He has come through financial struggles and World Cup heartbreak to reclaim his place among the best and brightest in a resurgent home team
It's difficult, without going too far back, to recall when Zimbabwe last looked genuinely, unitedly joyful. The country has drawn the shortest of straws over the past two decades. Over the same period, the decline of its cricket team, arguably the most prominent window through which the outside world has looked in, has only furthered the impression of a beleaguered nation with little to be upbeat about.
But in March 2018, Zimbabwe cricket was briefly heaving with optimism, in part because of a young man who grew up through this most exigent time. He goes by the name of Blessing Muzarabani.
The 2018 World Cup Qualifiers took place in Zimbabwe, and as a result of the board's decision to allow free entry for all games, the Bulawayo and Harare Sports Clubs were awash in the green, gold, black and white of the Zimbabwean flag. The home team made a brilliant start to the tournament, with an unlikely last-over win against Afghanistan - which included a four-wicket haul for Muzarabani - and a nerve-shredding final-over tie against Scotland (Muzarabani took the last wicket), almost ensuring that Zimbabwe would not miss out on a World Cup for the first time since 1983.
They needed a win against UAE, who hadn't won a game all tournament. But spirited batting by their opponents and some inclement weather saw Zimbabwe fall short by three runs. Their World Cup dream, and a fortnight of fantasy, was over - a torpefying blow to their already catastrophic finances.
"The World Cup qualifiers changed people's lives," Muzarabani said, speaking over a video call last October from his hotel in Islamabad, when Zimbabwe were in Pakistan. "We wanted to, really, but sometimes you don't get over the line."
Fans packed the stadiums for the qualifiers to see Muzarabani, and Zimbabwe, almost make it to the 2019 World Cup proper
© Getty Images
Fans packed the stadiums for the qualifiers to see Muzarabani, and Zimbabwe, almost make it to the 2019 World Cup proper © Getty Images
He probably wouldn't have been in Pakistan at all but for Brexit. After that qualifiers heartbreak, Muzarabani left Zimbabwe on a Kolpak offer from Northamptonshire. It was a tremendous loss to Zimbabwe, but with Zimbabwe Cricket's finances in tatters and no World Cup to look forward to, it was difficult to make their most promising fast bowler an offer that would entice him to stay.
When the UK formally left the European Union last year, it brought the curtains down on Kolpak deals. That got Muzarabani, two years into his three-year county deal, to switch focus, back to what he insisted has always been his long-term priority: playing for his country.
"It's hard to say whether or not I would have gone the Kolpak route if we had qualified [for the World Cup]. As a kid I always wanted to go to England and play county cricket, to learn how to move the ball, how to operate at a good length. When I was playing international cricket, I was struggling to bowl full, and the only way to improve that was to go play county cricket, learn there and come back a better player. If Brexit didn't happen, I was going to finish my three-year deal before I came back to represent my country, because I wanted to be the best player that I could be."
But Muzarabani wasn't like other Zimbabwe cricketers who left the country in search of better opportunities. He may have played only 14 ODIs pre-Kolpak, but he was already the most vaunted fast bowler in Zimbabwe since Heath Streak hung up his boots.
Genuine fast-bowling talent has been rare in Zimbabwe. Much of the legacy, so to say, boils down simply to Streak's personal career statistics, and a hat-trick against England from a much-loved Eddo Brandes. Streak is the only Zimbabwe fast bowler with over 100 Test wickets; his 216 leave Henry Olonga, the next best with 68, far behind. No other fast bowler has 100, let alone 200, ODI wickets - Streak has 237, with Tendai Chatara in second place on 95.
© Getty Images
© Getty Images
In 2010, five years after Streak last played for Zimbabwe, the board was so alarmed by the lack of fast-bowling prowess in its ranks, it organised a national pace-bowling talent hunt across the country, spearheaded by the late Kevin Curran and Streak himself. There was much publicity and short-term interest; the programme went beyond the usual urban centres and into smaller towns and the hinterlands. But as with all too many initiatives in Zimbabwe, the simmering excitement died down and no fast bowler emerged.
That is why the prospect of losing Muzarabani was such a blow, and also why his return has given Zimbabwe such a fillip. He stands - literally, at 6'6" - head and shoulders above his fast-bowling contemporaries in the country. He has an easy action that gathers pace as he approaches the crease, lithe but economical movements underpinning it, and then the transfer of weight across the crease that allows him to produce a good amount of pace with relatively minimal stress on his body.
