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Mission Zimpossible: Saving cricket's forgotten country

03 September 2017
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From Melbourne to Liverpool to Bulawayo, three men are playing key roles in the recovery of a national team that has suffered for a generation at the hands of an oppressive political regime

About the Writer:
 @AdamBurnett09

Adam Burnett previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK.

Twenty-first century Zimbabwe: A country crippled by a ruinous economy. A people beaten down by a cruel regime. And a national cricket team reduced to an afterthought on the world stage, with the corruption and ineptitude of the sport's governing body resulting in a lost generation of players. Yet beyond the despair, signs of a new dawn are emerging. In three corners of the world, three men are playing their parts in returning hope to Zimbabwean cricket. Two are former national captains: one had most of his land seized by his own government but retains an unwavering loyalty to his country; the other was at one point forced into hiding, before relocating abroad to pursue a "higher calling". Then there's the final member of the trio – a grade cricketer from Melbourne, who in July received his Australian citizenship, but nonetheless remains one of Zimbabwe's most brilliant batsmen. Now, their wildly divergent paths have met in a common purpose.

**

A dozen years ago, Solomon Mire looked around his classroom and wondered where all the familiar faces had gone. Sporting scholarships, the next more attractive than the last, had taken him to three high schools across Zimbabwe, each one bringing with it different challenges. As is his way, he embraced them all, making friends and quickly becoming acquainted with new surroundings.

Yet as the landscapes shifted, the confusing theme remained the same.

Mire had watched on with schoolmates in 2003 as their cricket heroes, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, wore black armbands at the World Cup. The teens grappled to tie in the visuals with a line they'd heard about "mourning the death of democracy in Zimbabwe", but the world of politics was nebulous to them, and the meaning was largely lost.

"As kids we were oblivious to those things," Mire remembers. "We just wanted to see them playing cricket. Obviously the significance of it, you start to understand more as you get older – what the guys were sacrificing their careers for, and what it meant to them."

Flower and Olonga used the global stage to make a memorable political stand that swiftly led to the end of their international careers, as well as the lives they had known in Zimbabwe. Neither has been back to their homeland since. With president Robert Mugabe's long-running land redistribution programs accelerating towards their sinister zenith, the exodus wasn't confined to two cricketers.

"A lot of my friends were leaving at the time," Mire says. "They'd lost a lot of their farms. There was that confusion, like, 'Do we really need to have this happening?' You'd see it at school. Your classmates are just leaving, bit by bit."

**

The oppression of Zimbabwe's white farmers since the turn of the century has been detailed in sad and harrowing abundance. Beatings, torture and murder were carried out under the misleadingly benign term 'Land Reform Policy' – invented by Mugabe's Zanu-PF party to define the process of violently seizing farming land from its usually white owners and 'returning' it to select members of Zimbabwe's black population. The practice was viewed by many as an attempt by the president to split the nation along racial lines.

The policy was fast-tracked in 2000, and left hundreds of thousands of black farm workers out of a job and thousands of white farmers without their livelihood. Compensation was never a realistic conversation.

An abandoned farm near Harare became occupied by Zanu-PF Party cronies, 2000 // Getty
A group of school children walk past an abandoned farm near Harare, which became occupied by Zanu-PF Party cronies, 2000 // Getty

The upshot was the devastation of the Zimbabwean economy, as the nation's once thriving agriculture sector went virtually to ruin. Famed for decades for their production of world-class tobacco and maize, many of Zimbabwe's farms have since been grossly mismanaged or simply abandoned, left to return to the forestland that once dominated the countryside. Others have been bought by shrewd international tobacco companies, which have provided machinery and farming education to the new owners in exchange for a contract system that has since restored tobacco output while benefiting the foreigners' bottom lines.

As recently as March this year, Bloomberg reported three million Zimbabweans had either fled the country or moved to already overcrowded urban townships, while four million required food aid. A nation once so agriculturally prosperous that it was known as the 'bread basket of southern Africa' now relies on humanitarian intervention to feed a quarter of its people.

And through it all, cricket, that most colonial of games, has been a pawn. A sporting team responsible for some of Zimbabwe's most unifying moments has become just another victim of the government's destructive politics.

