Heath Streak, the 29-year-old captain of the Zimbabwe cricket team, has big, brown, rather doleful eyes, like those of a spaniel. But to his critics he is more of a poodle, a lapdog.
Robert Mugabe's regime has sequestered more than half of the 25,000 acres that made up the Streak family farm near Bulawayo, and Streak's father, Denis, spent a weekend in jail last year for daring to stand up to government-sponsored thuggery. Yet despite this, and despite the brave gesture of his team-mates Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, who famously took to the field during the World Cup wearing black armbands to mark the demise of democracy in their country, Streak is resolute in his opinion that sport and politics should not - and his eyes do not - mix.
From where I'm sitting, however - which is in his hotel room near Buckingham Palace - the Zimbabwean captain is no poodle. I think, although he would never admit it to a journalist he had only just met, that deep inside him burns a fierce resentment of the Mugabe regime. How can it not? But I think also that he sincerely believes, with no less conviction than that which compelled Olonga and Flower to make their protest, that the job of a cricketer is to play cricket, and the job of a Zimbabwean cricketer to give some succour to his fellow-countrymen by achieving success on the field of play.
Unfortunately for him, this latter objective took a hammering in the first Test match at Lord's, which England won with ridiculous ease inside three days. We'll come back to the cricket, but first, and even though he would probably rather stick needles in those big, brown eyes, I want to talk about the political, social and economic upheaval in his homeland, to say nothing of the beatings, the torture, the murders. This idea that he is somehow oblivious to it, or worse, somehow condoning it ... does this cause him anguish, or is it by now water off a duck's back?
"I wouldn't say either," he says, slowly. "I don't enjoy reading that sort of stuff, so the best thing is not to read too much. The people who know me, who know what sort of person I am, their judgement is what matters to me. If someone who has never met me doesn't like what I'm doing, well, it's hard for them to have an opinion that matters to me. I have a conscience, and I can live with what I'm doing.
"I've been castigated by a lot of people in Zimbabwe because of the perception that I'm a yes-man. They say that I agree with what's going on for my own financial embetterment, and my wife has had to live with quite a few remarks about me, but that comes with being who I am at this stage in our history."
Who he is, specifically, is the scion of an old Matabeleland farming family, with African roots that go all the way back to William Streak, of Henley-on-Thames, who was wounded at Waterloo and emigrated in 1820. Today, the Streaks have 700 head of cattle. There were 1,800 before their land was seized. They also grow maize and paprika, and run a safari business of the hunting and shooting kind. Indeed, those who believe that Streak is the antithesis of political correctness in his attitude towards Mugabe, whose hand he says he would shake in the admittedly unlikely scenario of Mugabe arriving in Chester-le-Street for Thursday's second Test ("He's the President of my country, so yeah, I would shake his hand"), should hear him talk about levelling a shotgun at a leopard.
There are those who think him a moral coward; nobody could ever accuse him of physical cowardice. He has been charged by elephants several times, and each time has stood his ground, which is apparently the safest tactic. "You back off very slowly," he says, palpably relieved to be moving on from the Mugabe handshaking question. "But in each case it was just a mock charge. If an elephant puts its ears to the ground, you have to go hell for leather, and as long as you beat the person next to you, you're all right."
Such was the backdrop to Streak's adolescence. Charging elephants, paprika, and cricket. Lots of cricket. His father had played for Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe - alongside the current England coach Duncan Fletcher - and young Heath could bowl almost before he could walk. His idol was Dennis Lillee, and the first Test match he saw, Australia v West Indies, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, circa 1982.
"My father's parents lived in Sydney, and we used to visit them there. I must have been seven at the time, and the West Indies had Holding, Garner, Marshall, Patterson, those guys..." He shakes his head, reverentially. And then tells me that when he was 18, and about to leave school, he sat down with his father to discuss whether he should become a farmer or a professional cricketer. Fortuitously, the year he left school - 1992 - was the year Zimbabwe was accorded Test match status. So Denis Streak advised his boy to give cricket a whirl. After all, a farming career would still be waiting for him on the day he decided to hang up his whites. As long as there's still a farm.
By Christmas 1993, Streak - "Streaky" in the wonderfully creative world of cricketing nicknames - was playing for his country. His first Test match was against Pakistan, in Pakistan. "I remember bowling a stack of overs for 70-odd runs. And Inzamam was dropped, a difficult chance at midwicket, Guy Whittall diving to his left. I thought, 'that's it, I'll never get a Test wicket again'. But in the next Test I got eight wickets, a five-for and a three-for, and that included getting Javed Miandad out twice."
He is indubitably a classy bowler, whose outwitting of Michael Vaughan at Lord's dislodged England's opening batsman from the top of the world rankings. He also claimed the wickets of Robert Key and Alec Stewart. But that came as scant consolation; Zimbabwe never came close to making England bat a second time.
