one of the three schools in Highfield which was selected for this programme.

So we had a P.E. lesson that the cricket coaches came to and they taught us the basics to see if we liked the sport. On my assessment, it wasn’t so much that I liked the sport, but more that the coach felt I was quite natural. Then he invited me for the afternoon cricket sessions, which was 2pm – 5pm every Monday to Friday. And that’s how I took up the sport.

The Zimbabwe Grounds: the venue of Robert Mugabe’s first post-independence speech, and later the home of Takashinga, the club that gave me my cricketing education.
The Zimbabwe Grounds: Home of Takashinga, the club that gave Tatenda his cricketing education. Credit: Tatenda Taibu

TM: Who were your inspirations? Because in the book you mention not seeing hardly any cricket on TV…

TT: Well it wasn’t so much about watching cricket as I only started to watch cricket a couple of years after I began playing. It was just about it being a new sport that had been introduced to us and me and my friends started playing.

My close friend Stuart Matsikenyeri took it more seriously than I did, because I was more inclined to football. But because the coach thought I was natural he just made sure I was there for practice every time.

TM: And you had certain big influences throughout your career. Bill Flower being one of them….

TT: Oh yes. I had several very good and dedicated coaches. My first coach was Stephen Mangongo, he’s the one I’m talking about that said I was a natural. Then a bit later on my wicketkeeping started with Bill Flower (Father of Test cricketers Andy & Grant Flower).

He created what was called the squad of excellence and the strugglers week, where he would get players from all across the country that he thought were really a cut above the rest, and we would play games or tournaments.

He used to come and get us from Highfield, so he would drive across town to get us and then bring us back after him coaching and umpiring. So when I start to remember that I then understand the dedication he put in. So I think I was quite lucky to have coaches like this who helped my career a great deal.

TM: And the areas he was driving through weren’t reputed as the safest were they?

TT: You would hardly see a white person in the township and at times there were all these demonstrations around those areas and it would be quite dangerous to drive your car through those places.

Bill had his car stoned a couple of times when we were not allowed to drive through these areas because of certain demonstrations. But fair play to the gentleman, he continued to do that.

Vusi Sibanda, me, Stuart Matsikenyeri and Hamilton Masakadza outside Bill Flower’s truck. Credit Tatenda Taibu.
The four musketeers: Vusi Sibanda, Tatenda Taibu, Stuart Matsikenyeri and Hamilton Masakadza outside Bill Flower’s truck. Credit Tatenda Taibu.

TM: Another theme that runs, certainly through the early part of the book, is that of discipline. You were given discipline through your life from coaches and your father, is this something that created your character that we see in the book?

TT: I think a child is moulded by what they see and what they hear. If a lot of what they see and hear is good, then the chances are they will turn out good.

I had a father who was strict in keeping me on the straight and narrow path, and I had coaches that were pretty much the same and I think that’s moulded me into the sort of a character that would think the right thing first before you consider other options.

And most times the right thing only has inner satisfaction. If you’re talking in monetary terms, most of the time the right thing does not have the monetary advantages following. But I have to say I am quite proud to have lived this way for now.

TM: And you had unwavering dedication for the sport. I mean, you had that extra responsibility of having to be the breadwinner for the family. Did that weigh upon you, in terms of knowing you had to make it?

TT: Oh, yes, I knew that there are certain stages that I had to pass, and I couldn’t pass them in any other way. And it had to be cricket, that would make me pass it. The first one was quite early, and that was going to a good High School. And I knew that if I didn’t get a scholarship, then there was no chance for me to go to a good High School.

So I knew that early on and I was meant to realise that by Stephen Mangogngo, my first coach. Even later on in my life, I always was able to realise what I needed to do? And so the dedication came from realising what needed to be done.

TM: I mean, obviously, you were a prodigy, an exceptional talent. You had a great early career. How did it feel when you finally graduated to the national side?

TT: I think a lot of things were happening too fast at that time. Because ever since I got into the under 14’s, things just moved too quickly.

With the World Cup, where initially I was not supposed to have been playing, but just learning from the other guys. I got one opportunity. And I made use of that opportunity, up until the coach then said, “well, you’re going to be my starting XI for the World Cup”.

And then I ended up with a good record. And then just as I arrived back, I was told I had to go and meet the selectors, and I had been selected to go to the West Indies to join the national team there. So, it was happening too fast for me to realise, you know, the achievement.

TM: To process it? There was too much going on?