"Zimbabwe is in a pretty bleak state," says Tristan Holme, a Zimbabwean freelance journalist who has covered the travails of the national cricket team as intimately as anyone this decade. "I don't think it would be too dramatic to say it's more or less run by Zanu-PF mafia businessmen, who because of their links to the state and ruling party, do what they want. Those sorts of characters have been within Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC), and even after removing themselves somewhat, have still had quite a bit of say on what was happening behind the scenes."

**

Before his international career was cut short, Heath Streak was a bustling fast bowler, capable lower-order batsman, and a key pillar in his country's finest cricket era. He played his last match for Zimbabwe as a 31-year-old in 2005, unable to reconcile with a cricket system overtly influenced by the Mugabe regime.

Looking back, Streak estimates he lost four or five years, as well as a shot at the rare double of 300 Test and ODI wickets (a feat achieved by only nine men); he finished with 216 and 239 respectively.

"It's sad that I didn't get to finish my career," he reflects in broad Zimbabwean tones. "But it's water under the bridge for me now, and onto the next thing."

Today, Streak is national head coach. The barrel-chested quick who was once ranked fifth on the ICC's Test bowling rankings retains a strong presence, though his affability and a middle-age paunch ensure he comes across nowadays more as farmer than fast bowler.

Streak took charge of Zimbabwe as head coach last October // Getty
Streak took charge of Zimbabwe as head coach last October // Getty

When not with his team, he retreats to his farm, some 60 kilometres out of the city of Bulawayo, in the wide open spaces of Matabeleland North – the name given to the expanse of land that makes up a massive chunk of Zimbabwe's west and stretches all the way to the Zambian border, where the mighty Victoria Falls cascade into the Zambezi River.

As he attempts to condense the best part of 20 years into a followable stream of conversation, he watches a herd of zebra and some impala amble across the grassland; land that was his father's, his grandfather's, and his great-grandfather's before that. It has been in the family since 1899, and is a place of almost spiritual import for Streak, a world away from the myriad problems engulfing not only ZC, but the country as a whole.

It's also a source of income; he farms cattle, while he and his wife Nadine run a safari on their 12,000 acres, a figure that sounds like a hell of a lot of land. But the former Zimbabwe captain once presided over 40,000 acres of his beloved country, until 70 per cent of that was taken. Five farms were seized. One remains. Though in some respects, Streak was one of the lucky ones.

"It's not easy to talk about a lot of these things," he says as two of his children, Charlotte and Harry, play with the dogs. "The country is facing a lot of challenges. Politically, economically. And that's difficult."

**

From the national set-up down to the schoolboy competitions, cricket in Zimbabwe has struggled to survive for a generation. Through that time, the sport has vacillated somewhere between being, at best, a political plaything and, at worst, on the brink of complete collapse. One has typically followed the other.

"The problems began in high school," Mire says, speaking through the uncomplicated lens of a teen. "When the whole rebel thing started."

Olonga and Flower had protested against land reform and human rights violations but it soon became patently clear that Mugabe's regime had also infiltrated cricket's corridors of power.

Clockwise from top left: Henry Olonga, Neil Johnson, Heath Streak and Andy Flower // Getty
Clockwise from top left: Henry Olonga, Neil Johnson, Heath Streak and Andy Flower in 2000 // Getty

When, in April 2004, Streak publicly suggested the need for a review of the national selection panel and the new integration policy that many felt didn't fairly reflect the demographics of the country, his fate was sealed. A press release announcing the captain's resignation followed (a decision Streak vehemently denied ever making) and soon after, he and 13 other members of the national squad staged a walkout.

The former skipper called on the ICC to ban Zimbabwe from playing international cricket until an independent review had been conducted. No such review ever transpired, nor were the ICC's threats to suspend the country from internationals if its governing body didn't move to end the standoff ever carried out.

Ultimately however, the politicisation of the board and the dismal performances of the team it selected – bowled out for a world record low 35 in an ODI against Sri Lanka, and thrashed twice by an innings by the same team in Tests – led to ZC voluntarily excusing itself from Tests. While there was a brief return in 2005, an interim ZC board then suspended the national side from Test cricket in January 2006 following another string of hidings and a strike from the players over non-payment of match fees.

