Former Zimbabwe captain, Heath Streak, discusses the harsh impact of the player exodus over the last decade, his best years, and the challenges of coaching Bangladesh. Streak spoke to to Subash Jayaraman for ESPNCricinfo.com
Subash Jayaraman: How instrumental was your dad, Denis Streak, in the shaping of your cricket career, considering that he too was a fast-medium bowler?
Heath Streak: Very much. In fact, I grew up around the cricket field because on most weekends I was watching dad play either club cricket or first-class cricket. I grew up with some older cricketers. Kids around the cricket field were also playing cricket, trying to emulate them. I was very lucky, and of course him playing cricket at an elite level gave me a big advantage in that I got very good-quality coaching from a very young age.
Dad also was a bowler. So I was trying to copy what he was doing, ultimately. I also generated a very early interest for cricket. In those days it was the Kerry Packer series in Australia and I really enjoyed watching people like Malcolm Marshall, Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee, lots of greats. All those guys were playing on that stage. I wanted to be a fast bowler and then terrorise people just like they did.
SJ: Looking back, do you believe that you got the most out of your all-round abilities considering that you had to shoulder the bowling for Zimbabwe for a long time and also the captaincy?
HS: My all-round abilities really came out in the latter half of my career. Of course, with the problems that we had in Zimbabwe, my career was cut off probably four to five years earlier than it should have been. I really missed out on my best years as a batsman. My average was picking up and I was making a lot of contributions. I really enjoyed it. Initially, the team demanded a bowler out of me and made sure that my performances were key to Zimbabwe as a bowler. Once my experience allowed me to spend less time working on my bowling, I was able to work on my batting too.
SJ: You were only 32 when your international career ended. Could you take us through the various things that happened in 2005-06, which culminated in you choosing county cricket instead of Zimbabwe?Advertisement
HS: It all came down to our cricket board not having a clear policy on the integration that they had. It put a lot of doubt in a lot of the young players in terms of their future. There was one instance of one of the first-class boards threatening to boycott because they felt that the team that had been selected didn’t represent the demographics of Zimbabwe. It was a very unsettling time for everyone and all the players at that time – black and white – didn’t want these racial policies
They just wanted to play cricket and felt that the best XI that we had in Zimbabwe – given that we were a small country anyway – should be the one that was picked. Unfortunately, as we see in other places, sometimes the people who run and administer the game forget about the players, because they are the most important product. If you look after your players and if they perform well, it is easy to make a success out of your home board and what is going on.
SJ: A listener says that he admired you for going against the board and resigning. Did you fear for your life under the Mugabe regime?
HS: No, not at all. It was really more people taking advantage of the political situation at that time. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union was making a lot of money and people who had no background or history in cricket suddenly were very interested in becoming a part of the hierarchy in Zimbabwe cricket. That is where the problem started.
SJ: Would you say that the 1999-2003 team was the best side Zimbabwe ever had, with the likes of the Flower brothers, Alistair Campbell, yourself, Murray Goodwin, Neil Johnson, Olonga and others?
HS: Yes, I think so. I think there were great Zimbabwe cricketers, individual cricketers. But collectively that was probably the best team. There were some really good world-class cricketers at that time. Our results in that period showed it. We were able to beat many of the top teams regularly.
SJ: In the 1999 World Cup, you qualified for the Super Six but did not make the semi-finals based on net run rate when New Zealand went ahead of Zimbabwe. What was the mood around the squad during that tournament and what was the mood when it ended, because it promised much more?
HS: Obviously it was very exciting. We upset India and that was a massive one for us. We had an opportunity also to beat Sri Lanka but we didn’t quite play our best game of the tournament. The big win against South Africa was a massive boost for us. We were really riding the crest of the wave at that stage. Then we lost to Pakistan and we didn’t do as well in the Super Six as we would have liked. That was a bit of a disappointment after having a side as good as we had. We felt that even when we played Australia and gave them a good run for their money at Lord’s – if we played to our best and the top sides weren’t quite at their best we were capable of beating any team in that World Cup.
SJ: The 2003 World Cup is still spoken about in terms of the black armband protest by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga in the match against Namibia. As the captain, what was it like for you when your team-mates decided to protest the actions of the Mugabe regime?
HS: It was a very volatile and a very uncertain time for the politics of the country. That coincided with that World Cup. Unfortunately England didn’t come and play, that was rather unfortunate. We all wanted to play the game. It wasn’t an enjoyable time from that perspective.
In terms of Henry and Andy, that was something that they discussed with themselves. I didn’t even know about it till it actually happened. It wasn’t something that was discussed among the players where they ask around if you wanted to join. It was something that Henry and Andy felt that they wanted to personally do the thing together and it put the rest of us in the team under a bit of pressure. They were brave to do what they did. They made personal choices. We still got on and I thought the guys were really focused and continued to play hard cricket despite all the media activity going on around the black- armband protest.
SJ: But as a captain, were you okay with what they did? They did put the spotlight squarely on you as the captain, because you were the one going to the press conferences. It takes the attention away from what you had on hand, which is to compete in the World Cup?