There are shades of Kagiso Rabada in the delivery stride and the final movement across the crease, and the whip-like motion that generates speed from an action that might not threaten lots of it. His height, of course, gives him a natural advantage - as recently as the T20I series against Pakistan in Harare, he extracted bounce from low-bounce surfaces.
Muzarabani refined his craft significantly following his time in the UK. He always had the nervelessness, which he attributes to putting himself under intense pressure "every time I practise". He showcased this yet again, in arguably the ODI bowling performance of the year, just a day before we spoke. He took five wickets - including that of Babar Azam for 125 - and bowled the final over of the third ODI, which ended a tie, before his two wickets in four balls in the Super Over took his side to a famous upset.
Muzarabani was far and away his side's most lethal bowler against Pakistan on that tour, and the running battle with Azam was one of the more fascinating subplots: Muzarabani accounted for three of Azam's four dismissals.
Babar bye bye bye: a bunny in the making?
© Getty Images
Babar bye bye bye: a bunny in the making? © Getty Images
He would go on to star in a comprehensive Test win over Afghanistan, taking six wickets for 64 runs. And much as he used variations with the white ball, he would find movement, both in the air and off the seam, in the Test series; in 15 matches since his return to Zimbabwe, he has taken 27 wickets at just over 21 runs each; in the 25 matches prior, his bowling average had hovered above 37.
"Playing in England really helped me use my variations," Muzarabani said. "We play a lot, week in week out, and you pick up the moments where you need to throw in a yorker or a slower ball or something like that. If it works well, it works well, and if it doesn't, too bad. It's just a mentality. If it doesn't go my way, at least I can do what I've always practised: just back yourself, like I did against Babar, throw in the shorter ball. Thankfully he nicked it and it paid off."
It's easy to see that Muzarabani has returned to Zimbabwe a more intelligent bowler, and one who appears to understand his own game better. It's easier still to forget the unlikelihood of him being here in the first place.
He was born in Murewa, a town close to the Mozambique border, with a population of under 10,000, whose Wikipedia entry is a stub. Not much happens here, except, perhaps, a spot of farming.
His family moved to Highfield, the most famous of Harare's high-density suburbs, a hotbed of cricketing activity, and one that helped push the national scene beyond the cosy bubble of white cricketers. The place has produced some of the finest Zimbabwean cricketers of the past generation, Hamilton Masakadza, Tatenda Taibu, Vusi Sibanda and Elton Chigumbura among them.
The air up there: Muzarabani's height is perhaps his most distinctive feature, one that he says he didn't get from his parents
© Abu Dhabi Cricket
The air up there: Muzarabani's height is perhaps his most distinctive feature, one that he says he didn't get from his parents © Abu Dhabi Cricket
Before he began playing for Churchill, his school, seven-year-old Muzarabani would tag along to training at Takashinga Cricket Club - a cornerstone for black cricket in Zimbabwe - with his cousin Taurai, who played a handful of internationals for Zimbabwe in 2015 and 2016. It was here that his precocious talent was spotted by the coach at his school.
"The first ball I bowled was at Takashinga Club," he said. "When I was playing for them as a kid, I started enjoying the game, and the coach came to my house and said, 'Come and play for the school.' I was really shy, but when he brought me to play for my primary school, I really started loving the game."
When Muzarabani was growing up, Zimbabwe had become a cautionary tale on economic catastrophe and hyper-inflation to the rest of the world; the government infamously printed 100-trillion-dollar banknotes at one point. It exacted a financial toll on millions of Zimbabweans, and Muzarabani's family, whose circumstances were especially modest, was no exception.
The 24-year-old speaks about the hardships of his formative years, which made the pursuit of a cricket career oppressively difficult. At the Harare Sports Club he would meet people at the other end of the economic spectrum.
"I wasn't privileged like a lot of other kids [who had] good cricket grounds and lots of friends playing the game. Later, when I wanted to train, I couldn't even afford a mobile phone or decent shoes, and just turned up to Harare Sports Club to see if I could get a chance to bowl. I got into it just because I was curious about the game.