The country spent six years in the Test wilderness. The one-day team continued to sputter along, minus most of its best players and largely opposing lower-ranked Test and Associate countries with predictably poor results. Domestically, the sport's infrastructure and pathways fell to pieces.

**

Around half a century ago Isaiah Mire set out from his home in Mozambique to begin a new life in neighbouring Zimbabwe. The young man settled in the town of Kadoma, about three-and-a-half hours southwest of Harare. He studied, met a girl, and started a family. He found a job as a salesman for Singer, the company famous for its sewing machines, and later worked for an electricity company. 

In August 1989, he and his wife, Florence, had a baby boy. Devout Catholics, they chose a biblical name which denoted wisdom and wealth: Solomon.

Cricket, rugby, hockey, athletics; Solomon excelled at any sport he played. His parents encouraged him to pursue those talents and the clear ambition that accompanied them. Ultimately, cricket won out. Mire played in the streets and parks with his mates. They fashioned bats out of tree branches and emulated their heroes.

"We grew up when the Flowers and the Streaks were there, playing some really good cricket," he recalls. "We were a middle-class family, but we got a lot of opportunities. School cricket was strong. Really competitive."

As many of his schoolmates were leaving, it seemed a young Solomon Mire was ready to arrive.

**

By 2008-09, opportunities – be it in cricket or any other facet of life in Zimbabwe – had vanished. The domestic competition had been abandoned in the summer of 2005-06, and when it returned it was at a level well below its previous incarnations, with many cricketers having fled, facilities and equipment neglected and player payments haphazard.

"By the time we went to the (2008) Under 19 World Cup, we had the worst performance," Mire says. "We had talent, but we just weren't prepared."

A teenage Mire at the U19s World Cup in Malaysia, 2008
A teenage Mire at the U19s World Cup in Malaysia, 2008 // Getty

At that tournament in Malaysia, as the likes of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson began plotting their courses to superstardom, the young men of Zimbabwe were subjected to a new form of humiliation. Against Nepal, Mire made a desperate 16 not out from 50 deliveries as his teammates were rolled for 59. They went home, defeated and thoroughly disillusioned. Worse was to follow.

"After that, there was no cricket for us," Mire says. "We didn't know what to do, because we'd dedicated our lives to cricket from a young age. Then we woke up one day and there was nothing left for us.

"We lost a fair few cricketers in that period. I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to have to look outside Zim."

**


In England, Tatenda Taibu is working on a recovery plan.

Taibu, a former Zimbabwe captain, was 29 when he retired from international cricket in 2012 to pursue a religious calling. He landed in Liverpool, a destination that carried with it a degree of fate in itself; his father had supported the famous football team in the 1980s, captivated by the artistry of John Barnes and proud simply of the presence of compatriot Bruce Grobbelaar in a world-class line-up. Since arriving in the city, Taibu's family has become friendly with the family of another Liverpool icon, Jamie Carragher, and his two sons are enrolled to attend the prestigious private school St Marys College.

A stellar career as a player notwithstanding, Taibu's history with ZC is complex; as diminutive as he may be – standing 164cm tall – he is a man of strong principles. Thrust into leadership as a 22-year-old following the Streak debacle, he soon warned of strike action over the incompetence of the board, and subsequently received threats that forced he and his family into hiding. Towards the end of his time at the elite level, the straight-talking wicketkeeper-batsman again clashed with the board over funding, player contracts and poor professional structures.

The country's return to the Test fold had been approved off the back of a revamped domestic set-up, with a franchise-based T20 competition and a brand new high performance coaching centre the shiny offerings to the deities of cricket. But Taibu was far from convinced. "When you walk around and you see a house that's painted well, you will think that house is really standing strong," he said in August 2011. "But if it does not have a strong foundation, it will fall down one day or another. Zimbabwe Cricket has just painted a house that's about to fall."

He played another six months before a religious "vision" took precedence. The likelihood of his return ZC appeared remote at best.

Taibu took 12 months to be convinced to return to Zimbabwe Cricket // Getty
Taibu took 12 months to be convinced to return to Zimbabwe Cricket // Image Courtesy the Taibu family

But in 2015 Taibu received a phone call he wasn't expecting. The voice on the line belonged to newly-appointed ZC chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani, who had been voted in by a new board that August, despite his previous stint as vice-chairman coinciding with the rebels' walkout and the low ebb that followed. Mukuhlani pleaded for Taibu's involvement in a vision of his own – one that foresaw a turnaround in their country's cricket fortunes.

