Players at Takashinga Cricket Club in Harare

The Takashinga transformation: the club has been instrumental in the growth of cricket in Zimbabwe

© Tristan Holme

Highfield of dreams

How a high-density suburb in Harare pushed cricket in Zimbabwe across the racial divide

Tristan Holme  |  

There is a connection between Hamilton Masakadza and the boy holding a piece of firewood.

More than two decades ago in this neighbourhood, Masakadza was handed a foreign object and taught the game based around it. He went on to use it to become the first black Zimbabwean to score a Test century, inspiring the next generation of black cricketers in the country. Now cricket is embedded in Highfield. Masakadza looks on as a child finds a well-shaped piece of firewood and uses it to protect a pole in a pick-up game on a dusty school ground.

Over the past 12 years, the group of players at the heart of Zimbabwe's national team has come from Highfield, a high-density suburb in south-western Harare. It is no great surprise that the first surge of black cricket players in Zimbabwe emerged from here. The country's liberation movements were born here in the 1960s, when three of the foremost black nationalists - Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe - all lived in the area. Some of Zimbabwe's top musicians, including the legendary Oliver Mtukudzi, were born and raised here, and so were a handful of eminent business people.

This is fertile ground, and Main Street represents the supply line along which its produce flows to the rest of the city. Drive into Highfield along Main Street and Elton Chigumbura's childhood home will be down a side road to your left, Vusi Sibanda's on your right. A left into 111th Street will lead to two landmarks - Chipembere Primary School on your left, and on your right a large complex with rows of three-storey flats for policemen, where Prosper Utseya and Stuart Matsikenyeri grew up. Further on, across a small vlei, Tatenda Taibu's family had their small home.

Masakadza lived in a different part of the neighbourhood, on the corner of Seventh and Chaka, and attended a different junior school, Mbizi. But the game's adhesive qualities meant that he became close friends with his Chipembere counterparts: Taibu, Sibanda, Chigumbura, Matsikenyeri and Utseya.

The Shona word "Takashinga" embodies a basket of values. "'We believe in ourselves' or 'We thrive to do well' or 'We remain firm'"

When we drive into the police complex, with Masakadza's friendly demeanour disarming the policeman at the gate, he shows me the unfinished and unused buildings where Sibanda would give him throwdowns on free afternoons, helping him overcome a "slow start" in the game.

Masakadza more than caught up. On a July day in 2001, aged just 17, he ground his way to three figures against West Indies at Harare Sports Club, and into the record books. The innings nudged open the door for a race, a culture and a new generation. Cricket culture had officially crossed the racial divide in Zimbabwe.

The first time that cricket came to Highfield with ambitions of putting down proper roots, it rode in on a bicycle. The year was 1986, and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union had secured sponsorship from a local crisps company to provide facilities and coaching in black areas. But issuing a vehicle to their coach, Lazarus Zizhou, was beyond their means, and Zizhou was tasked with teaching the game to children in two other townships. A bicycle simply had to do.

Zizhou had learnt the game from a white headmaster in Highfield in the years before independence, and been involved in Stragglers, a non-racial club formed by the eminent architect Robert Spencer-Parker back in 1959. But those initiatives were minor transplants - saplings plonked in otherwise barren fields with minimal support. What Zizhou and the ZCU began to do in 1986 was sow seeds in a wider pattern, with compost and irrigation included.

While Chipembere would become the suburb's best-known school because of the success of Taibu's generation, this was largely due to timing. The ZCU's first centre in Highfield was actually at Chengu Primary School, where they installed a concrete pitch and nets. All of the schools in Highfield would come to make use of those facilities at different times, with Zizhou's coaching occasionally supplemented by Zimbabwe international Dave Houghton, former Barbados fast bowler Billy Bourne, and the odd visiting English county pro.

When Andy Flower (left, next to Hamilton Masakadza) moved to Takashinga, a black club, it inspired more Zimbabweans to sign up for the game

When Andy Flower (left, next to Hamilton Masakadza) moved to Takashinga, a black club, it inspired more Zimbabweans to sign up for the game © Getty Images

One of Zizhou's pupils in that first year was Patrick Gada, a batting allrounder in third grade. "I had seen cricket being played in the neighbourhood, but it was only then that I became involved in the sport," Gada says. Four years later, as the best junior batsman from Zizhou's three centres, he was receiving an autographed miniature bat from Michael Atherton and his England A side and posing with them in front of Harare Sports Club's gabled pavilion.

