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'I had opportunities to leave but I didn't want Zimbabwe to go downhill'

Dave Houghton talks about playing alongside Fletcher and Hick, upsetting big teams, and the team's early Test days

Interview by Scott Oliver |

"We were playing Test cricket and wanted to embrace it, but the truth is, I was embarrassed we were playing" © Getty Images

Before we went to the 1992 World Cup, the Zimbabwe cricket board asked the players: do you want to play international cricket or go back into the South African cricket system? To a man, the cricketers put their hands up to go back into the South African system. There were only 60 cricketers left in the country - how could we possibly play Test cricket?

I'm proud that so many young African cricketers are playing cricket in Zimbabwe, which goes back to the early 1980s, when we went into the townships, teaching the game.

I first met Graeme Hick at Prince Edward School at 13, where I was coaching. We had known for some time that he was this precocious talent, scoring a monumental amount of runs at Under-12 level. One day, he didn't show up at nets. It turned out his parents had sent him to see an educational psychologist because he wasn't doing too well with his schoolwork. We all sort of looked at each other, as if to say: well that's a waste of time, because he's not going to be a doctor, he's going to be a cricketer. As long as he can count from one to a hundred, he'll be fine. As it turns out, he could count to 400...

During my only overseas Test hundred, I broke my instep in mid-innings. The bowler was swinging it out but got one to reverse, which hit me flush on top of the foot. I was on about 50. I set off for a run and collapsed. The physio said, "Whatever you do, don't take off your shoe. I've seen the replay and we're going to send a runner out." On 99, they put in a ring of nine fielders and bowled at me like that for 45 minutes. They eventually got tired, took the new ball, and Chris Cairns bowled me a bouncer which I gloved for four.

I played a lot of rugby at school, and my brother, Billy, was captain of the hockey team. They were going on a tour of Cape Town and didn't have a goalkeeper, so I went along. I stopped a few with my boot, worked at it and ended up playing a few internationals. It was a very short-lived career. I got the Best Defender trophy after a series against Pakistan. They were No. 1 in the world at the time and we were mid-teens, so it's hardly surprising I had to stop a few!

I'd love to say, looking back, that I was delighted we were playing Test cricket and wanted to embrace it, but the truth is, I was embarrassed we were playing. People were saying they'd have to rewrite the record books. I was worried we were going to get turned over inside two days and people would say, "I told you so".

"The first Test victory, over Pakistan, was an amazing feeling, but when you look back now, it's tainted a little bit"

I love the uniqueness of county cricket, the amount of cricket that's played. If you ask any cricketer, they'd rather play than practise.

We played a Test in Colombo, and Sri Lanka were 130 for 5, chasing 330 on a turning wicket. Aravinda de Silva was still in, and [Arjuna] Ranatunga came out with a runner, which was annoying to say the least. On top of that, when he stood at square leg he was leaning on the umpire, KT Francis' shoulder, which really did annoy us a lot. Over the next day, we reckoned we got these guys out comfortably 15 times - and not just bog-standard lbw standing in front of the stumps, but caught at slip, caught at gully. The players wanted to walk off before the end, but as coach I encouraged them to stay on. They wanted to boycott the post-match presentation. The match referee, Raman Subba Row, said, "No, it'll be an international incident." We went into their dressing room to shake their hands and none of them could look up at us.

In terms of the most knowledgeable person I've ever stood next to on a cricket field, Duncan Fletcher wins by miles. He basically coached us while he played the game. And he was a much better cricketer than his stats show.

As youngsters, we all had national service to do. You got a call-up paper that said you were going into the army, the air force, the police, whatever. In my case, I went into the police as a regular. I did my six-month training, then a stint as a traffic policeman, then in the charge office at one or two suburban stations. At the time, the Independence War heated up, and I was transferred out into the Special Branch. At the end of the war, in early 1980, I tried to stay on for another two years but it became pretty clear that there was a need to have the rapid advancement of black policemen through the ranks - they had been held back under Rhodesian rule - which meant my career was at a stalemate.

I played for three years at Quick CC in the Hague. Coconut matting on a concrete strip. I'd been there on a hockey tour and always wanted to go back.

We got 312 against Sri Lanka in our first game of the 1992 World Cup, which at the time was a world record. Unfortunately we only held it for about four hours because they got one more than us.

There was an exodus in the late 1980s: Hick, Trevor Penney, Kevin Curran, Peter Rawson - probably the best seamer we've ever had. I had opportunities to leave but I didn't want Zimbabwe to go downhill and never play again.