"We had a year discussing, back and forth," says Taibu in his native Shona accent. He's a polite man with a perfect smile, and his deep brown eyes radiate life, despite – or perhaps because of – all he's experienced.

"I wasn't convinced the structures were right and I didn't want to be involved in something where I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel."

Mukuhlani listened to Taibu's concerns, and invited him to present some proposals regarding his own ideas. "We had a final meeting after some travels to and from Zimbabwe," he says. "There were a lot of problems regarding selection – the players didn't feel it was done fairly."

Those aggrieved players had been asked who they would like to see involved in the selection process. Men they could trust. Taibu's name kept popping up, and so he was contacted. Twelve months of negotiations, and a passion for his country, convinced him his help was needed.

"Tatenda Taibu's a morally upstanding guy," says Holme, who these days works out of Cape Town but travels to Harare regularly to report on matches. "He was never a yes man. To get him back in the game was pretty important."

**

Mire landed in Australia on Melbourne Cup day 2009, headed for a town he'd never heard of and knew nothing about.

"Chasing that opportunity was a thrill," he says. "I wanted to see what else was out there in the world. Knowing my dad's story, I was always keen to make my own way."

A simple twist of fate had led to a life-changing decision. A friend in Zimbabwe had agreed to join College Cricket Club in the country town of Hamilton, Victoria, 300 kilometres west of Melbourne. At the last minute he had to pull out, so he presented the offer to Mire. It was remote and promised little more than a regular game of cricket. But it was also in Australia – a country Mire sensed could offer more opportunities than his own.

As Isaiah had done before him, Solomon began forging his path, an innate desire for adventure overriding the daunting nature of the move.

Hamilton was a strange place for Mire to relocate to in most senses, however there was a small Zimbabwean and South African community he quickly endeared himself to. He spent Christmas with one of those families, the Dearys, and built strong bonds across the summer that remain in place today.

On the field, his class turned heads. His stocky frame and natural sense of timing allowed the right-hander to hit the ball harder than many teammates and opponents had witnessed a cricket ball being hit. It soon became apparent he was destined for a cricket life beyond the country confines of Hamilton. To everyone, perhaps, except himself.

"I didn't dominate the way I thought I was going to," he says. "But people there thought I was better than that competition, that I'd have to move to Melbourne."

Deep down he knew it, too. It meant another relocation. Another new environment. But the constant change seemed fitting in that it complemented his innate drive. Mire has never been one to let his ambition sit idle, preferring to find avenues to channel his hunger for self-improvement.

He began in third grade at Carlton Cricket Club. Initially, the standard was such that he feared he was in over his head, but a stronger power quelled the uncertainty.

"Part of me knew I was good at adapting," he says. "I knew I could learn to combat all the things I thought were tough and somehow come out on top. I had the mentality that if I was going to make it, I had to be the guy that was first picked. That's why I went to Darwin."

It was another unlikely location on an altogether unlikely journey. He trained at the Darwin Institute of Sport in the Melbourne cricket off-seasons, playing for Waratahs in the city's district competition and later for NT in the West End Redbacks League. He returned to Melbourne in the summer of 2012-13, having signed with Essendon, and was named in the Premier Cricket Team of the Year. In the Top End the following winter he smashed a record 260 from 157 balls, including a startling 21 sixes as his power game truly came to the fore.

"The first season in Darwin was tough, but it got easier," he says. "I started setting better goals. Chasing bigger dreams."

Mire hit the back page of the NT News when he smashed a record 260 // Instagram
Mire was back-page news when he smashed a record 260 in July 2013 // Instagram

Mire the cricketer had evolved into a vastly improved version of the young allrounder who had arrived in Hamilton four years earlier. He'd put less emphasis on his bowling but worked on his batting with a relentless determination. His increased power and stroke-play made him a fearsome top-order prospect. Through the leg-side and particularly off his pads, he was devastating. So much so that KFC Big Bash League franchise Melbourne Renegades recruited him as a 'community rookie' (he qualified due to his background) the next summer. He promptly scored a century from 53 balls in a pre-season intra-squad match to make him a contender for a starting spot, but failed in two opportunities in the tournament proper.