"It was really tough immersing into the culture at first, because sometimes you mingle with the rich kids and poor kids together. As a kid, that affects you a huge deal. You see the kind of shoes [the rich kids] wear, and you want them too, but there's no way I could afford them. There are many small things like that which can sometimes make you uncomfortable, and the only way you'll survive that is [through] love for the game.
"I didn't care about whether I had shoes, or whether I had a bat. I just focused on going out there and bowling and doing what I loved."
It wasn't just blind passion that kept him hanging around the nets. When Muzarabani turned 15, he had a growth spurt that he said he did not notice until people began pointing it out to him. He has no idea how he ended at 6'6" ("My parents aren't tall!" he laughs), but he grew into his body, gaining a yard of pace as he did, and exploiting bounce like few others could.
Muzarabani's action generates deceptive pace, and his height allows him to wring bounce out of difficult surfaces
© Getty Images
Muzarabani's action generates deceptive pace, and his height allows him to wring bounce out of difficult surfaces © Getty Images
He worked his way into the age-group teams for Mashonaland Eagles, one of the most prominent domestic sides. That led to Zimbabwe age sides - U14, U16 and U19 - too. By this time, he was beginning to get noticed. His name made its way to Tatenda Taibu, who had opened an academy for young cricketers and founded a first-class cricket team called Rising Stars; they briefly played in the Logan Cup in the latter half of the aughts.
Muzarabani forced his way into the side, and when Taibu saw the gangly fast bowler who had been raising eyebrows in Harare, he took a decision that changed the boy's life. In 2017, Muzarabani was picked for a Rising Stars tour of England. It would turn cricket from his passion into his career.
Winston Weekes doesn't think he's related to Sir Everton, but in a small place like Barbados, you can never be sure. Weekes moved to London when he was 12 and played a little bit of league cricket in the UK as a batter.
He travelled to Zimbabwe in the late '80s as part of a sponsored cricket tour and fell in love with the country - to the extent that he spent 11 cricket seasons in Harare and Bulawayo, playing and coaching young cricketers. As a cricket enthusiast, well connected with the diaspora, Weekes offered his services when the Rising Stars arrived in the UK and needed help adjusting to life in English cricket circles.
"His potential [stood] out," Weekes said of Muzarabani. "He had a gift. When he played against some of the 2nd XI [sides] like Derbyshire and Warwickshire, you could see the potential was unbelievable. When he played against Surrey, Alec Stewart and Azhar Mahmood were there. I said to Azhar, 'Look at this boy.' And Azhar said, 'Wow, he's got some pace.' He had a presence about him."
Weekes was so taken with Muzarabani, he urged him to stay on in the UK and register as a Kolpak player, telling him it was the best way to make the most of his talent.
"I had to persuade him, because at one point he was going to go back to Zimbabwe," Weekes said. "I said, you will learn your cricket if you go to Northants. They're willing to look after you." The county was offering a three-year contract under Kolpak rules, which no other black cricketer from Zimbabwe had ever got. "You'll be financially secure, you're guaranteed to become a professional, and you'll learn," Weekes said.
Muzarabani's time in England was blighted by injury, but he says he learned much about his own game from it
© Getty Images
Muzarabani's time in England was blighted by injury, but he says he learned much about his own game from it © Getty Images
"I called Rob Humphries, who's a very good agent, and we made sure we got the best deal for him. There's no way he could learn these things in Zimbabwe. It's the best education this boy could have."
Weekes became instrumental in Muzarabani's growth - a kind of father figure and coach. He helped Muzarabani set up in a flat, had him over to his house often enough that Weekes' mother treated Muzarabani as another son. With it came warnings to stay away from nightclubs, drugs and dodgy company. "Your career will be over in ten seconds, especially as a black cricketer."
"He talks a lot, but he's a really good guy!" Muzarabani said. "He sees young talented guys and likes to motivate them.
"He gives you tips, and urges you to work hard and get more out of your ability. If you want something you don't have, you ask him and he'll help you. He doesn't want anything in return."
Another Barbadian played an equally key role. Jason Holder arrived at Northamptonshire around the time of the 2019 World Cup and instantly formed a bond with Muzarabani.
"He's more like my height, so I saw how he operates and how he gets his wickets. I've picked some things from his bowling, and there's some other good players who came there I was able to learn off, but Jason really helped me out a lot."
