Meet the author of cricket's wildest letter, Zimbabwe's former captain Utseya
Prosper Utseya knows that people are talking about him, but he doesn't seem too bothered. Over the past year, but particularly since he returned to the Zimbabwe side with a new bowling action, Utseya has been tried in the court of public opinion and found guilty of a range of offences, including but not limited to: espionage, cronyism, skulduggery and racism.
In short, the theory runs that Utseya spies on his team-mates and feeds information back to Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) in return for favours, which include protection from Givemore Makoni, the chairman of selectors until this July. The skulduggery relates to his part in the axing of the Zimbabwe Professional Cricketers' Association (ZPCA) representative Eliah Zvimba, leaving the organisation all but redundant in crucial negotiations before the World Cup. The racism? Well, that stems from his own allegations of racism.
For a cricketer that is some charge sheet. "It's because I've been in a position of influence," Utseya says, towards the end of a lengthy interview on a bright July morning at the Harare Sports Club. "When you matter, these things happen to you. The one thing I do is value myself, and if you value yourself, people will value you. It doesn't matter what people write on Facebook or Twitter. I'm not on Facebook and I don't do Twitter - I don't need these things in my life. You can write bad things about me, I don't care. But when I see that this guy wants to mess around with my career, it becomes a problem."
"You can write bad things about me, I don't care. I'm not on Facebook and I don't do Twitter - I don't need these things in my life"
"This guy" would be Alistair Campbell, ZC's managing director, whom Utseya accused of having a race-based vendetta against him in an extraordinary 18-page letter to ZC. Coming from a visibly introverted character, the letter makes for a wild read. Over the course of 10,000 words it becomes increasingly clear that it was written by a desperate man who felt hard done by, a man who feared the door was closing on his professional career after he was banned from plying his chief trade, offspin. Compiling a dossier on Campbell appears to be Utseya's attempt to crowbar that door open again.
Indeed, after battering Campbell from all angles page upon page, Utseya seems to reach his main objective: getting his national contract renewed. He ends his arguments with this coup de grâce:
"Bearing in mind I still have an opportunity at 30 years old to work on my offspin. If I can reinvent in 2 months and make it Man of the Series in my comeback series with my new bowling action I reckon within 4 months I will be brilliant and what more in a year's time I will be an artist at work."
Utseya also kept his options open in the letter - and rather undermined his supposed confidence in his playing abilities - by suggesting that, should everyone feel his playing days are over, he could sit alongside Campbell in a managerial role.
Utseya agrees that Alistair Campbell's decisions are motivated by the need to bring experience back to a weak structure, but he isn't happy with the way they have been carried out
© Associated Press
Utseya agrees that Alistair Campbell's decisions are motivated by the need to bring experience back to a weak structure, but he isn't happy with the way they have been carried out © Associated Press
To the casual observer, all of this may appear to be nothing more than an ill-advised stunt. To understand where it came from, it is necessary to understand Utseya's story.
When Prosper Utseya found himself at the top of his mark in April 2004, ready to bowl his first delivery in international cricket, he had been bowling offspin for only two years. Sri Lanka were cruising to a 2-0 lead in a hopelessly one-sided ODI series, and Utseya was part of a young, raw and largely black Zimbabwe team that filled the void after 15 white players had gone on strike. Utseya was then 19. He says he had very little idea of what was going on between the striking white players and the board; mostly he was awestruck to learn that he stood to earn a salary from the game.
As with many of his new international team-mates, Utseya grew up in Harare's high-density suburb of Highfield. Cricket found him in PE classes at Chipembere Primary School, where development coaches from the cricket board spotted his potential and asked him to attend practice after school. Although he thinks he was a better footballer, the attraction of travel and scholarships drew him to cricket. In 1999 he earned a scholarship from the board to Churchill, one of the leading government high schools in Harare.
At that stage he was an opening batsman, and he performed that role on first-class debut for Mashonaland A in the 2001-02 season. In 2002 he took to offspin. Two years later, that debut series against Sri Lanka gave a hint of what was to come; Utseya proved economical but unincisive with the ball, and showed he could be handy down the order with the bat.
"Prosper was in a difficult position because he'd been appointed by a black board but was working for a predominantly white cricket committee" Alan Butcher
As Zimbabwe cricket and the country around it went into free fall, ending careers and forcing the majority of the population into a battle for survival, opportunities opened up for Utseya. Tatenda Taibu resigned as captain towards the end of 2005 in protest at the way cricket was being run; he soon left the country. His departure left Zimbabwe without a single experienced player, and so the following year Utseya was appointed full-time captain. "One thing I've always had was good game awareness," he says. "And because I was consistent with the ball, I was likely to play most of the games."
