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Symbol of a nation’s future

He could have been just another youth among the hundreds of thousands brought from Zimbabwe’s countryside to Harare by urban drift. Instead, in 11 days’ time and all being well, Tatenda Taibu will run down the steps of the Lord’s pavilion and on to the field for the first Test as Zimbabwe’s 20-year-old vice-captain, batsman-wicketkeeper and symbol of his country’s future.

If it is a fine line between success and failure in sport, it was finer still in Taibu’s case. Seven years ago one of the few ways out of the “high-density areas” of Harare, as the PC euphemism has it, was a cricket scholarship to Churchill High School, of which there were four a year. Just before the exam Taibu fell and bruised his right arm so that he could not hold a bat. Four other boys won the scholarships.

He was saved from a life in the barber’s shop which his late father owned and his elder brother now runs, by an Indian businessman who saw Taibu playing cricket alongside his own son at Chipembere Primary School. This businessman chipped in so that Stuart Matsikenyeri — who will be in Zimbabwe’s one-day party — was promoted to a full scholarship, and Taibu became the fourth cricket scholar.

On England’s tour of Zimbabwe in early 2000, Nick Knight and Mark Alleyne visited Chipembere Primary and played a pick-up game with the boys, one of them Taibu’s younger brother, Kudzayi, now an allrounder at the national academy. It could have been Barbados in the 1950s. The children were immaculate in their uniform, discipline and cricket technique, even if their equipment was pitifully scant. When the game was over, the fielding side walked off in single file to shake hands with their opponents.

This ethos of black cricket in Zimbabwe, this discipline, was shaped by one man in particular, Steve Magongo, who has coached many of the coaches who work for the Zimbabwe Cricket Union and has become a national selector. “Steve was very tough,” Taibu remembers. “If he set us to make a score of, say, 125 in a 25-over game and we didn’t get them, he’d make us miss lunch or tea.” No mean punishment in latter-day Zimbabwe.

Being so short — he is now 5 feet 4 inches — Taibu could easily have been overlooked in a less disciplined system. “We didn’t have any nets when I was at Chipembere, we just had some big trees in the playground and painted stumps on them. But I never got the chance to bat in the breaks because I was so small and the big guys pushed you around. It was only at games time when cricket was organised that I got a chance.”

Of which he has so far made the utmost. He used to be a batsman and off-spinner, but when he was 14 and had to fill in for one game as a wicketkeeper, he was spotted by Bill Flower, Andy Flower’s father, who gave him a pair of Andy’s gloves. Taibu is one of those elite athletes who can turn his co-ordination to any sport: not only his first love of football, but pole-vaulting and long-distance running, and fly-half for his school 2nd XV until he had to give up rugby too, and school captain of squash and table tennis. When he captained Zimbabwe in the last Youth World Cup, he kept wickets at the start and end of an innings and bowled his off-breaks in the middle overs.

His appointment as vice-captain of the full national side at the age of 19 — he turns 20 on Wednesday — has been seen by some as political expediency. I would say he should be well-equipped to succeed Heath Streak in a couple of years, though the Lord’s Test could be too soon if Streak is injured. He is astonishingly mature, like Parthiv Patel, the Indian 17-year-old wicketkeeper who made his Test debut at Trent Bridge last summer and looked a boy when he went out to bat in his first innings, and a man three days later when he blocked out for a crucial draw.

Taibu could be a product of the Australian system, being so articulate in English, let alone being confident: “Obviously we are here to win the Test series,” he said. In the field he has everything it takes to be a wicketkeeper, and not only the quickness of feet and hands (he has yet to break a finger) but a bubbling personality which makes him the heart of this frail yet determined young team: the sort of personality which England want to see in young keepers Chris Read and James Foster.

Of his kind, Taibu is not alone either. One of the other three scholars in his year at Churchill was Hamilton Masakadza, who as a 17-year-old schoolboy had the technical and mental discipline to score 119 on his Test debut against West Indies and 85 in his second against South Africa (it is regrettable that another Magongo product misses this tour because he is studying marketing at the University of Bloemfontein).

In present day Barbados, by contrast, when Steve Waugh asked West Indies to follow-on in the third Test, the Sky cameras alighted on Chris Gayle standing up in shorts and stretching, apparently not alert to the prospect that he would have to open the batting in eight minutes’ time. Magongo would surely have had a fit.

No wonder, given the ethos of black cricket in Zimbabwe, Taibu asserts a bright future, in spite of the government’s mis-rule. “There has been a 200 per cent change since two years ago in getting the sport known through TV, coaching and whatever,” he said.

“Prince Edward School as well as Churchill now takes cricket scholars and the young guys are willing to learn as quickly as possible.” Let us hope the lesson at Lord’s is not painful.

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