"Obviously it was disappointing," says Streak. "Especially having won the toss on a wicket favourable for bowling. But we were unlucky. We beat the bat quite often and dropped some catches. Had we taken those opportunities we probably would still have lost, but it would have gone to four days at least. And although [Mark] Butcher played very well, he rode his luck. Actually, I thought that [Anthony] McGrath played the most solid innings of all of them."
He is encouraged, he adds, by precedent. "The last time we were here, with a much more experienced side than we have now, we were also beaten inside three days in the first Test. Then we nearly won the second Test."
To do that this time he will first have to rebuild his players' confidence, in which task he at least has the formidable assistance of Geoff Marsh, the former Australian batsman and coach.
"Geoff led Australia to a World Cup victory and has a wealth of experience, albeit with great players at his disposal. But the Australian attitude and work ethic is fantastic, and that's what he brings us. Obviously his main expertise is with batting, and I think I'm already technically sound as a bowler, but he's very, very good on the mental side of the game.
"What he's trying to pass on is the Australian influence, how they got to their successes. And a lot of that is always thinking positive, not being scared of failure, putting all your mental energy into the hunger for success rather than thinking of the implications of failure. And you must never build an opponent up to hero status so that you think he's invincible."
Lending moral support as he tries to impart these messages to young men who, whatever he says, must be feeling pretty apprehensive in the wake of the thumping they received at Lord's, will be his wife, Nadine. She is due to arrive here from Zimbabwe on Monday, with their baby daughter, Charlotte, and I suspect that Streak's pleasure at seeing them will have two dimensions: one, that they're here, and two, that they're not there.
The younger Streaks live with his parents at Robin's Farm, the family ranch in the Turk Mine district north of Bulawayo, a domestic set-up which rather puts me in mind of the Ewings of Southfork. Except, of course, that in Dallas the goings on weren't half as dramatic.
I invite Streak to tell me a little more about his father's spell in jail, but as usual, he deploys a straight bat. "It wasn't a great experience for us as a family," he says with almost comical understatement, adding, "I'm hopeful that things do settle down in Zimbabwe. I see myself as Zimbabwean, not as a colonial. My roots are British if you go back a long way, but I only want to live in Zimbabwe."
His patriotism is manifestly as intense as that of Flower and Olonga; he speaks fluent Ndebele and thinks it shameful that more white Zimbabweans don't. But his patriotism, I venture, takes a very different form from that of his erstwhile team-mates.
"Yes, well, people have their choices. I do have opinions, and I have been affected both politically and economically by what is going on. But I don't think it's a good idea to make a big song and dance over cricket because of what is happening politically. People may not like that, but it doesn't mean I'm insensitive to the issues. And I know that there are a lot of people in my country who only have cricket to look forward to. They like seeing the national team playing against England or Australia. It gives them pride in their country, and they get some relief from watching sport."
I ask him when he became aware of the decision by Olonga and Flower to wear black armbands. He sighs. "The first I knew about it was on the day, when the game had already started. Our manager came to me and said, 'This is what's going to happen'. It was outside my control, so I left it to the management. I didn't want to disrupt anything."
Does he wish that they hadn't done what they did? A pause. "Well, like I say, my opinion is that sport and politics shouldn't mix, but they had their reasons." Does his father also believe that sport and politics shouldn't mix? "Funnily enough, yes. He thinks they are two separate entities."
The reality is that sport and politics are already as inseparable as gin and tonic, bread and butter, Ant and Dec. It seems almost wilfully naive to suggest otherwise. But there is something admirable in Streak's stubborn refusal to accept this Zimbabwe tour as anything other than a sporting enterprise. I think he is a decent man, with the simple virtues you might expect from the latest in a long line of Matabeleland farmers. I also think that he is the right man to captain Zimbabwe. But this is not necessarily the right time.
Heath Streak the life and times
Born: 16 March 1974, Bulawayo.
Playing career: Matabeleland, Hampshire, Zimbabwe.
Batting/bowling style: Right-hand batsman/right-arm fast-medium bowler.
Test match debut: v Pakistan, Karachi, 1993.
Bowling: 339 wickets, average 27.66. Best figures: 7 for 69.
Batting: 3579 runs, average 25.02. Best performance: 131.
Bowling: 183 wickets, average 27.09. Best figures: 6 for 87 v England, Lord's, 2000.
Batting: 1,450 runs, average 20.71. Best performance: 87 v Bangladesh, Harare, 2001.
He says (following defeat to England at Lord's, 2003): "It was disappointing but we have to look at the example we were set out there and we've got another game before the next test. We've got to pick ourselves up from this and learn from it before the second Test and give a better fight."
They say: "A lion-hearted fast bowler with immense stamina and strength, Streak has the ability to bowl outswing at good pace and with excellent control, as he showed at Lord's in 2000 when he was virtually a one-man attack." (Geoffrey Dean, Wisden)
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