Yet Zizhou's pioneers would ultimately fall short of major honours, largely because they were from families with no cricket background and meagre financial means. Although Gada was one of the first boys to earn a ZCU scholarship, which allowed him to attend Prince Edward High School - one of the country's best government schools - he was still at a disadvantage to the white players who came from cricket homes where the game's intricacies could be discussed over dinner.

Still, a movement had been set in motion. Before long, one of Zizhou's prodigies from another neighbourhood, a left-hand batsman and right-arm seam bowler by the name of Stephen Mangongo, had finished school and begun coaching at Chipembere.

Along with Givemore Makoni and Walter Chawaguta - two other Zizhou products - Mangongo would play a defining role in the generation that followed, providing the support that the previous one had lacked. Mangongo guided Taibu's group through junior school, saw them earn full scholarships to Churchill High School, and was instrumental in the evolution of a club that in many ways came to define cricket in Highfield.

It's a Friday afternoon, which means that the stand of gum trees outside the Takashinga gates is peopled by a couple of hundred Mapostori, a popular religious sect that gathers in open spaces in pure white robes. Occasionally their song drifts over the club's concrete wall, where Takashinga's squad convenes ahead of a weekend of club games.

Word is that the biggest crowds come not to watch the cricket, but the English Premier League games on the television in the bar

Zimbabwe internationals Forster Mutizwa and Timycen Maruma are present, but there are also players from the other end of the scale, such as a net bowler trying desperately to land the ball on the concrete square. All abilities are accepted and encouraged here, and all ages - on Saturday mornings, groups of children swarm through the gates.

The club has come a long way over the last three decades. Originally called Bionics Cricket Club, its training sessions were held at Prince Edward and home matches at a sports club on the northern edge of Harare, many miles away from Highfield.

"I remember walking in the wet and rainy weather for two or three hours to get home to Highfield after a league match as a 13- or 14-year-old, because there was not enough transport accessible to ferry all the players," Gada recalls.

When Mangongo took over the club, he changed the name to Hungwe, the Shona word for the national bird that adorns Zimbabwe's flag. The club then moved to Churchill High School, who made their grounds available on the condition that the club name change to Old Winstonians. Churchill's relative proximity to the townships made it more accessible to players, and in any case Taibu's generation was now attending the school. As that group of players matured, Old Winstonians began to climb the leagues, reaching the second division in 1998.

Perhaps the turning point for the club came in the late 1990s, when Andy Flower made the extraordinary decision to move across town from Old Georgians. At a time when racial tensions were creeping into club cricket, the sight of Zimbabwe's best white batsman and captain playing for a black club was almost unfathomable - as was the effect he would have on an evolving team.

Mike Atherton (back row, in cap) at the Harare Sports Club with a young Patrick Gada (front row, holding miniature bat) and coach Lazarus Zizhou (back row, fifth from left, with hands on a boy's shoulders)

Mike Atherton (back row, in cap) at the Harare Sports Club with a young Patrick Gada (front row, holding miniature bat) and coach Lazarus Zizhou (back row, fifth from left, with hands on a boy's shoulders) © Patrick Gada

"He was a massive influence, and had a massive impact on the younger kids in particular," says Sibanda, who was in his mid-teens at the time. "Back in the day people felt intimidated to mix and mingle with the white guys. He realised that there was talent at Takashinga, but he also came to get a lot more people playing and involved in the game. Seeing him come through to that side of town had a major influence on us."

Takashinga was promoted to the national first division in the 1999-2000 season, but there was a more important project on the go: making a home in Highfield. Along with his father Bill, Andy Flower became involved in that vision too. The site they were looking at was previously known as the Zimbabwe Grounds, a large open field with a place in history - it was where Mugabe delivered his first post-independence speech to a record crowd.

With the help of the ZCU and some sponsors, the grass was cut, the field levelled, a pitch created and a pavilion built. "When the games moved to Highfield, people started to come and watch," says Sibanda. "It changed the whole face of cricket in our community. It got a lot more people interested and the perception of what cricket is in Zimbabwe changed."

