Cricket World Cup: Houghton has his eye on a bright future

Zimbabwe are leaving nothing to chance before Sunday's showdown with New Zealand.
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The Independent Online
ZIMBABWE'S VICTORY over South Africa at Chelmsford last Saturday may not have done much for English cricket, but the effects it could have on the fortunes of the youngest Test playing nation - and not just in this tournament - are incalculable.

While their first win over their greatest rivals came as a complete shock to most neutral observers, it was in fact the culmination of a steady improvement in Zimbabwe's fortunes. The country that gave the world Mike Procter and Colin Bland, and gave England Graeme Hick, has been desperate to emerge from the shadow of its neighbours across the Limpopo River.

"All my life I've wanted to beat South Africa," said Dave Houghton, the coach and former Test batsman. "I've played them in hockey Tests as well and never managed to win. It's the big brother, little brother situation. There's obviously an intense rivalry and I suppose in a way a little bit of jealousy on our part. They've got all the money, all the equipment, all the best players and we're the poor neighbours next door."

Ever since Zimbabwe's inaugural Test against India in 1992, they have struggled to justify their new-found status, both to the non-playing black population at home and the established cricket world - particularly England, whose patronising attitude on their first and only tour there to date still rankles.

"Nobody really felt we deserved Test status, and it's taken us a long time to become competitive in the Test arena," said Houghton, the batting stalwart of the side until his retirement last year. "But in the last 12 months we've played really well. We've had a couple of Test victories, we won a Test series in Pakistan and we did well in the Sharjah one-day trophy. So there was an air of expectation for us to get into the Super Six in this tournament and that was our plan before we left home.

"The sides we'd targeted to beat to get there were India and Sri Lanka and really we didn't feel we had much chance at all against South Africa. But that victory really has made a big difference. All the games now will be shown live on Zimbabwe television, so it's not just the people who can afford satellite dishes who are watching us now, it's the whole nation."

That nation, the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia, has taken its time to warm to a game that has always been the domain of the white community, who make up less then one per cent of the population. Neither of the two main newspapers saw fit to send a reporter to England for the World Cup, and television coverage of the first round was such that, when Henry Olonga came on to bowl Zimbabwe to victory over India with three wickets in the last over, the state broadcaster switched to a news bulletin.

But with players like Olonga, whose Test debut coincided with Zimbabwe's historic first victory, over Pakistan in 1994, and Mpumelelo "Pommie" Mbangwa already breaking through from the Bantu-speaking majority, Houghton believes it will not be long before the racial make-up of the national team is a true reflection of its people.

"South Africa was a different situation to us, because prior to their independence they had black cricketers already playing cricket," Houghton explained. "The Basil d'Oliveiras didn't just come out of the woodwork. They had a history of it, but we didn't. Prior to independence, with the apartheid situation, black schools played football and athletics while the white schools played rugby, football and tennis.

"All that changed in 1980, but I said at that time it wouldn't be the first generation of young black players who will make it, it will be their kids and that's starting to happen. Pommie and Henry are role models. The next time this team turns around it will be a black team, because the best young players are black and now they've got a history."

Back home Houghton is involved in the development of the game at all levels. In the past year he has launched Zimbabwe's cricket academy and, by placing established players as well as promising youngsters in provincial cricket outside the two major cities, Harare and Bulawayo, he expects the number of first-class teams to rise from two to five in the near future.

For the moment, though, his focus remains firmly on the Super Six and Zimbabwe's first assignment on Sunday, when victory against New Zealand could well be enough to take them through to the semi-finals. "I'm a little bit worried," he said, "because we're suddenly sitting with four points and people think we're there. But, as England found out, you can't think you've got one foot in the door, you've got to keep winning."

And if they do keep winning, who knows, maybe they could even emulate the feats of Sri Lanka in the last World Cup? "It's funny, everybody said before we left, Sri Lanka did it last time, this is your turn now. It would be fairy-tale stuff, but you've got no rights here. You've got to get up and beat these big boys, otherwise you're going nowhere."