HS: Given the choice, I would have preferred it if they had not done what they did. But that is their own personal choice and opinion. It did specifically put me under pressure. But I handled that well and we kept the political aspect of things away from the cricket side of things and we managed to do that. We still played some good cricket. The guys were still very focused. We wanted to make the Zimbabwean people feel proud of us. That was something that we were aware of and we did not let that affect our performance.
SJ: What were your feelings in terms of seeing a Zimbabwean team come together, like the 1999-2003 side that had some great players, but then suddenly it starts to fall apart and Zimbabwe cricket is basically in reset mode. What were you going through personally, as a cricketer, as a captain and as a well-wisher of Zimbabwe cricket?
HS: I think the whole period from 2003 up until now has been a sad episode for Zimbabwe cricket, given the number of players of good quality who departed after that World Cup. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga were leaving us for the UK. Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson went back to Australia and South Africa respectively. They continued to have good careers. We lost Sean Ervine, a world-class performer. Travis Friend and Andy Blignaut stopped playing. Tatenda Taibu retired early. We had Gary Ballance, now playing for England, who left Zimbabwe in that period because he didn’t see a future playing for Zimbabwe. We had another person who left in that period, Kyle Jarvis, who retired recently. And another youngster left during that period is also representing New Zealand now, Colin de Grandhomme.
We have lost some really good-quality players and also some players who retired prematurely – Mluleki Nkala and Brighton Watambwa and Douglas Hondo. There is a huge group of people who should be still playing, maybe not all for their national team but still playing cricket at the highest level, certainly in first-class cricket and being the senior players in the system and upping Zimbabwe cricket. We can see now in the recent series where they beat Australia. If things were managed properly between 2003 and now, we wouldn’t just be hoping for a regular upset every now and then. We could be a World Cup side. That would be a No. 5, 6, 7 ranking. You put those players [who left] alongside the world-class players that we have with the likes of Brendan Taylors and Hamilton Masakadzas and Prosper Utseyas and some of these young guys, we would have a real pool and a world-class team. That is the sad thing.
SJ: There were players that came into the Zimbabwean team when you were the coach. That must have made you very happy, seeing these guys actually blossoming into professional cricketers.
HS: Yes. The sad thing is that I don’t think they are valued as much as they should be. Not valued enough just from the financial perspective but also in the way they are looked after and treated. That is why I said that there has been an exodus of players. You have to, at some stage, look at the mirror and ask “Why are all these players leaving?”
We are a country that has a small player base, but we are still able to occasionally upset a big team. We would do that more regularly if we manage to hang on to and look after the players a bit better and also prioritise what is important. You don’t just pay players a lot of money; you pay them for what they are doing, and you also make them accountable for it. You make people aspire to want to compete for that position and people value their jobs because they don’t want to let someone else take their place. I think that is something that has been non-existent – payment of players and people not being paid for months or weeks at a time. Those things have historically been there over the last decade. It has been a continual problem. The players certainly distrust the administration. It is a major problem for Zimbabwean cricket.
SJ: When you were the captain and given weakened team, did you have a say in selection?
HS: We did have say in selection, but it became a problem when people outside the selection panel were starting to interfere. Board directors who had nothing to do with selection wanted to see the balance of the team selected purely on racial grounds. This was against the constitution that was in place. These people didn’t care for what was going on. They just were trying to push their own corners and try to get themselves into positions of power.
SJ: Coming in as a foreign bowling coach for an Asian team, Bangladesh, with their own culture and backgrounds, how do you see your role with the team? Do you see any similarity in how you had to lead a very young Zimbabwe team post 2003 and the role with Bangladesh?
HS: Yes. I do think it is similar in that we have a domestic system that still needs a lot of improvement. That is where we can work with the board and improve the system in which, like for me specifically, we see how the fast bowlers are nurtured and identified and looked after at age-group levels into the first-class system and ultimately into the Bangladesh A team and the national team. Those are important, that they get coached properly, looked after properly, playing in the right way and monitored; because once they get into the national team and I take over the technical and tactical work with them, these guys have at least got a decent grounding. The level of domestic cricket is similar to that in Zimbabwe. It needs improvement and we need to make it harder and tougher so the gap between domestic cricket and playing international cricket is not so much.
Australia and England for example – their state and county cricket respectively is played at a very high level and much closer to international level. Now what we are trying to do is to get more A games to bridge the gap between domestic and international sides so we have got a much better measuring tool on how players can perform. Players perform in domestic cricket and hopefully can showcase their abilities in the next level and we can see if they are able to kick on to the international level.
SJ: What happens to the academy that you were running before you took the job with Bangladesh?
HS: I have a couple of coaches who are running it for me. I am looking at getting a full-time sponsor which will allow me to hire a full-time head coach – a highly qualified head coach. That is one thing that I am working on at the moment.
SJ: When you look back at your Zimbabwe career, besides the obvious pride in representing one’s nation in international sport, how will you describe how your career went?
HS: I was very pleased with the outcome of my career. Now I have had some very memorable moments playing for Zimbabwe from 1993 to 2005. I enjoyed that part of my life. It is something that I cherish and always will cherish. I made some really exceptionally good friends both in Zimbabwe and abroad during that time. So I am very fortunate I played as long as I did.