TT: There was too much going on. I think it happened like that for a lot of other events, that it’s only now when I reflect, or actually when I started writing the book that I realised some of the things

TM: How much were you able to separate yourself from the huge political upheaval going on at the time? Were you able to sort of compartmentalise it?

TT: Well, my character is such that if I put my eyes on one thing, I don’t take my eyes off that. And I think that character is just in your makeup. So, when I was on a cricket field, and even now when I’m on the cricket field, everything else dies out.

So, in terms of the political situation having any disturbance to my cricket, when I was out there in the middle, I don’t think I did anything.

However, there came a time when I couldn’t separate them. Now, this is the time when I had just been made captain. And I had to now go for several meetings, and I had to meet reputable people in Zimbabwe. And all of a sudden, now the two were moving in parallel lines.

I had to keep my eyes on that. I struggled to deal with that. Because if I had to carry on playing, and putting my hundred per cent in on the field, then I couldn’t ignore that. Because it was affecting some of my players, and I was now in a leadership role.

I had become friends, close friends to most of the team members. And when you understand the problems that this player has and this other player has, it has got a bearing on how you treat them out in the field. And that is what I struggle to deal with.

TM: And it must be quite a burden at that age. I mean a fantastic achievement, becoming the youngest test Captain. But that must have weighed heavily on the shoulders, having to deal with all that responsibility?

TT: Oh, yeah, that was quite heavy. I think that’s one of the few times, I think the two times in my career when I thought you know what, let me leave it. Because you’ve got young players who are still growing. And some of them are fast bowlers, and you’ve got good potential.

But you also know that this fast bowler is the breadwinner at his house. And if he gets injured, there is no medical aid for him to look after him. And he will probably just be put aside by Zimbabwe cricket who will look for someone else. And that’ll be the end of it. And what about that situation that I already know, in his house.

So I knew that the players would give everything on the field for me. And I know that even if I was to ask a fast bowler who was now tired as he’s bowled 15 overs. And I would say to him, give me three of your best, at four o’clock, he will do that.

But he will do that putting his body at risk for me. But then I would always have it at the back of my mind, what if this guy gets injured? So that was a heavy burden for me to carry at a young age. However, you know, I then decided that’s the end of it. When all the threats started happening.

TM: I mean, I’m sure it’s hard to talk about, but the intimidation factors that went on then, it certainly must have been a hard time for your family?

TT: Yeah, that was very difficult. You know, just being an excited boy, who wants to do well, for his country, who wants to be world number one at some stage, all of a sudden everything changes. And now, you have to be going for all these meetings, board meetings and things. And you start realising that, oh, it’s not as I imagined or thought.

So I then decided that I’ll do what a captain should do, which is to stand up for his players. And when I started doing that, it then got quite dangerous. Where, you know, I started getting calls.

And during that time, I met the Vice President, I met the governor, I met the President, I met several ministers. And I thought, well, we’re not really going anywhere with this. And that’s when I decided I’m going to retire. So, I then put my reasons for retiring. And then the Vice President wanted to know why I was retiring.

So, on the other side of the coin, I was this boy, who is mad about cricket, being accepted in the black community. And kids are now playing cricket on the streets, as opposed to football. Now, the Vice President obviously is concerned because if I’m now retiring, what then happens to the excitement of the sport, which she was right to say that, you know, that should be used to develop the sport even more.

So she wanted to know and I told her I said, look all this stuff’s happening, I’m getting threatened and I just told her what had been going on, and the governor put security at my place. And, and I was in touch with him, you know, whenever I got a call, or whenever there were cars following me.

I think he managed to deal with the situation for about two weeks. Up until Loveness nearly got kidnapped. Before she nearly got kidnapped I was called in for a meeting with Bright Matonga, who was the Minister for Information. And he pretty much just threatened me or instilled a lot of fear in me.

Tatenda Taibu and his soulmate Loveness on their wedding day
Tatenda and his soulmate Loveness on their wedding day. Credit: Tatenda Taibu

TM: And that’s when he showed you those pictures…

TT: Yes. So, he just chucked some pictures on the table. This was after we had chatted for about 20 to 30 minutes. So initially, he offered me a farm which I turned down. And then he showed me the pictures, just through an envelope. He went and put it on the table and then went and looked out the window.

Well, the first thing that came into my mind was, I’ve seen this on TV, it actually does happen, you know, so now I was thinking, What’s in there? Is it money? If it’s money, what does he want me to do with it? And what is it for? But my mind was running in line with movies that I’d watched.

But he didn’t say anything, so I took the envelope, I opened it and I saw that there were pictures, quite a thick bunch. So, I started looking at those pictures and they were pictures of dead people.