"I kept wicket for ten years, before I got an injury from repeatedly catching the ball over a period of time that closed all the blood capillaries" © Toronto Star via Getty Images

The club structure, which was so strong in the days when we came through, has almost disintegrated. We've still got a fantastic school structure, but they come out of school and there's nowhere to play.

I made my first first-class hundred against Oxford University, in the same game as Graeme Hick made his. He was 19 and I was almost 29. It was a shame to lose him but there was nothing to keep him in Zimbabwe: only a World Cup every four years.

I kept wicket for ten years, before I got an injury from repeatedly catching the ball over a period of time that closed all the blood capillaries. I noticed it while playing in Holland, when I took off my glove after a wicket had fallen. My hand was freezing cold and I didn't know what was wrong. A guy in the opposition said, "What's up with your hand? It's a different colour". He happened to be a surgeon, and told me to go and see him the next day. An amazing bit of good fortune, really. I had an arteriography and it showed the closed capillaries, so I had an operation to force the blood flow on my right arm to the hand.

We as coaches are having to freshen up every year. I don't coach batting the same way I did ten years ago.

One of the things that happened in Zimbabwe - in the era growing up with Fletcher, Andy Flower, myself - was that you had to learn how to think for yourself. There weren't going to be too many people who could pass you info on a daily basis.

Andy Flower's a very good example of a person who worked out for himself how to bat.

West Indies A sent all their up-and-coming fast bowlers in 1981. We'd seen guys like Garth Le Roux in the Currie Cup, but facing Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniel, Hartley Alleyne and Winston Davis was eye-opening. It was great exposure. We realised we could bat against these guys. At the end of the series Fletcher made a point of getting them to chat to us about where we could improve.

We got to the last game [of the 1992 World Cup] and played England on a shocking wicket. We got 130-odd, and it was just a miserable feeling at the break. Geoffrey Boycott came to our dressing room and asked me to sign this brand-new white ball, which he was getting all the captains to sign. He said to me, "You amateurs can't knock it around. You watch what the professionals do when they come out." England made about 125 all out in the final over. I couldn't find Geoffrey at the end of the game, because I wanted to have a quick chat with him.

As youngsters, we all had national service to do. I went in to the police as a regular. I did my six-month training, then a stint as a traffic policeman, then in the charge office at one or two suburban stations

When I was keeping and Duncan was at first slip, the cricket conversations we had on the field were unbelievably astute and helped me hugely in my understanding of the game as I've gone on.

Damian D'Oliveira said to me, "If you bullshit the players and they ever find out, you'll have lost their respect and you might as well leave the next day."

After school I joined the police, who were very strong at sport. After a couple of years I played for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup, first against Transvaal. It was a steep learning curve. After independence we were immediately withdrawn from all South African sports and accepted into the ICC as an Associate.

I thought we were going to lose the next generation - the Flowers, the Strangs, Alistair Campbell, Heath Streak - so I put an ultimatum to the board in 1990: unless they were prepared to offer professional contracts, I was leaving.

At school I played cricket in conjunction with other sports - tennis - my first love - as well as rugby, hockey and squash, which is particularly good for hand-eye coordination - which I believe kept your hunger for each sport.

My ODI debut was against Australia in the World Cup. It was an amazing day. We'd only seen these guys on TV. Lillee and Thomson weren't as quick as they had been, but they still had an aura. We didn't know how we could beat them. The one thing in our favour was, they had six left-handers in the top seven, and John Traicos bowled unbelievably well. And Duncan, of course.

A few people have their private coaching clinics so they can make a living, but I don't think that necessarily helps Zimbabwean cricket. Cricket for the rich is not my idea of how you promote the game.

I sat down with John Hampshire, who'd come on board as our coach in our early days in Test cricket, and he said, "Our aim is to try and make these games go five days. If you lose in five days, then you've achieved something." We brought it right back to absolute basics. Don't worry about scoring, just play up and down the line. If we could make 180 runs in a day, bat two days, that's 360. If we bowl one side of the wicket, we'll compete. And that's how we played our cricket for those first ten games.

All my cricket, right up until the first Test in 1992, was on an amateur basis. The only first-class cricket we played after independence was against other countries' A sides. If selected, we took leave to be able to play, which didn't please the wives too much.

"Taking on the player-coach role with Zimbabwe was a very difficult couple of years for me" Chris Turvey / © PA Photos/Getty Images

The first Test victory, over Pakistan, was an amazing feeling, but when you look back now, it's tainted a little bit. It was around the time of Saleem Malik and all the match-fixing allegations.