Utseya began well enough: Zimbabwe beat Bangladesh 3-2 in a one-day series and he was named Player of the Series. The joy was short-lived. Zimbabwe had withdrawn themselves from Test cricket and struggled to get one-dayers against serious opposition. Over the next two years they won just two of 30 completed ODIs. "It's quite hard to be losing, losing, losing, losing," Utseya remembers. "You feel like you don't belong at the level if you continuously lose. We had our moments where we won games, but it was 90% stress."
Things were even tougher away from the field, as the country went through one of the most dramatic economic declines in history. The local currency became worthless, most basic goods were hard to come by, and services such as running water and electricity became intermittent. The pressures wore heavily on Utseya.
"When I started, I wasn't turning the ball much. You start developing bad habits. It was very difficult that after ten years of playing, you get banned"
"When I started, I wasn't turning the ball much. You start developing bad habits. It was very difficult that after ten years of playing, you get banned" © AFP
"There was a lot that was happening," he said. "In the country at the time we would experience challenges where people didn't get paid on time, we didn't have groceries in the supermarkets. There was one point where people were getting paid using fuel coupons. So there were many challenges that I don't believe an international cricketer should go through. It was a tough period for us to survive."
One way or another, Utseya survived.
For more than five weeks earlier this year, he trekked around Australasia as an unused member of Zimbabwe's World Cup squad. His omission from the XI provided the impetus for the letter - but his ousting as captain five years earlier was probably the sprout from which his feelings of victimisation by Campbell bloomed.
Campbell's first stint with ZC, as chairman of the cricket committee and chairman of selectors, began in 2009. In 2010 the team travelled to the West Indies. "During that tour, already there was a plan in motion for me to be removed," Utseya claims. "One day I was late to board a team bus - I think by a minute - and the bus left. I got a lift with a liaison officer, who said, 'Do you know that the other day I gave a lift to Alistair [Campbell], Dave Houghton and a few others, and they were saying that they don't want you as captain?' He told me some inside info, but I sort of had an idea."
"With my new bowling action I reckon within 4 months I will be brilliant and what more in a year's time I will be an artist at work" Utseya in his letter
Alan Butcher was appointed coach around that time, and gradually got a feel for the situation. "It became obvious that Prosper was in a difficult position because he'd been appointed by a black board but was working for a predominantly white cricket committee," he says. "But nobody appeared to talk to him or find out what he was thinking, and I think he felt quite isolated. I found him initially to be quite a suspicious person, but if you've grown up in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe cricket then it probably makes you that way."
Publicly, Utseya stood down from the captaincy after the tour, but it was a case of jumping before he was pushed. With Campbell removing several black coaches and hiring a number of white ones, a bitter Utseya came to his conclusions.
When I suggest that Campbell's intention appeared to be to bring some cricket experience back into a weakened structure, Utseya agrees to a point, but says: "It's the how part that brings problems. That's where I felt there is a bit of racism in it. You've just removed me, you've removed Dougie [Hondo], you've removed Walter [Chawaguta]. Steve [Mangongo] was made assistant coach, but he didn't have a say. The way I see it, it was not done in good faith. Because if it was done in good faith, cricket would be the winner. It was more personal than wanting to achieve what's best for cricket. If you're going to remove me then at least have a proper reason. But if I'm producing the results, what's the reason for removing me?"
Zimbabwe's players haven't always been able to stand together to leverage better remuneration from the board
Zimbabwe's players haven't always been able to stand together to leverage better remuneration from the board © AFP
In his letter Utseya wrote that he has the "second best win record for a Zimbabwean Captain [30% after 68 games] second only to Alistair Campbell [31% after 88 games] and better than previous captains in the likes of Duncan Fletcher, Dave Houghton, Andy Flower and Heath Streak." Though not entirely correct, the statistics do have some basis, and Utseya is big on statistics.
Others place emphasis on context, and point out that only two of Utseya's ODI victories came against top-eight opposition (both versus West Indies) and the majority were over Associates.
Perspective is everything, though, and from Utseya's perspective he had been wronged. Never a flamboyant character to begin with - "I like to keep to myself," he confesses; his nickname "Rowdy" is an intentional misnomer - even to the casual observer Utseya cut a surly, taciturn figure at net sessions after his demotion. "Like a sloth with bilharzia," a team-mate once observed, indicating that Utseya would probably not win a popularity contest within the squad.
In truth, Utseya's letter is just the most explicit example of how race is forever bubbling under the surface of Zimbabwean cricket. "There is no unity," is Utseya's evaluation of the team. "You've probably noticed this, but when we warm up, we are in groups - or even during lunchtime. I'm not saying that people do it intentionally - it happens naturally."