So, I couldn’t process what that was all about, what the message was to me. But then, because I didn’t have anything direct that I could say, he’s done that because of this, or this is this, I think I was able to have the strength to carry on.

And then we continued for about another week. And then Loveness went for a walk around the neighbourhood. And then she almost got kidnapped. And that was the final straw for us.

We decided you know what, it would have been nice to continue to play for the country and to lead the country. But when it gets like this, we didn’t feel free, we didn’t feel free at our home. Even with the security that was there. And then when we left the house, we were always checking, you know, the cars that were following.

We had several times when we had cars following us or cars were just parked in our gate or just along the concrete wall. And we wouldn’t open the gate. Because if you open the gate, it was a remote one. So if you open the gate, if someone gets in, then what do you do. Several times we would go to a friend’s place up until 1am. Then we’d be calling the gardener to find out if those cars had left. That’s when you really appreciate being free.

TM: You must have felt quite betrayed? I don’t know if it’s by your country or by the government. I mean, was it both?

TT: I never really got to understand, you know, even now, because the vice president was ZANU-PF. And she protected us and then Gideon Gono is ZANU-PF or was, and he protected us, and the people that were calling us and threatening us were ZANU-PF.

So to now understand what exactly was going on? We never could really put the puzzle together even to this day. Because on one end, it’s the ZANU-PF people or those two in particular. But then all the other ones that called us, I don’t know who, because they never mentioned their names. They were ZANU-PF as well.

So, I think the biggest betrayal that I felt was probably from the players. Because all these fights started when I was fighting for the players.

And when I then went to Bangladesh, a friend of mine, a young man called Thomas, he kept me informed on the proceedings, and the same players who had signed to say that we will stand with you Tatenda.

All of a sudden they had been offered whatever they were offered. And then they stopped the stand. So that, for me, was more painful than what was happening with the government because that I couldn’t work out what was really going on?

A grainy newspaper cut out of me and Hamilton with the country’s president, Robert Mugabe. Credit: Tatenda Taibu
A grainy newspaper cut out of Tatenda & friend Hamilton with Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe. Credit: Tatenda Taibu

TM: Did you feel that sense of freedom return once you left the game for that period?

TT: Oh, yes. I mean, I say to people now, you just don’t understand when you’re free, you just don’t understand how important that is. It’s not nice, walking around and looking over your shoulder, because you think someone is following you.

You have that in the back of your mind. It’s not nice to just hear a sound in the house and you think the worst, and you can’t really sleep at night. So it’s very, very difficult.

And once I got to Bangladesh, I still wasn’t free, because my wife and TJ could not come with me. TJ had not had his passport as yet. And so I still wasn’t free. You know, because I was still worrying about what was going on back home. But when I came back and got them and came over here, we really felt free and safe.

TM: One of the other big figures in your life was Andy Flower, he obviously famously made his own stance. Did that give you strength later?

TT: I think no. Because I felt that stand was different. I mean, Andy’s stand was braver than mine, because it was directly aimed at the president. And mine was still under cricket.

And I pretty much feared for Andy and Henry, when they made their stand. However, Andy has been like a brother to me. And when I was making the decision, he was one of the few people that I called, just to ask his opinion. So I said, “Look, this is what I’m thinking of doing. And I’m worried.”

He said, “Because you’ve said this is what you’re thinking of doing. I know you’ve already made your mind up that you’re going to do it”. I said, “I just need someone who will tell me the truth. What do you think about that decision?” And he said,

“You do realise that the chances are very slim, that you will change anything? At the end of it all, are you going to be happy? If that’s the last game that you’ve played for Zim because there might not be a chance for you to represent Zimbabwe again. And you are talented. You’ve got lots more runs and catches to take. If that’s the end of your career, the end of the line, are you going to have any regrets? And those are questions that you’ve got to answer.”

But I said to him, that as long as I feel I’m doing the right thing, I think I’ll be able to live with that. At the end of the day, it’s really up to me. He respected me for standing up for what’s right and that could never be taken away from me. But those are the things that you’ve got to look at.

So, I mean, Andy has always been a guy who’ll just tell you the truth as it is, even on the field. If he felt that I had messed up in a way he would say, “no, Tatenda you are better than that, you messed up there,” he would just be direct. So, I knew he was one of the people that would be able to tell me exactly what was on their mind.

Andy Flower batting for Zimbabwe
Andy Flower batting for Zimbabwe

TM: Obviously faith is a massive part of your life. But how important was it throughout all the turmoil you were you were going?