The colonial influence was officially cast aside when Makoni and Mangongo renamed the club once more. The Shona word "Takashinga" embodies a basket of values. "'We believe in ourselves' or 'We thrive to do well' or 'We remain firm,'" explains Sibanda.

Flower left in acrimonious circumstances soon after. "As you know, there have been problems of racism in Zimbabwe cricket and the integration process and we did not agree on certain issues, so he left," explained Makoni at the time.

The first time that cricket came to Highfield, it rode in on a bicycle. The year was 1986, and the ZCU had secured sponsorship from a local crisps company

There would be other scandals. In 2003, Makoni kicked Henry Olonga out of the club in the wake of his black-armband protest during the World Cup. And the following year, as many of Takashinga's young players were elevated to the national side following the rebel walkout, the club hierarchy demanded they put a portion of their match fees back into the club. Since Mangongo was Zimbabwe's convenor of selectors at the time, there was a clear conflict of interest. When the players spoke out, the policy was dropped.

Mangongo and Makoni, then, have not always been universally popular. But for all the accusations against them, there is no denying the role they played in reshaping the cricket landscape in Zimbabwe.

Cricket has always been a family affair, but rarely as much as in Zimbabwe, with its tiny player base. In a Test against New Zealand in 1997, Zimbabwe fielded Grant and Andy Flower, Gavin and John Rennie, and Paul and Bryan Strang. Guy Whittall also played, and his cousin Andy was 12th man. You could draw it out further: Heath Streak's father, Denis, played for Zimbabwe either side of independence, while Alistair Campbell's brother, Donald, turned out for Zimbabwe A at the same time that Alistair was captaining the national side.

Yet all of those players were white. It wasn't until the 1990s that cricket started to make its way into black families in a meaningful way. Taibu's younger brother, Kudzai, was an able wicketkeeper-batsman, while the Mwayenga brothers were another early duo discovered and encouraged by Bill Flower. Allan Mwayenga was a left-arm seamer with an upright action; his younger brother Waddington was lankier but had raw pace. Only Waddington and Tatenda went on to represent Zimbabwe.

Cricket familia: (from left) Wellington, Hamilton and Shingi Masakadza outside their home in Harare

Cricket familia: (from left) Wellington, Hamilton and Shingi Masakadza outside their home in Harare © Tristan Holme

Then, of course, there are the Masakadzas.

Their parents are not at home when Hamilton shows me in, but his younger brothers Shingi and Wellington are waiting. Their father is at the second-hand car business he has owned and run for decades, while his mother, who has retired from her job at an insurance firm, is out at her smallholding, tending to crops.

The single-storey house in a well-swept yard has expanded since the family arrived here, prior to Hamilton's birth in 1983. Although it looks a little tired from the outside, the interior is smart and tidy. The three brothers slump into the lounge suite with glasses of Mazoe, the country's flagship soft drink. The six-year-old daughter of their oldest brother, Hilton, is home and her uncles begin a swift interrogation into why she did not go to school.

If there was a defining moment in the creation of this cricket family, it was Hamilton's performance in the trials at the end of junior school, which earned him the scholarship to Churchill. Attending a school with a proper cricket structure set him on the same route as his white counterparts on the other side of town: competitive schools cricket, club cricket (for Hungwe and Old Winstonians), a first-class debut at 16 and then into the Zimbabwe A side.

When West Indies came to town in the middle of 2001, Hamilton played both warm-up games against them. Although his scores were not spectacular, he got a start in all four innings - enough to earn a call-up when Stuart Carlisle broke a finger in the first Test.

"It was a bit of a shock - I was only 17 and my progression had been so quick," Hamilton recalls. "It was all a bit of a blur for me at the time, but I got a lot of help from some of the senior guys in the team - especially Andy and Grant, who were really helpful. Henry Olonga was also in the set-up and helped. But it was mostly Andy, because he had played some club cricket with us at Takashinga."

