Campbell the freed fighter of Zimbabwe

Life back as one of the boys rekindles the enthusiasm of the leader who was publicly pilloried

Alistair Campbell was captain of Zimbabwe for 19 Test matches and 76 one-day internationals. Towards the end of his tenure he was subject to constant and vitriolic personal abuse in his country's press.

It made the stuff routinely dished out to England football managers by this country's tabloids read like epistles vowing everlasting love. At almost the last, when Campbell and Steve Waugh were going out to toss before a Test, the captain of Australia, who is not renowned for indulging in sympathetic platitudes with the opposition once he has a toe over the boundary line, said something along the lines of: "Strewth mate, I've never seen anything like it. I don't know how you put up with it."

One match later, Campbell was gone, determinedly resigning and steadfastly rejecting selectorial pleas to recon- sider. It was not simply the wild traducement which had persuaded him. His batting form had suffered badly, the team were playing poorly, he sensed that it was no longer worth the candle.

Campbell's form has not noticeably improved since. Actually, it noticeably continued to decline, so much so that he was dropped for the one-dayers on Zimbabwe's tour of the West Indies last month. It is not to deride Zimbabwe to suggest that being dropped by them is an achievement almost as substantial as scoring a Test hundred for them, something which Campbell has yet to do after 74 innings.

"It was probably the kick I needed," he said. "There aren't the players pushing for your place in our team, so you get used to playing without having to look over your shoulder. Maybe it was a bit of a surprise at the time, but when it happened I knew that there were good reasons for it. There were faults in my game which I have tried hard to make sure that I rectified."

Campbell was tending to fall over on the shot at the crease and he was moving his feet less and less as the runs dried up. But he remains capable of playing some alluring cricket. He is not a left-hander in the nonchalant class who coerces any passing observer into taking up sonnet composition; nor is he the stodgy, awkward type who puts the cack into cack-handed.

He is somewhere between, workmanlike but still easy enough on the eye when playing shots off his legs. He glides those rather than punches them. There were signs even in the Caribbean that he was over the worst. He made two centuries in the warm-up matches before the axe fell when he failed in the two Tests.

But he compiled an asser-tive hundred at Southampton last week ("I don't think I played and missed once") and it is unthinkable that his country will go into their first Test at Lord's without him.

The events at Canterbury on Friday, when Zimbabwe were humbled by Kent's second-string bowling attack, emphasised both the fragility of their upper order and the importance to it of Campbell and his successor as captain, Andy Flower, who were both missing. They are also the only two men to have appeared in all Zimbabwe's 41 Tests. At one time Campbell was averaging a steady 32, but that is now down to 25, and he has gone 26 innings without a fifty.

He is a direct, open and engaging man, like most Zimbabwean cricketers, like, indeed, many of his compatriots, cricketers or not. There is an assurance about him which brooks no nonsense, suggests he might be prickly, but he is distinctly approachable.

"I knew the time had come to go as captain last year," he said. "The side had achieved quite a bit, Test series wins at home and abroad, reaching the Super Six stage of the World Cup, but we didn't go on from there. The press attacks built up but they didn't seem to have anything to do with the cricket. They were hostile and personal and after a while they can wear you down.

"Being captain of Zimbabwe is actually a tricky job. I was proud to do it, and when Andy leads the side out at Lord's there will be just a small element of regret that it's not me. But there's much more to it than leading the players on the field - talking to administrators and officials, having meetings, looking after all manner of things. I've got a young family and I was never at home with them."

He is passionate about cricket, he appears to have recovered his enjoyment of the game now that he is one of the boys again. But the cricket on this inaugural senior tour of the mother country has been overshadowed by the disturbing events at home. Campbell is direct about them, too.

"It is worrying and you can tell that by the size of my phone bill. But perhaps it's not quite as dreadful as has been made out. There have been some terrible incidents and it's all bound to be distracting. We are determined that it won't affect our cricket and we have a meeting every day at which we try to ensure we will put all that out of minds when we go out to play."

How difficult it will be for them was merely crystallised by their experiences at the St Lawrence ground. Campbell acknowledges that for them to compete with England both in the two Test matches and the triangular one-day international tournament which follows (West Indies are the other components), all their key players will have to be on song. That means him, Andy Flower, Neil Johnson, Murray Goodwin and Heath Streak at least.

Improving for Campbell and everybody else is fraught with problems. Virtually all the cricket they play is in the inter-national arena. Their first- class structure is extremely weak and lacks depth. They are investing money in it (their development fund having acquired sponsorship of some 500,000 Zimbabwean dollars, about £85,000, from the website company Cricinfo), trying to ensure at last that cricket becomes part of black as well as white sporting culture.

"It will take a generation, but that is our future," said Campbell. "That's where we must build to ensure that our cricket continues to grow. It is hard at present. There is some turmoil at home but nobody's talking of giving up or leaving. We are desperate to give our people back at home something to go out and have a drink for."

For that reason alone you wish them well, but the next three months will be mighty hard going.

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