In turn, Holder "naturally gravitated to him". In Muzarabani he saw a cricketer who was desperate to improve. "Blessing possesses a lot of skill," Holder said. "I just know his path, and how he gave up his international status to go and play county cricket to better himself. The most striking thing for me was, he really wanted to improve his cricket, so I felt it was necessary to give him my best, and as much information as I really could. We got really close, and we went out for food a few times. I think he needed that support system around him."
Band of brothers: Zimbabwe's current team is a tight-knit group
© Afghanistan Cricket Board
Band of brothers: Zimbabwe's current team is a tight-knit group © Afghanistan Cricket Board
On the field, Holder saw a little bit of himself in Muzarabani, at least in terms of the advantages and pitfalls of being tall fast bowlers. "Blessing and I have a similar tendency to drag balls down the leg side. You'd have to ask a biomechanics expert why that happens to tall bowlers sometimes, but he has a bit of a strange action where he falls away a little bit.
"What I always told him was that he needed to stay upright and use the height a little more, because I have similar problems, where you sometimes tend to collapse your front knee. Some of the bowlers have that braced front leg, and I found that a lot of them get injured because it puts a lot of strain on the body in the follow-through. But people believe that that's the most explosive way to get your power and speed through the crease."
Muzarabani's time on the field in England was, in his own words, "tough". Soon after arriving, a back injury would keep him out for nearly the entire season, and when he did return at the tail end, he found opportunities in the white-ball formats, in which he had forged his reputation, limited.
There were moments that hinted at what might have been if the county had had Muzarabani's services for a longer period. In April 2019, during a Royal London Cup game against Warwickshire, he and Holder ran riot, with the West Indian smashing an unbeaten 31-ball 60 and then teaming up with Muzarabani with the new ball as they took three wickets each. In the four-day format the following year, Muzarabani ripped through a Worcestershire line-up in the first innings. But he ended up playing just 16 matches, and there is little doubt English domestic cricket never quite saw him at his best.
"I learned a lot from Northants," he said. "I learned how to manage my body, I learned how to be a professional. It really changed me and made me a better cricketer in the way I think and the way I see things.
Even as the Northampton door closed, Muzarabani's exploits with Zimbabwe may open other potentially lucrative ones. A good fast bowler tends to find a market in a T20 league somewhere; Weekes was especially hopeful Muzarabani would be picked up at the PSL draft earlier this year, though that didn't come to pass.
The circumstances of his humble upbringing meant Muzarabani knew he'd have to give cricket his best shot; unlike some of his team-mates, perhaps, he had little else to fall back on.
Count your blessings: might Muzarabani be the torchbearer for the next generation of Zimbabwean fast bowlers?
© Getty Images
Count your blessings: might Muzarabani be the torchbearer for the next generation of Zimbabwean fast bowlers? © Getty Images
"The fact that I'm from a financial background that is maybe not typical of many in Zimbabwe gives me a lot of perspective. I knew growing up if I didn't do well, I was throwing away a chance at an opportunity that was really helping me in my life. The perspective really helped me, and I appreciate every moment playing international cricket. I just love the feeling of actually playing cricket."
His mind is firmly focused on Zimbabwe for now, and while predictions have a way of going awry, things at least look better than they did during that despondent low of March 2018, and the nadir that followed with Zimbabwe Cricket's suspension the following year. The country's best players are, for now, available to the side, and Muzarabani is happy about the harmony within the squad.
"A lot of things have happened in the past, but things have changed in Zimbabwe for the better. Hopefully they stay that way. In Zimbabwe, we spend time with each other, and we're all in one team. We feel like we're brothers. We don't bother with what colour we are or where we come from; we just feel like we're fighting towards a common goal."
If Muzarabani hasn't quite registered how much his country's short-term cricketing success depends upon his personal career progress, then perhaps it's best it stays that way. While the return of Brendan Taylor and the ongoing involvement of players like Sikandar Raza, Sean Williams and Craig Ervine continue to keep Zimbabwe afloat, it is players like Muzarabani who can help safeguard the country's cricketing heritage for another generation.
If a boy from a small town can be a leading light for his country, then, just perhaps, in the new Zimbabwe, cricket really is a game everyone can pursue. Maybe it can once again give a country that has borne more than its fair share of strife the happy distraction the game once used to offer.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.