In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zimbabwe cricket was on the verge of, seemingly, a golden age, when it lost a generation of highly skilled players due to mismanagement and administrative heavy-handedness.
Heath Streak was one of the foremost of a group that had the likes of Neil Johnson, Murray Goodwin, Andy and Grant Flower, Henry Olonga and Alistair Campbell, among others – captaining the side for a while, being perhaps the best bowler his country has produced, and being good enough to hit a Test century.
In this chat with Wisden India, Streak opens up about the problems in Zimbabwe cricket, his early retirement, a journey that has seen him land the job of Bangladesh’s fast bowling coach, and the many memorable battles he had on the field with India. Excerpts:
From being the Zimbabwe captain, retiring early, and then Bangladesh coach, how did the journey happen?
Yes, it’s been quite a long journey for me, I suppose. I obviously ended my career prematurely with the problems we had in Zimbabwe in 2005. I then had four enjoyable years playing county cricket for Warwickshire based in Edgbaston in England. That was a fantastic time. As much I missed playing international cricket, I really enjoyed playing county cricket. I really got success in my first year. We won the (County) Championship, which was quite a big thing. After that I came back, and played one season in the ICL (Indian Cricket League). Then I was offered a coaching job with Zimbabwe as the bowling coach, which I did for three years before taking up the offer to join Bangladesh as their fast bowling coach.
The problems in Zimbabwe cricket are well documented. What was your experience?
At that time, there was a lot of background stuff happening, interference in selection. And it was having a very unsettling effect on all the team, irrespective of whether they were black or white. It was unfortunate. In retrospect you look back and wish we had been able to come to some kind of settlement. But it was a very difficult time for everyone, and sad for Zimbabwe cricket because it has had an effect on the development. If you look at where Zimbabwe cricket was going … Now, whilst they are not embarrassing themselves and still performing and competing at the international level, I think had we not lost Andy Flower and Henry Olonga from 2003 onwards, Zimbabwe would be a mid-ranked team, maybe five, six or seven in the world. We’d be a force to reckon with, especially in one-day cricket.
You had a really good side with Goodwin, Johnson, the Flower brothers, yourself. Looking back, would you have done things differently?
Retrospect isn’t an exact science. It’s very easy to say afterwards, “If I had done this …” because you know what would have happened. At the time, I stood by what I felt was right. Ethically I had a very strong feeling that we had to do the right thing. To me two wrongs don’t make a right. Because of something that has happened in the past, to discriminate the other way to try and counteract – that isn’t the right way to go. I felt that there was a good future for everyone in Zimbabwe, irrespective of where they came from. After I left, you’ve had guys like Elton Chigumbura, the Masakadzas and Tatenda Taibu. If those people had developed alongside the Sean Ervines, the Olongas, the Flowers, I think you can see that it would have been a really special group of players. These things are sad but that’s history, and hopefully going forward we can look back and learn from these mistakes and some of those people can be reintegrated back into Zimbabwe cricket because they still have a lot to offer.
What went wrong and what would you do set it right?
It is a very complex situation. I think the most difficult thing was people who came into administration were not of a cricketing background. In principle they had good ideas, but from a cricketing perspective it was very flawed. You can’t always follow those things by the book. You have to be flexible and evolve. In retrospect, both the administration and the players could have handled themselves better and put cricket first. It was a very tough time for a lot of these people.
Problems still seem to be dogging Zimbabwe cricket with payment issues and strikes …
A lot of that stems again from how players are treated in Zimbabwe. Players have to be accountable for their performances. But you make them accountable by looking after them, giving them everything they need first. And it also creates competition, because people want those positions. They see cricketers being looked after well and paid well, they start pushing to take their places. This is something a person with a cricket background will understand as opposed to people who have come from a business background, who understand business but not the intricacies of cricket.
Look at it this way, how many Test cricketers have there been since the inception of Test cricket?
Thousands. But there have been billions of people over that time. So it’s not a simple thing to be an international cricketer, and understanding what it takes to get to the top is important. And I think when you see the Indian team, having Ravi Shastri, Rahul Dravid -these types of people, who have got vast experience, alongside people who understand business, it’s a healthy combination. I think this is what is needed in Zimbabwe. There are very few ex-cricketers – off the top of my head I can think of only three international cricketers who are involved in administration and coaching. This also impacts the psyche of the current players who think “If I don’t make my money playing cricket now there isn’t much for me afterwards”. Because they look at how many jobs are available in coaching, administration, selection, umpiring, and think “Do I have a future?” Those are things that have to be changed and addressed going forward.
What made you go back to Zimbabwe and coach?