The thing that annoyed me at the time was, we were not getting Test matches against South Africa, who were our neighbours. I played one game against them, in 1995.

Taking on the player-coach role with Zimbabwe was a very difficult couple of years for me. The boundary rope becomes a very dividing line, because I'm not the captain. You do all the preparation, all the analysis of the opposition, all the plans, then you cross the line and the captain might change tactics completely. I'm still on the field, but there's nothing I can do about it. We had some difficult times, Alistair Campbell and I, there were a couple of things we didn't agree on, and I had to realise this is not my realm now.

I was playing for West Bromwich Dartmouth in the Birmingham League. I went to pick up kit for the winter from Duncan Fearnley, who was chairman of Worcestershire at the time, and he said to me, "What are you doing next season? Why not captain our 2nd XI? You can't play county cricket, but I'll have you as captain/coach. I'll speak to West Bromwich and Dartmouth. We'll take over your contract and lease you to them on Saturday." The day before I arrived, they released Kevin Lyon, the first-team coach. Duncan called: "You're going to have to do the 1st XI as well." So, Thursday and Friday I was with the first team, Saturday I played the Birmingham League, Sunday I'd be with the firsts for the one-day game, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I was with the second team. It was a busy year.

Wasim [Akram] and Waqar [Younis] bowled with serious pace, but the guys were queuing up to face the new ball. In Rawalpindi, we were 135 for 1 chasing 240, but the minute they made it reverse, it was a huge problem for all of us. The problem was starting against it. If you happened to be in, then you had a chance.

"In terms of the most knowledgeable person I've ever stood next to on a cricket field, Duncan Fletcher wins by miles"

I made a hundred on Test debut, and got 40-odd not out in the second innings. One of my best friends sent me a message: "Retire now. You're better than Donald Bradman!"

No matter who you are, when you play against England it's always a big series.

We always felt that if we could stay in the game long enough then we had a chance of turning a side over, because the pressure was always on the other side. The longer we were in the game, the more mistakes they were likely to make under pressure.

I kept for 50 overs in unbelievable heat [in the 1987 World Cup], and I couldn't get any water down my throat to rehydrate, so I said to Iain Butchart, "I'm going to have to do it in boundaries." I kept moving over and hitting the ball over square leg, so they pushed him back and brought up the mid-on, Martin Crowe. I hit this ball, got a big piece of it, but it went too high up. He ran about 30 yards back and caught it, diving towards the crowd. It was one of the best innings I ever played, but my main memory is, we got so close and gave it away in the last over.

The team went straight from New Zealand into the 1996 World Cup, but I had to miss out with the broken foot. It was a clean snap, with one inch between the two pieces. It was the only time I missed cricket through injury.

Bumble was right: they did murder us on the day [in Bulawayo in 1996], but we had to do whatever it took not to lose the game.

After beating England in the 1992 World Cup, defending 134

After beating England in the 1992 World Cup, defending 134 © Getty Images

John Hampshire, in his tough old Yorkshire way, had said to us, "If you get hit by fast bowlers, don't show any pain. It only lasts two minutes and then goes numb." We're playing in Lahore and Waqar hit Grant Flower on the visor with his very first ball. It cut his cheek and knocked him on his backside. The 12th man ran out with some water and a towel, and Grant says: "Is my two minutes up yet, because it still f****** hurts."

I'd played against South Africa A in a warm-up game for the Sri Lankans, and made 1 and 3 - a very bad 3, in which I was dropped two or three times. I said to Hampshire, "I want to stop. I've had enough." He said, "Do me a favour and play the first Test." So I did, and scraped 50. "That's the best thing that could have happened," he said, and talked me into playing the next game. I got 266. Murali was turning it miles from outside off. At times he had just a slip and a mid-off and kept bowling it way outside off. There was no way I was going to drive, so on 199, I decided to reverse-sweep.

Malcolm Marshall would be right up there, but Wasim was the best bowler I ever faced. He bowled with pace. He could seam and swing the ball at will. He could go past the edge six balls out of six.

I'm very much an African. Heading out into the bush in my flip-flops and going for a spot of fishing on the river: that's Africa to me.

I'd always wanted Zimbabwe Cricket to have an academy, but there were never enough funds. Watching what Ian Botham had done over the years, I thought: why don't I do that and see what happens? So I did the walk, from Bulawayo to Harare, and we raised the money to build the academy. Then a few years ago Mark Vermeulen torched it and they never put it properly back together again. If I do get back to Zimbabwe, that would be one of my priorities.