TT: It wasn’t big then because I hadn’t started that that part of my life. However, I was just a person who wanted to do what was right. Yes, I believe that it could have helped a great deal during that time.

I remember stumbling into a church after the pressure was getting to me. And I just believed that I would feel better if I spend a bit of time in the church. I didn’t pray, I didn’t do anything. I just went in there sat on the bench and slept. So, I believe I’ve always believed.

I heard a story from some time ago about a farmer who picked up an egg. That egg was from an eagle. And he put it up among the eggs for the hens that he had. And obviously, when it was time to hatch, the eaglet came out and the eaglet was moving like a hen. But one day the mother eagle came. And when that eaglet saw that mother eagle and heard the mother eagle scream, she realised the scream.

So, I’ve always believed there was some part, some part of faith in me, even without me realising. And later on when the call came, it was easy for me to realise, but I was an eaglet from the start. So, I believe, maybe in a premature way, faith played a part for me to go through those difficult periods.

TM: Looking at your own performances on the pitch, you made some significant impact. What was your career highlight? And obviously you’ve got three World Records, which is incredible, but what’s one of your fondest memories or highlights on the pitch?

TT: I think the first one is when I was player of the tournament in under 19 World Cup. Because I was captaining, I was bowling, I was keeping, I was batting number three. And we ended up being nine but I ended up being player of the tournament, it’s one of the achievements that I hold dear.

One of the hundreds against South Africa in Harare was quite special. Not so much that hundred, but the series. So that was a 40 before the hundred. And I think that was my first experience of playing in the zone. When you hear players say about being in the zone. I think that was my first experience of that.

I then had that same experience several times against South Africa. For some reason, I never managed to get into the same atmosphere against other teams. I don’t know why. That series was quite special because I somehow could tell that I was going to score a 100 the following match.

And I even said it to one of the journalists, because he said “well played, that was an amazing innings” and I said “but the next one, I’m going to get hundred” and I got 107 not out. Because when you get into the zone, you don’t feel like you will do anything wrong.

If I had played in that atmosphere for a lot of the games, I would have had a massive career. But those are definitely some of my special ones. Obviously, 153 against Bangladesh from a position of being in trouble.

You see, unfortunately, as you might have realised in the book that I don’t mention a lot of positives about the actual cricket. Because I always believe that if my innings are not good enough to make the team win, they’re not worthy of mentioning. So, yes, I did have some good innings, but we ended up losing. So that’s why I don’t mention more of that.

TM: How do you see the state of Zimbabwe cricket? You must have been disappointed that they didn’t make the current World Cup? How do you see things now?

TT: I think Zimbabwe cricket has been struggling for the past 15 years simply because of the bad governance of the sport. It’s continuing even now. Just recently, I think last week, I heard that the sports and recreation commission suspended the board.

I’ve been in board meetings, and I know of a particular board member that didn’t even know what an ‘over’ is. So that gives you an indication of how bad things are in terms of governance in the country. It will continue to get worse if something is not done. And I believe it can be fixed. Should the right people come in place.

TM: You’ve tried to keep the game alive in the country haven’t you?

TT: Yeah, well, I went back and was the convener of selectors and head of the Academy. And Heath Streak came back at the same time.

And because I’ve got a good relationship with Brendan Taylor, and others, I convinced them to come back and there was a good vibe about Zimbabwe, that was 2016 to 2017. And then now we failed to qualify. And again, they just made emotional decisions.

TM: Bangladesh is doing well in the World Cup, Zimbabwe had a lot of input into their development. How do you see them?

TT: When I went to Bangladesh in 2005, when I had to run away from Zim. I came back and I told Stuart, look at Bangladesh, because I had gone to live with them, and realised that they were not playing in terms of their structures, they were really putting in some work.

Now, I was playing what’s the equivalent of Premier League cricket. Now, there were 12 teams in that. Now, the teams that were feeding into this Premier League, with 38. And the teams that were feeding into those 38 with 32. I said, so numbers-wise, we cannot compete, a lot of countries will not compete.

But now what was really fascinating, and one of my friends Reaz Al-Mamoon was the owner of the team that I played for, he was on the board, and Reaz is a very successful businessman. I think his company is one of the top five clothing companies in Bangladesh. And he was simply just using his money to develop cricket.

When he was in charge of City Club, he also convinced the government to reserve some space for a stadium. And three years later, they had a stadium. And he was trying to secure another stadium because a lot of events happen in Dhaka, and not in the other places. And they were trying to secure another piece of land for another stadium. This is in 2005. They had foresight, so that shows that these people knew what they were doing.