Alistair Campbell got me involved and then I did a couple of my coaching degrees as well. I coached at first-class level as well as the Zimbabwe team. The first-class team that I coached won the competition three consecutive years. In the last year we got to the final of the one-dayers, so domestically I really enjoyed that and gained a lot of experience.
Zimbabwe always seemed to lift themselves while playing India, with several memorable wins. Was there something special in playing India?
It was always special, especially because of the support of Indian fans. In Zimbabwe, you play in front of a few thousand people. To go play against India in stadiums where there were 40-50,000 people, it lifted us. And we really enjoyed it. And, of course, you had Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble. These guys were world icons. For a small nation like us to compete against them was something we really cherished. And we really wanted to prove ourselves that we could compete with the big boys. We played a lot of tournaments in Sharjah, a lot of triangular tournaments and really enjoyed that term.
As a pacer and coach, how do you see the current lot of Indian pacers?
Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron are genuinely quick bowlers. You’ve got Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma who are really good. There’s some good players coming through and getting exposure. Not just through the IPL (Indian Premier League), but I think the Indian domestic structure seems to be getting a bit more organised. And they are playing against a higher class of opposition at domestic level more often than they used to.
Now you have a group of fast bowlers who can compete in conditions outside. And I think it’s a bit like here in Bangladesh. The big challenge is exposing them to conditions. They have pace, but it’s about having the skill, knowledge and tact of how to bowl in certain conditions.
When you look on paper, the English bowling attack that beat India in England in 2014, and the abilities of the Indian fast bowlers, I don’t think there is a lot of difference in talent. It’s just that bowlers like James Anderson are highly skilled, and have learned the art of playing long-form cricket. They know how to swing the ball, work batsmen out, set them up.
These are skills they have developed over a long period of time. The England management mould these guys for specific roles. That’s something I think India have to evolve in the future, saying, “Ok, we’ve got these young guys.
They’re bowling well in one-day cricket. Now how do we get them to perform consistently in conditions outside India?” The good thing is a lot of these guys are young. They are at the beginning of their careers. It’s definitely a healthy position that India are in, and as long as they manage to look after these guys well, it looks bright.
In fact, in India, there has been a lot happening, with pitches assisting seam bowling and fewer spinners coming through.
That does happen when you counteract a problem. You may inadvertently create another problem. It’s a balance. You have to find that happy medium and that’s where the BCCI will have people to address this. Part of your planning is to choose who are the future quicks and future spinners.
Who is going to replace (R) Ashwin when he retires, who is going to replace (Ravindra) Jadeja? This comes down to planning – how you are going to develop these guys so that when an Ashwin retires you have someone experienced and exposed enough to replace him.
This is where I think Asian teams need to be more open-minded where they trade players. Because there are a lot of countries that might want to send their players to get exposure to Asian conditions. They can send some of their quick bowlers to gain experience, while a few batsmen go from here. It’s such a universal game now in cricket, with all the leagues. It’s very easy for people to interlink, network and be able to send players outside to get some exposure on an exchange basis.
How about the pace-bowling stocks in Bangladesh?
I encourage them to prepare pitches that assist seamers but I also understand spin is a big weapon for Bangladesh in Bangladesh. So you don’t want to totally take away what is there but you also have to encourage guys like Taskin (Ahmed) and Rubel (Hossain) and Shafiul (Islam). All these guys need to have a chance at bowling on pitches in first-class games where they have to bowl 20 overs in an innings both times. Otherwise what normally happens is they bowl maybe 12 or 15 in the first innings and maybe one spell with the new ball in the second innings. And then they are expected to play in a Test match and bowl workloads they have never been exposed to. This is where injuries come in, and pace drops off.
How important is pace?
To be honest, if you are bowling 140, you are going to cause problems. If you are bowling 135 and below you have to be highly skilled and do something with the ball off the seam or swing it and be very accurate, use the crease, have a slower ball. Especially with the types of pitches now that are very flat, if you don’t have good variations at lower speeds, you can really get targeted. Quicker guys still have to bowl in the right areas and do something, but their margin for error is a bit more. And they get you wickets.
Do you think then that someone like Bhuvneshwar Kumar, for example, should try to pick up pace?
I think you’ve got to be very careful in trying to change someone from what he is. He’s a highly skilled player, and it’s just working within the parameters of what he’s got and making it even better, and maybe working on variations. Those are the things he should look for. You can’t turn him into an Umesh or an Aaron. He’s got a skill of being able to swing the ball, so it’s horses for courses. Maybe it’s tougher for those guys in Indian conditions, but it’s brilliant to have people like that when you go to New Zealand or England.