"I've told people that for this team to do well, either it has to have 11 white players or 11 black players"
Similar observations have been made since the early 2000s, and that makes Utseya's next assertion less shocking. "This is why I've told people that for this team to do well, either it has to have 11 white players or 11 black players. Statistically I think they will achieve more."
At their best, Zimbabweans make humorous racial comments in a manner so blatant that it mocks racism and breaks down barriers. At their worst, they view every action or decision through a racial lens. The majority of Zimbabweans tend towards the former, but that is not quite the case in the cricket fraternity, for two reasons.
The first is that cricket teams are rarely as unified beneath the surface as their public exterior might suggest, but rifts are more likely to evaporate when the team is winning and widen when it is losing. Zimbabwe lose a lot more than they win.
The second is money - its scarcity. This is evident in Utseya's view on Graeme Cremer's reselection after two years out of the game, an injustice he bemoans at length in both his letter and our conversation. His feeling is that Cremer benefited because both he and Campbell are white, and Utseya is missing out on game time and match fees as a result.
According to the cricketers' association representative Eliah Zvimba, his relationship with the Zimbabwe players strained when he refused to employ the wives of Utseya (right), Vusi Sibanda and Elton Chigumbura (left) at the ZPCA
According to the cricketers' association representative Eliah Zvimba, his relationship with the Zimbabwe players strained when he refused to employ the wives of Utseya (right), Vusi Sibanda and Elton Chigumbura (left) at the ZPCA © AFP
"At the end of the day, all I want is to get a fair chance, because this cricket is the only thing that I know," he says. "When you start wanting to take away the only thing that I know and that brings food on my table, then you are looking for a fight."
Last September, in the midst of the ICC's crackdown on offspinners, Utseya's action was found to be illegal. "In 2004 when I started, I wasn't turning the ball much," Utseya reflects. "But because the game kept on evolving, you start doing things and start developing bad habits. It was very difficult in the sense that, after ten years of playing, you get banned. Now I'm a family man, I have to put food on the table for my family.
"People might say that you've been playing for ten years and you should have invested and have something on the side that can keep you going, but the truth of the matter is that we don't get as well paid as we are supposed to. Also coming from humble beginnings, first you have to look after your parents. You have to make sure that you buy a house for them and cater for them first. That took about six years, and then you have to start looking after yourself and your family. You're starting a new life for your family, and then you get banned."
Secretly Utseya turned his focus to legspin. At 5am he would put two hours of work into his new bowling style, before going back to bed for a kip
Utseya says that without the financial pressures he would not have felt so desperate to get back to international cricket. "Obviously I would try to rectify [my action], and if I failed then I would live with it. But when I saw the results, I was averaging 51 degrees. Immediately I looked at it and said, 'Can I get it to 15? What are the chances of me getting from 51 to 15 and being able to land the ball where I want? I don't think I can.'"
Supported by ZC, he travelled to Johannesburg and began working on his offspin action with coach Justin Summons. But while the flexion in his arm began to decrease, his accuracy went out the window and he was no longer enjoying the process. Secretly he turned his focus to legspin.
Utseya had keys to the facility, so at 5am he would wake up and put two hours of work into his new bowling style, before going back to bed for a kip. At 9am he would meet Summons and work on his offspin.
"I used to set long-term goals, but now I don't - it's game by game, series by series. Because of that, I'm now a different person"
"I used to set long-term goals, but now I don't - it's game by game, series by series. Because of that, I'm now a different person" © AFP
In December, Utseya's offspin was found to still be illegal, and he had no control over it in the retest. "I would bowl in this net and hit that net," he says. But his legspin, or "rollers" as Zimbabwe's supporters have come to label them, were cleared. "It sort of gave me a second chance in my career. Even though it was tough, I accepted that I needed to change and I needed to be responsible for my family and provide for them. So I was proud of myself."
To most observers, the news that Utseya was unable to bowl offspin signalled the end of his international career - or at the very least a prolonged period in domestic cricket. But after a tour of Uganda with the club Takashinga and the first game of a Zimbabwe A series against Canada, Utseya was named in Zimbabwe's World Cup squad.
The rumour mill pointed to his relationship with Makoni, the selection chief. "I played over 100 games before he became convener and captained in 68 games," Utseya insists. "There are no favours there. You don't play 100 games if you don't know what you're doing.
Ascertaining where Utseya stands in the battle between players and administrators is like trying to understand the true motives of a double agent gone rogue
"My selection was criticised, but when I look at it, none of the spinners performed in Bangladesh [in late 2014], and I did better than the other spinners against Canada. No one can tell me that I didn't deserve to go to the World Cup, because it was based on statistics."