The Big Bash experience was like a drug. The tournament was taking off and massive crowds created super-charged atmospheres wherever the players went. Mire shared a changeroom with Dwayne Bravo and Aaron Finch and played against Brett Lee and Shaun Tait.

It was an elite level of cricket and he wanted more. Ironically, after more than four years in Australia, a manifest need to keep moving was pushing him back towards Zimbabwe.

**

Taibu was painfully aware he was dealing with a system that had been a basket case for longer than he could remember. In 2015, Zimbabwe had endured another forgettable appearance on the world stage, losing all but one match (the victory came against the United Arab Emirates) at the World Cup. But there was potential, too. Undeniably so. Either side of the World Cup, Zimbabwe had beaten Australia, Pakistan and New Zealand in ODIs, and India in a T20I. Inconsistency was a major problem.

"The structures have really not been there," Taibu says. "For example, I tried to get a look at a selection policy when I got involved, and there was no selection policy to look at. I had to come up with one from scratch. There won't be continuity without those things in place."

He insisted the emphasis needed to be put on the talent pool below the national team. There weren't enough names to choose from on his selection sheets. Taibu investigated further and found the reason; a virtual vacuum below Zimbabwe A level. He enlisted the help of Australian Stuart Karppinen, a former strength and conditioning coach with Australia who had been a key figure in the establishment of a high performance program at Bangladesh Cricket.

"The important thing is, Taibu actually knows what he's talking about," says Holme. "He's experienced all of those structures. A lot of the guys who have been put in charge of cricket development in Zim in the past didn't necessarily come through the system as players. They had played at club level … but I don't think they really had the wherewithal to understand how to create cricketers who might be anywhere close to international standard."

The absence of a functioning national cricket academy was also addressed. Taibu came up with a novel concept that was expensive but, he believes, invaluable: the academy squad would tour the UK every northern summer, taking on County Second XI oppositions and whatever other competitive opponents he could arrange.

"If you plant a seed in the wrong atmosphere, it will never germinate," he says. "If the players I select in that academy remain in Zim, they're going to play cricket in the same conditions, be around the same coaches – it's the same atmosphere that all the other players are playing in.

"I thought if we had six months in the UK, playing on different pitches, against different players, the ball behaves differently, and the ball itself is the Dukes, not the Kookaburra.

"So I wanted to see how they would develop as cricketers, and also as people; we have a life skills coach working with them."

Taibu also saw the benefit in the young men being away from the strains of everyday life in Zimbabwe, where something as simple as withdrawing cash from the bank can present challenges.

"Life in Zimbabwe – there's a wall," he says pointedly. "At the moment it's quite difficult to get cash – you can have money in your account and struggle to get it out. There are all sorts of little distractions like that which people don't know about. So we got the ball rolling, and we're already starting to see players understanding their games. We've had four move into the national squad."

**

Mire was watching between net sessions in Darwin when Zimbabwe beat Australia, and was already in accelerated talks with Zimbabwe's chairman of selectors.

Three months later, in November 2014, he made his full international debut in Bangladesh. It had been five years since his move to Australia. The most roundabout course had come full circle.

"As a sportsman you realise that doubt is an accompanying member of your journey," says Mire. "It comes down to belief, and I never stopped believing. I had doubts, but belief kept me working towards that goal of representing my country."

The series itself was no fairytale; Zimbabwe were thumped 5-0 in the ODIs as their batsmen struggled in spin-friendly conditions, but Mire contributed a pair of fifties in a respectable maiden showing.

Taylor and Mire during the 2014 tour of Bangladesh // Getty
Taylor and Mire during the 2014 tour of Bangladesh // Getty

He secured a World Cup berth but the tournament itself was a largely unfulfilling one for Mire in the same way it was for Zimbabwe. He sensed something was missing. There was pride in playing for his country but the passion wasn't palpable; it wasn't bursting out of his chest as he hoped it might have been.

Shortly after the World Cup, Zimbabwe's best player, Brendan Taylor, announced he was taking a Kolpak deal to play in England's County Championship, having reportedly earned just AUD$250 before tax during the tournament.

