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Tatenda Taibu and the horrors of a life outside the charmed circle

Taibu knew something like this would happen when he stood up to the corrupt cricket board run by Robert Mugabe’s men.

First they tried to bribe him with money and promises of prime farmland. When that failed, the Deputy Information Minister called him to his office and casually threw an envelope across to him. It wasn’t more money. It contained pictures of those presumably killed by the regime. Tatenda Taibu knew something like this would happen when he stood up to the corrupt cricket board run by President Robert Mugabe’s men. He was just 22, had been leading the national team for nearly two years, and realized that he had to leave the country.

His son was just a few months old, his wife had nearly been kidnapped, and they were followed by what looked like official vehicles everywhere they went. Threatening telephone calls were made, false stories spread.

All skipper Taibu had done was ask for better conditions and financial deals for his players. Cricketers in Zimbabwe missed out on much of the money provided by the International Cricket Council (ICC) thanks to high-level corruption in the administration. The captain himself was paid in US dollars while the rest had to make do in the local currency as inflation galloped.

Exile and the ICC ban on Zimbabwe cost Taibu many years of international cricket. Despite all that he has been through — delineated without sentimentality or self-pity in his autobiography, Keeper of Faith — he looks fit enough to play for his country. He is just 36, younger than current international Jimmy Anderson of England.

But, like Henry Olonga, who too raised his voice (along with Andy Flower) at the 2003 World Cup, Taibu had to retire in his 20s. He was good enough to be in the national squad at 16 (when still in school), play for his country at 17, be named vice-captain to Flower at 18 and become the youngest Test captain at 20, younger than Tiger Pataudi was when he led (Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan broke that record by a few days recently). He was the poster boy of Zimbabwe’s development programme, emerging from the township of Highfield in Harare.

To have the strength of character to walk away from a comfortable life as a national hero and take on the authorities is as rare as it is commendable; it is rarer among sportsmen. Taibu’s book should be recommended reading for Indian players — not so much to inspire protests as to give them a more balanced perspective on the cricketing world.

These have been Zimbabwe cricket’s heroes — players whose impact has gone beyond the game. In 2003, there was the black armband protest by Olonga and Flower “mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe”. They had to flee the country for focusing the attention on the corrupt and murderous ways of President Robert Mugabe and his government.

Here in India, with the national team leading the rankings and with the top players earning in millions of dollars, it might be difficult to understand what teams with less money, less exposure, fewer players to choose from go through. Taibu has written about the galloping rate of inflation in the country. “A friend told me the story of how he walked 15km to the bank to pick up his wages, and walked back 15km to save money. He arrived home that night with his money but when he woke up the next day inflation had risen so much that his monthly wage was enough to buy three oranges.”

When Taibu first led a protest, his teammates stood behind him, but very soon they turned and signed separate contracts with the cricket board. It was a betrayal, but one that Taibu empathises with now, although he felt differently at the time. “I realized that I had been swimming across an ocean for players who wouldn’t jump a puddle for me,” he wrote.

Taibu who lives and coaches in England has the makings of a top international coach (he was briefly in the KKR squad at the IPL). Here’s an insight into how he played the two great spinners of his time: “For Muthiah Muralitharan, if you saw the back of his hand with the thumb sticking out, that was the doosra. If you didn’t see the thumb but saw the ball coming out of the back of the hand, that was the ball that went straight on…”

For Anil Kumble, he focused on the little finger of the bowling hand which conveyed the messages to him.

Taibu returned to Zimbabwe following exile in Bangladesh, South Africa and England, and later became a selector. “Tatenda” in shona language means “Thank you, we are grateful”, and there is much in his story, including his spiritual journey, that is moving. Taibu’s gratitude for everything shines through too.

Alongside Alan Butcher’s The Good Murungu, Duncan Fletcher’s autobiography Behind The Shades, Olonga’s Blood, Sweat and Treason: My Story, Taibu’s Keeper of Faith gives heft to Zimbabwe’s recent cricket literature.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 5:13:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/tatenda-taibu-and-the-horrors-of-a-life-outside-the-charmed-circle/article30734818.ece

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