Others believed that, with a whole new bowling method, Utseya's data sheet had been erased and he had no statistics to go on. "I'm still a bit baffled by how Prosper Utseya will get on without being allowed to bowl his off-spinner, but no doubt he'll find a way," Campbell wrote in a guest column for the ICC prior to the World Cup. "He'll certainly be the only bowler in the tournament without a 'stock' ball."
The slight raised Utseya's hackles, which had already been primed since Campbell's return to the ZC administration in January 2015. Shortly before Campbell's appointment as managing director, Steve Mangongo was axed as national coach. Soon after, Makoni had his powers on the selection panel curbed, a precursor to his reassignment to a development position. Both decisions appeared to have some cricket logic behind them, but it depended on which side of the divide you viewed it from. Utseya had spent most of his cricketing life under the watch of Mangongo and Makoni at Takashinga. His ire at these perceived injustices grew over his bench-warming weeks in Australasia, before manifesting itself in the 18-page letter that brought an internal inquiry and the threat of legal action.
Ascertaining where Utseya stands in the battle between Zimbabwe's players and their administrators is a bit like trying to understand the true motives of a double agent gone rogue. He is not surprised when I mention the perception that he is the "mole" in the player camp, but says: "I don't spy."
Utseya says that players have taken to forming groups within the Zimbabwe team
Utseya says that players have taken to forming groups within the Zimbabwe team © AFP
That perception holds Utseya responsible for the implosion of the ZPCA just as it was set to secure some sort of lasting future for its members. Zvimba, the ZPCA representative, was released when his contract expired at the end of last year. Without a representative, Zimbabwe's players went ahead and signed ZC's World Cup player terms - even though they had planned to use their participation in the tournament as leverage to bind ZC to a Memorandum of Understanding. There are parts in Utseya's letter, relating to the ZPCA breakdown, where he undoubtedly sidles up to the board.
"Along the way, FICA started paying Zvimba behind player's back and I with my experience of working with whites and the sudden change of attitude by Eliah Zvimba I came to a conclusion that they were using him to gain leverage of players against ZC," he writes. He goes on to include lengthy email correspondence between himself and FICA's chief operating officer, Ian Smith, in which the potential dismissal of Zvimba is discussed.
Utseya uses the exchange as evidence of why Campbell supposedly has it in for him: "I am the target as I am seen as the brains behind black cricketers and the one who stands for the black rights as evidenced by the email exchanges with FICA representatives."
"When you start wanting to take away the only thing that I know and that brings food on my table, then you are looking for a fight"
Zvimba, however, denies Utseya's claims that FICA was paying him without the players' knowledge. He says his relationship with the players became strained when Utseya and two other committee members, Elton Chigumbura and Vusi Sibanda, wanted him to employ their wives at the ZPCA and he refused. He further claims that in a meeting with ZC over player affairs, ZC consultant Ozias Bvute "categorically said to Prosper: 'Get rid of Zvimba and I will give you what you want.'"
FICA had promised ZPCA a loan of US$2 million to set themselves up and to protect the players financially if they decided to strike over the World Cup contract. But when Utseya informed Smith of Zvimba's impending departure at the end of 2014, FICA began to get cold feet. Smith wrote that because the $2m was to come out of money pooled from FICA's other player associations, "we do not have to work with whoever you appoint - we only have to work with whoever we believe is acting in the best interests of the world's professional players". But, Utseya says, "they also needed to respect the fact that we can pick whoever we want".
As has so often been the case, Zimbabwe's cricketers found themselves with the fewest cards to play in a negotiation. "We were between a rock and a hard place," says Utseya, who played a leading role in that critical pre-World Cup period. "If we wanted to take on ZC, we needed [FICA] to empower us financially. Then I know that if I'm not going to play for the next three months, I'm still well looked after. That didn't happen."
"You feel like you don't belong at the level if you continuously lose. We had our moments where we won games, but it was 90% stress"
"You feel like you don't belong at the level if you continuously lose. We had our moments where we won games, but it was 90% stress" © AFP
The prudent, long-term approach would have been to do anything to keep the ZPCA on track, but not for the first time in Zimbabwe, short-termism won out. Instead of securing 25% of ZC's World Cup earnings for the wider player pool, Utseya and the other squad members settled for a one-off $650,000 payout that they shared among themselves.
In the wake of his ban last year, Utseya admits that his approach has changed.
"I used to set long-term goals, but now I don't - I just set short-term goals. It's game by game, series by series. I would say that because of that, I'm now a different person. I don't have regrets any more. I just go and express myself and if it comes off, it comes off. If it doesn't, then it doesn't."
In the unpredictable, often uncontrollable world of Zimbabwe cricket, this philosophy might be the only one that ensures survival.
Tristan Holme is a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He is working on a book about Zimbabwe cricket
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