It was a decision that gave Mire serious pause. He had been through Zimbabwe's cricket system before, and witnessed it crumble around him, forcing his hand to pursue opportunities elsewhere. A meandering road had led him back, but to what end? The financial security simply wasn't there. His difficult decision was helped by Zimbabwe's new emphasis on selecting from its limited domestic talent pool.

"When Brendan left, I left too," he says. "I felt like I needed to go back to uni, and study to figure out what I wanted to do, just in case cricket didn't work out. I felt like time was racing but there was nothing happening."

Mire studied footwear design at RMIT University in Melbourne. If cricket had been a lifelong love, so too was art and design, after his father bought him a sketchpad and a box of crayons as a kid.

Mire with his shoe collection in Melbourne // Solomon Mire
Mire with his shoe collection in Melbourne // Solomon Mire

"I was drawn to all things abstract, from painting to graphic designing, and somehow I landed on shoes," he says. "I'm so passionate about it. Almost on a daily basis I do some form of sketching."

He spent two years away from international cricket.


**

For the first 16 months of Mire's hiatus, Zimbabwe's Test team was on a break of its own; they didn't play a match through all of 2015, nor the first half of 2016, until a visit from New Zealand in July. Their captain, Hamilton Masakadza, and coach Dav Whatmore were sacked at the end of May that year, with South African legend Makhaya Ntini appointed interim coach.

Amid the familiar backdrop of drama, Taibu finally came to terms with chairman Mukuhlani, as did Streak as head coach. They were recruitments that have proven crucial not only for ZC, but for Mukuhlani himself in re-establishing some credibility, after the chairman's chequered past had raised eyebrows upon his appointment the previous year. To add to the positive momentum, Zimbabwe beat West Indies to reach the final of a tri-series in Bulawayo, which they lost to Sri Lanka.

**

More than 10,000 kilometres away, Mire was quietly watching events unfold. Dreaming, contemplating, and invariably doing.

"From a distance, I felt I could do something," he says in an accent that is just beginning to betray his country of residence. "I thought, I could actually do this at the highest level … we might be able to do something special."

Mire spoke with new coach Streak and the pair came to an agreement that he could continue living in Australia while playing with the national side. In February he returned to Zimbabwe and played every match in a 3-2 series loss to Afghanistan. Four months later he was touring with his compatriots, firstly to Edinburgh – for a 1-1 drawn series with Scotland – before the main destination, Sri Lanka.

In the series opener, the hosts posted 316 after winning the toss and the result looked a fait accompli: in more than 300 ODIs across 35 years, no team had ever won chasing a total of 300-plus in Sri Lanka.

In the space of four hours, Mire and Zimbabwe rewrote history. The powerful right-hander, who coach Streak describes as "our answer to David Warner" for his ability to hit through and over the field in the opening stages, produced the innings of his life to date. A maiden international century ended on 112 from 96 deliveries, and his teammates kicked on to get Zimbabwe home with two overs to spare.

July 1: Mire downs Sri Lanka with mighty ton

With four matches still to play in the series, Streak reiterated to his jubilant young team that sporadic success had been achieved by Zimbabwe before. The only way that habit could be changed was by winning the series. So the coach could barely watch as they were skittled for 150 in the second ODI, before it was Sri Lanka's turn to chase down a massive total in the third. Just like that, a 1-0 lead had become a 2-1 deficit.

But a predictable implosion was followed by an unexpected show of fight. Through their extended time on tour, Streak's men had built solidarity and affection for one another that had been lacking from previous editions of the national side. That spirit had received a tremendous shot in the arm with victory in the series opener, and they tapped into it to storm home and claim the series, 3-2; Zimbabwe's first away ODI series win against a Test-playing nation since 2001.

Zimbabwe's players celebrate an historic success in Sri Lanka // Getty
Zimbabwe's players celebrate an historic success in Sri Lanka // Getty

"I certainly felt that the camaraderie grew," Streak says. "It was buoyed by the fact we won some games … but just believing you can compete is a big thing for us."

Mire thrived amid a young, talented group who were beginning to push one another for places. Three of the group that won in Sri Lanka were graduates from Taibu's academy, with more likely to follow. 