"After three decades this is what I get! Non-cricket people are being left to run the affairs of ZC. It's people who have no passion for the sport who are running down the game" Coach Lazarus Zizhou

The Test did not start well. Carl Hooper won the toss, stuck Zimbabwe in, and an attack of Reon King, Marlon Black, Colin Stuart and Neil McGarrell was good enough to bowl the hosts out for 131 inside two sessions. West Indies responded with 347 and Zimbabwe were 27 for 1 in the second innings when Masakadza joined Campbell at the start of day three. By the close, Masakadza was 115 not out and Zimbabwe 324 for 4. Already Zimbabwe's youngest and first black centurion at first-class level, now he was the youngest debutant in the history of the game to make a century.

On the wall in the Masakadza lounge is a picture of their father at Harare Sports Club, taken on the day of the century. "My parents were very supportive of me, but they weren't really able to come and watch. But I remember my dad was there during my debut. He had no idea what everybody was getting excited about when I was approaching my hundred. He had all sorts of guys calling him and telling him what was happening."

The centurion had another interested spectator that day, except he was 80 kilometres from Harare Sports Club, at Kutama boarding school in Zvimba. "We were watching on TV," says Shingi. "I think I might have been more excited than he was."

The achievement sparked something at Kutama. Shingi had played a bit of cricket, but gave it up around the age of nine for football. Now that there was fresh inspiration, Shingi and his friends approached Kutama about adding cricket to the sports programme, and requested funding from the ZCU. Facilities were put in. Mangongo and Andy Blignaut came out for the official opening of the wicket, and coaches were secured on a regular basis.

In another photograph on the wall, Shingi is receiving the Sportsman of the Year award at Kutama. The man presenting the trophy is Mugabe, a former student.

Shingi's route to the national side was more circuitous than Hamilton's, and included a short stint with Dynamos, Zimbabwe's biggest football club. He continued to play club cricket for Takashinga, though, and one day Mangongo suggested that he switch from legspin to pace. By the time a new franchise system was introduced, he had become a regular on the domestic scene, and in early 2010 he made his Zimbabwe debut, playing alongside his older brother.

A batsman receives throwdowns at Takashinga

A batsman receives throwdowns at Takashinga © Tristan Holme

Four years later, the Mountaineers franchise took the field in a four-day game against Eagles with three Masakadzas in their line-up. Wellington was just seven years old when Hamilton scored that debut hundred, but here they were playing together in a first-class game. The Masakadza trio became a fixture in the remaining Logan Cup games that season; Mountaineers won the competition by a huge margin, and all made telling contributions. Wellington, a left-arm spinner, marked his debut with match figures of 8 for 89, Shingi took 18 wickets in four games at an average of 21, and Hamilton scored back-to-back hundreds in the penultimate game to all but secure the title. Zimbabwe cricket had a new first family.

Like most establishments in Zimbabwe at the moment, Takashinga looks like it has seen better days. Windows broken by cricket balls haven't been replaced. The cricket shop looks dusty and disused. Word is that the biggest crowds come not to watch the cricket but the English Premier League games on the television in the bar.

Meanwhile the nets at Chipembere have mostly collapsed. "You would think they would have tried to look after it a bit more, given how much it produced," Masakadza says of the current administration.

Equally disappointing is the human resources that are going to waste. Back in 2002, Gada spoke about his desire to guide the next generation of Zimbabwean cricketers. But after being accused of having a hand in a Manicaland player revolt in 2004 - something he strongly denies - ZC released him from his player-coach role. As opportunities dried up at home, he flew to England in 2007 with 20kg of luggage and £10 in his pocket. He now coaches club teams in England, and has a part-time contract working with Nottinghamshire's Under-15s.

In a 2014 interview with the Daily News, Zizhou spoke about how his job as area manager for the Masvingo region came to an abrupt halt the previous year. "After three decades this is what I get!" he said. "It's inhuman the way they treat guys who have done the work. Non-cricket people are being left to run the affairs of ZC. It's people who have no passion for the sport who are running down the game."

If there is comfort to be taken, it is from the knowledge that cricket cannot be killed in places like Highfield. Little boys without equipment play the game with a stick of firewood. The game's roots sit deep in the soil here, waiting for the winds of change.

Tristan Holme is the South Africa correspondent for Cricbuzz. He is working on a book about Zimbabwe cricket