Scott Oliver tweets here

 

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  • POSTED BY cricfan20511294 on | September 28, 2016, 13:14 GMT

    One of the greatest cricketer Zimbabwe ever produced! Fantastic sportsman with a terrific eye for the ball. I watched play both cricket and hockey and remember his heroics in both sports. Wonderful personality and down to earth human being. I had the pleasure of playing with him on a few Stragglers tours in the UK and I Also managed the Mashonaland Provincial team when Davy was captain and regular player. Always cheerful and willing to assist the younger players at Old Hararians Cricket Club. It was a pleasure to be with him as he had some much knowledge of the game and read the game very quickly. A very dedicated and committed cricketer both as player, coach and administrator.

    Nick Chouhan

  • POSTED BY sanjeewa on | September 27, 2016, 9:24 GMT

    Dave is a LEGEND. But that was a highly exaggerated reaction by him as the coach to umpiring decisions in the above mentioned Colombo test.As I recalled desicion on Ranatunga caught behind by Flower boweld by Strang blown out of propotion to claim-'we reckoned we got these guys out comfortably 15 times - and not just bog-standard lbw standing in front of the stumps, but caught at slip, caught at gully' which was not the story.Every appeal for a dismissal should'nt be considered to have been given out.

  • POSTED BY Brian on | September 26, 2016, 10:37 GMT

    There will come a time when we can rebuild that academy Davie !!! One of the best players of spin ever

  • POSTED BY ran on | September 25, 2016, 19:50 GMT

    zimbzabwe is poor team of world.

  • POSTED BY DANIEL on | September 25, 2016, 8:55 GMT

    Great cricketer Houghton and clearly to this day has nothing but the best intentions for Zimbabwe's cricket. Zimbabwe seems to have this ability to produce excellent keeper batsmen. Would be interesting to see what the batting average is for Zimbabwe for wicketkeepers since they started playing Test cricket. Not sure how many Tests Houghton kept in, if any, but certainly Flower, Taibu and Taylor must have a combined average of somewhere around 40, a comparison against other countries wicketkeepers in all Test matches would make for an interesting read.

  • POSTED BY Ayem on | September 25, 2016, 7:53 GMT

    great self less player, contributed so much to cricket in zimbabwe

  • POSTED BY Abhishek on | September 25, 2016, 5:35 GMT

    A hero to the core. Dave Houghton stood up and delivered, no matter what. Propping up a weak team trying to find its feat in International cricket is never easy. He kept playing and achieving milestones after milestones, be it his 142 against NZL in '87 WC, the century on debut against India or his monumental 266. And he did it while donning the glove and captaining the side.

  • POSTED BY Suresh on | September 25, 2016, 5:16 GMT

    Very nice piece. Always had a lot of respect for the man

  • POSTED BY Steve on | September 24, 2016, 21:10 GMT

    A fighter, that's what I liked most about Houghton more than anything else. Like many stalwarts with both Zim and SA after their admittance to Tests in the early 90s, who were on the wrong side of 30s and past their prime, they played for pride to further the cause of their team. No amount of praise will be enough for these guys. Their struggles has made the game more endearing to the sports fans. Hats off to them all.

  • POSTED BY Andrea on | September 24, 2016, 8:52 GMT

    An appeal to the Curran brothers: please play also some matches in the Zimbabwe squad. Follow Dave Houghton example!

  • POSTED BY Brett on | September 24, 2016, 8:46 GMT

    Great article. For me, this is the essence of cricket. Thanks Dave.

  • POSTED BY Jonathan on | September 24, 2016, 8:23 GMT

    Imagine a world where no Zimbabwean cricketer had ever left. I wonder how their team may look and perform now. When Houghton talks about his conversations at slip as astute and high minded you don't doubt him for a second. For me this is the cricketing culture that takes so long to foster, generations are needed for a team to excel at test cricket, that knowledge disappearing with the purchase of a plane ticket is so destructive and saddening. Having players like Ervine, Taylor, Ballance and Jarvis plying their trade on the county circuit is so frustrating, not that I am against them doing it, but in that world where Zimbabwe is a prosperous, happy, multicultural society, I imagine them being a pretty good cricket team.

  • POSTED BY Soumya Das Gupta on | September 24, 2016, 5:52 GMT

    Amazing player what a side Zimbabwe was in those days.