Now I had lived with them, I had spent time with Reaz and I was able to come back and say, this is what other countries are doing. We’re not doing that. They were getting, 60 something million pounds over an eight-year period.

But with that they’ve managed to build a stadium, the players are paid well, their cricket is growing. Whereas other countries, Zimbabwe, for example, gets more than Bangladesh or was getting more than Bangladesh. We don’t even own a single asset. So that’s just a comparison of the governance of sport in two different countries.

Tatenda Taibu holding a cricket ball outside Formby CC. © The MALESTROM / James Johnson
Credit: © The MALESTROM

TM: Another thing I wanted to touch on was the pay structure, because, traditionally Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have been right at the bottom in terms of how the wealth is distributed within the sport. What’s your take on that?

TT: Well, you see, Bangladesh’s players were not paid well then. But they changed that for themselves. If I’m now to answer your question from the ICC, I don’t think it’s fair. Because if anything, the weaker countries will need more.

India, for example, gets I think the most, but India generates around 64% on their own. And the funding that they get from ICC is only 30 whatever. Whereas Zimbabwe cricket generates 1%. And they get 99% from ICC. So, who needs more money there?

However, if I were to look at the flip side, there is bad governance, would you then trust people that that are not accountable where funding is concerned, for them to have a lot of money. So, it will be an ongoing debate that will have no end.

TM: And just look at the World Cup. Obviously, it’s a shorter form of the game. We seem to be getting more and more limited overs. It’s going to be 100 balls in this country soon as well. So what do you think about the way the game is heading?

TT: Well, I think it depends on what an individual is looking at. So, if the ICC is looking at it with a financial eye, then yes, that is the way to go. If they’re looking at it from the growth of sport globally, then that is not the right call.

Because you’ll have shorter games, quicker games, easier for viewership. So ending up with more money. Same with the World Cup, you have 10 teams, strong, closely contested, that’s good for the TV rights, therefore more money at the end. With the tv deals that the ICC will have. That will equal more money.

But now let’s go back, say to the 1970s when the West Indies used to rule world cricket. Now, there was not a lot of money then. So, was it cricket that brought money? Or was it money that brought cricket? So I reckon you look after the cricket, the money will always follow.

TM: The power plays and all the recent developments like that they’ve benefited the batsman, certainly more than the bowlers?

TT: Well they do, they do. I’ve got my own view on cricket, I believe that cricket is a bowler’s game rather than a batsman’s game. Now the reason is I look more at the longer format.

Now, if I have a good batting team that can score 900, but I don’t have the bowlers to bowl the other team out twice, then the best result I can have is a draw.

But if I’ve got a team that has got bowlers that are good enough to take 20 wickets in a Test Match, then one, my best result that I can get in a match is a win. But number two, the quality that my batsmen are going to get in the nets or during practice is going to be of a high standard. Therefore, without a doubt, the batsman will improve.

So, I always look at the bowling first before I look at the batting. Though, I know everyone thinks it’s a batsman’s game. So that’s changed now, it sort of gets the bowlers out of it. And once you get the bowlers out of it, then the batsmen will not improve at a rate that they should.

TM: And just looking at your current situation, is that the reason why you’ve been taking up bowling as of late?

TT: (Laughs) I’ve always enjoyed bowling. I was mentioning earlier about the World Cup, the World Cup in New Zealand in 2002. I was keeping wicket for 15 overs, then I’d bowl ten overs straight, then I’d keep again.

As long as I’m out on the field, as long as I’m busy doing something, I’m happy and I enjoy bowling. I enjoy bowling as much as I enjoy keeping or fielding, as long as I’m on the field. But, yeah, it’s nice to bowl and get some wickets from time to time (laughs).

Tatenda Taibu holding a cricket ball outside Formby CC. © The MALESTROM / James Johnson
Tatenda outside Formby CC. Credit: © The MALESTROM

TM: And you’re happy up here at Formby CC? It’s a lovely sunny day here at the ground.

TT: Yeah, I’m loving it here. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed the weather stays like this for a couple more weeks because the summer hasn’t been good up to date.

TM: We always finish by asking for a piece of wisdom. Is there anything that stands out from your career you’d like to share with our readers?

TT: Well, the one that I’ve lived by is, it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, what counts is the number of times you get back up and fight again. And that has kept me going through several patches of my life thus far.

Keeper of Faith by Tatenda Taibu, published by deCoubertin Books is out now.

Keeper_of_Faith front cover

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