It was the 2003 World Cup, as Zimbabwe played Netherlands. A 16-year-old Sean Williams, two years from his ODI debut, was in boarding school. But he really wanted to be at the game.
Because his mum, Pat Buckle, was presenting the Man of the Match award. Buckle, in 1980, had inspired Zimbabwe to a thrilling field hockey gold at the Olympics, and Williams wasn’t going to miss it. So he lied to teachers and watched his mother give the award to Heath Streak for his all-round effort (44 off 22; 1/36).
That tournament made him take up cricket. It was, in a way, the best of times for Zimbabwean cricket. While the 1999 edition saw them beat India and South Africa, they were jointly hosting the event this time around. People wanted to play the game. But it was also the beginning of the end of good times.
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, as early as 2000, had launched controversial land reforms, seizing majority of the 4500 farms held mostly by white commercial farmers, and people were beginning to feel the effects a couple of years later.
Williams, who is now one of country’s most established cricketers, also felt the effect. “But this (2003) was when things started to go wrong in the country,” he says. “People started to vanish overnight. I was playing against a boy from another school, and next thing I know, he is in Cape Town in South Africa. That was a big hit for us.” The farm invasion was one among a number of reasons that crippled the system, so many left. “It was just the political situation of the country at the time. There was a stage where your money was pretty much worthless.”
The immediate consequence on the game was Tatenda Taibu, eight days from his 21st birthday, being made captain of the national side.
Zimbabwean cricket is in a better place now than a decade ago, but he does agree that it is tough given the turmoil. “Some days, it (political turmoil) will be bad and some days you will forget it,” he explains, after searching for an answer.
“But it happens in most countries in the world. You have people who don’t get paid everywhere in the world. But as long as you have right facilities; nets, bats, balls… you should be fine. But when you don’t have those, there will be issues, and Zimbabwe have had those issues.”
But he will not follow the likes of Murray Goodwin to pursue a career outside ‘my country’. “I really love playing cricket at the highest level, and if I leave Zimbabwe, I won’t get that. To me, it’s a no-brainer. I’ve lots of petrol left in my tank.”
For now, his role will be that of the team’s elder statesman. Something that has been bestowed upon him after the retirement of Brendan Taylor. “There is definitely more responsibility on me now. If Brendon asked people to ‘jump’, they would ask ‘how high’. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Given Williams’ last 18 months — 7 fifties and a 100 in 26 matches — he can be the kind of player that skipper Hamilton Masakadza needs as he seeks to take them from the qualifiers into the main draw.