"As a playing group we're moving together, and there's a nice competitive edge," Mire says. "In Sri Lanka there was always someone putting their hand up, which hadn't been the case previously; the team would be expected to capitulate after a couple of wickets. That's come from spending time together. It's a belief that comes from playing more, from being in situations and figuring out how to deal with them."

**

July 2017. The Zimbabwe-based members of the squad return home from Sri Lanka to a heroes' welcome at Harare International Airport. A groundbreaking ODI series win and a nail-biting Test defeat have reawakened the public's passion for the sport. A buoyant and multicultural crowd has gathered to salute its underdogs. A renewed feeling of hope hangs in the air; maybe, just maybe, this time the turnaround is for real. 

"The guys were really proud and a bit overwhelmed to come home to that reception," says Streak. "It was a special thing, something a few of them said they would remember for the rest of their lives."

While he has been in Zimbabwean cricket long enough to be wary of false dawns, Streak sees genuine reason for hope. He's heartened by the actions of a revamped board, by Taibu's diligent graft, and by the recent appointment of a new managing director, Faisal Hasnain, formerly a Chief Financial Officer with the ICC well versed in the intricacies of ZC's finances (recent reports have its debt standing at around US$19m). 

The appointment of Faisal Hasnain - a former ICC man - as managing director looms as critical for ZC // Getty
The appointment of Faisal Hasnain - a former ICC man - as managing director looms as critical for ZC // Getty

"The key thing for me, why I'm fairly optimistic (about a turnaround), is that they've brought in the new managing director, who is very much an outsider," says Holme. "It's the first time they've been willing to let someone in to look at their books who doesn't appear to have any internal connections or agendas, and give them carte blanche to run the thing."

However, in Zimbabwe, there are always harsh realities to temper the excitement of even an ardent optimist. Most significantly is the fact the country remains severely hamstrung by one of the world's most unstable economies. Cricket is not immune, and as such, many of the top players continue to pursue greener pastures.

Promisingly, there have been reports that Taylor and fellow county player Kyle Jarvis could return, provided contract details can be worked through. Mire is another talent Streak wants to avoid slipping through the cracks. The 27-year-old has been in negotiations with ZC since returning home from Sri Lanka and hopes to have a deal that satisfies both parties finalised soon.

"(ZC are) revamping things to try to give confidence to the playing group that they can look after their finances," he says. "The guys in Zimbabwe have seen the other side, so it's nice to hear things are moving well. I'm hoping there will be better incentive to motivate guys coming up, so they can take cricket up full time. And there are a lot of (former cricketers) who can come back now they've finished studying – they just need to see the financial benefits."

For it to truly be a moment of significance in Zimbabwe's cricket story, success in Sri Lanka needs to be a foundation, not a finale. That includes a strategy to shore up their international schedule. A lifeline in that regard has been thrown their way with the recent admissions of Ireland and Afghanistan to Test cricket, with the latter reportedly already making overtures to Zimbabwe about an historic first match later this year.

"We have to make this a watershed moment," Streak says.


**

Taibu knows his work is just beginning. He's living with "one leg in the UK, one leg in Zim" and will speak with the chairman soon to discuss the continuance of his role beyond 2017. "A few players have said to me that with me around, they have confidence and they know where to go if they have any issues," he says.

Critically, Taibu is referring to players from both sides of a long-standing racial divide. "It's a bit like the country as a whole," Holme explains. "In the 2000s, Mugabe played the race card to try and create division, and that happened in Zimbabwe Cricket as well, even as recently as this decade. With Tatenda selecting, players know he knows what he's doing … he's someone people can trust whether they're black or white."

Taibu's checklist extends beyond the selection table. His remit is far-reaching and one gets the sense he is across just about every aspect of what's being done in ZC, as well as what needs to be done.

High up on that list is hosting next year's World Cup qualifiers. ZC is primarily propped up by the ICC and money from broadcast rights sold for India's tours of Zimbabwe. Hasnain wants to expand those income streams and hosting a WC qualifying tournament is a good starting point. It will also be a considerable advantage in Zimbabwe's bid to qualify for cricket's global showpiece in England in 2019 – a financial necessity. 

"I think we'll see Zimbabwe at the next World Cup, I'm pretty confident of that," Taibu says, adding that hosting the qualifiers next year is now subject to government approval, which he doesn't view as a roadblock.

"(Hosting the qualifiers) will help us massively. The sports minister spoke at the academy launch about spreading cricket through opening a lot of cricket clubs. He wants to do a lot more in cricket."

Taibu knows better than to trust a politician, but he is a man of faith.

**

Nowadays Streak rents a place in Bulawayo so his kids can go to school in the city, though his heart remains firmly on his farm and he escapes there with his family whenever he can. For years he tried to separate sport and politics – often to his detriment, and regularly to fierce criticism – but the two continued to collide, inextricably bound in a complicated world that rubs hard against most of his values. It's the same with patriotism and cricket. For Streak, the two will forever be linked.

"My father played cricket and my grandfather before him," he says. "My son plays soccer and rugby and hockey, but cricket is his true passion. If he's good enough to get there one day, I want there to be a national team for him to play for. It is a family thing for us, for sure. Cricket is in our heart and it's ingrained in our DNA."

Streak has explored distant horizons as player and coach but always returned to Zimbabwe. Despite the events that have transpired this century – his father forced to spend a weekend in jail for opposing violent land seizure; the loss of his farms; his career cut short – and the unpredictability of a volatile government still in power, his love for his country is largely unaffected.

Perhaps that's because he views Zimbabwe as the land and its people.

At Turk Mine, his family and a neighbouring family from New Zealand are helping to build a school as part of a community project. Where previously kids aged six to 12 were walking seven kilometres to and from school every day, the new, subsidised facility offers them a place to learn much closer to home.

For Streak, the school is a family- and community-oriented extension of the cricket academies he has established in Bulawayo and Harare. And through the project, Harry and Charlotte are helping shape a community, a small piece of the country their father loves, and will never truly leave.

**

In many ways, the longer Mire has spent in Australia, the more distant he has felt from Zimbabwe. Speaking in Melbourne, a day before he is off to Darwin to prepare for Zimbabwe's next challenge, he is unequivocal about how he views the country he has lived in for almost eight years.

"(Melbourne) is my home," he says. "That's no disrespect to Zim, it's just that I sort of grew up here, if that makes sense."

It does. Mire has spent almost his entire adult life in Australia. He has built friendships he expects to last well beyond cricket. He returns to Hamilton for Christmases with the Deary family, who recently accompanied him to what was a significant day: his Australian citizenship ceremony. This is where his future lies.

Mire at his Australian citizenship ceremony in July with an army of support // Instagram
Mire at his Australian citizenship ceremony with an army of support // Instagram

When he does travel to Zimbabwe, many of his childhood friends have also packed up and headed off on their own life journeys. He keeps his family close to his heart via Whatsapp messages from his parents – images and videos sent with love from across the Indian Ocean. Isaiah and Florence are practical and supportive, comfortable in the knowledge their son has created a life for himself a world away.

Family aside, the one facet of Mire's life that keeps Zimbabwe close is cricket. He is grateful for that. It's a feeling that was lost for some time but one the Sri Lanka tour and the growing unity with his teammates have helped him reconnect with. The pride and love had lain dormant but it is bubbling to the surface now.

"If the passion wasn't there before, it's definitely growing," he says. "It's hard to be torn between two places; if I wasn't here, I wouldn't be where I am with Zimbabwe, but at the same time, giving back to Zimbabwe feels much better. We're at a time where they need someone, so it's a good feeling."

In many respects, Mire's winding cricket odyssey is just beginning. He believes he can refine his game to suit the rigours of Test cricket. He believes Zimbabwe can continue to build as a competitive cricket nation. And he believes he can inspire his country and its people.

"Zimbabwe is a country that's had a lot of problems, a lot of troubles," he says. "In the last decade-and-a-half … a lot of the fans gave up. The few that remained have been waiting for something to happen. Now … just hearing things back home, beating Sri Lanka, they're saying it's done some amazing things. The national pride has grown through the sport, just from one series.

"Any glimpses of hope we can give … I've received random messages from kids saying, 'You're my hero'. I just think, wow. You start looking at things differently. These opportunities we're getting, they're building the passion. As an individual you want to get better. You think, if I'm doing this now, what could I be doing in a few years' time?"