He can caress one through the covers, bringing into view the glorious elegance of a southpaw, but could perish off the next delivery, to a forgettable stroke. Alistair Campbell is an enigma. So much talent, so little in return. A batsman who should be averaging in the mid-forties, given his ability, has 2718 runs from 58 Tests at just 26.91, only two hundreds figuring in them.
"I am aware of it. I am still only 29, and want to set the record straight over the next few years," admits Campbell, who was only 18 when he wore the Zimbabwe cap. He has more to show for himself in the ODI arena, averaging 31.73 from 176 games, his 5014 runs including seven hundreds.
However, Campbell believes, even here, that he could have performed better. On a comeback trail in India, the Harare-born cricketer made runs and got them in style, though a big score once again eluded him in Tests.
Sportstar caught up with this affable cricketer during the Kochi ODI, where his strokeful 71 took Zimbabwe to the doorstep of victory.
Question: Can you tell us about your early days. How did you develop an interest in cricket?
Answer: My father lan Campbell is a great lover of cricket, and our house was filled with books on the game. Zimbabwe is a very outdoor country. Lots of space. It was only natural that my brother Donald, and I developed a liking for the game. I remember the matches in the back garden of our house in Harare, along with Donald and my sisters Catherine and Mary, mom acting as the umpire! That is how I started my cricket!
Your father is said to have been a great influence on you?
Of course. He was the one who turned me and Donald, who were right-handers, into left-handers. His belief was if you were a natural right- hander, then your right hand, the stronger hand, should be at the top of the bat. That was his theory. Any particular piece of advice you remember from your dad. Dad always used to tell me 'move your feet'. I had this lazy habit of not moving my feet, and dad never failed to correct me. It's an essential element for any batsman. Even now when I am at the crease, I keep telling myself. 'Get your feet moving, get your feet moving.' It's such a simple thing actually.
You played for Zimbabwe when you were around 18. It must have been a wonderful experience.
The family owned a private school 20 kms from Harare and I studied in that. I had lots of opportunities to play cricket, and a school to go to. Growing up in Zimbabwe, you inevitably are drawn towards some sport or the other. Yes, I was just 18, it was my last year in school when I was selected for the country. Very rarely in life, do you get an opportunity to play for your country so early. I was fortunate.
About your early heroes.
David Gower. He was left-handed, was so elegant. Now, I look up to Steve Waugh and Andy Flower. They are very special cricketers for their ability to handle pressure. You can learn so much from them. They actually relish pressure situations, never give up. They have lots of mental strength apart from cricketing ability. Andy and I are great friends too.
What kind of a person is Andy Flower, such a huge influence in Zimbabwean cricket?
Well, to start with he is the god-father to my four-year-old son, Jonathan. He is totally dedicated to the game, and is a perfectionist. Another thing I have noticed in him is his ability to switch 'on' and 'off from cricket. This is such an important thing and he can do it so easily. Off the field he is such a friendly man, on it he is among the toughest. He's extremely strong mentally, and what he's achieved for Zimbabwean cricket will be hard to match.
Your first Test hundred, which took a long time coming, arrived when Andy was at the other end in the Nagpur Test against India, in the 2000-2001 season.
That's right. It was such a great feeling and relief. I had finally got the monkey off my back. The fact that Andy was at the other end made it more special. My most memorable Test knock.
There have been some brilliant innings, yet looking back at your Test career, there is a feeling that you have underachieved for all your ability. An average of around 27 from 58 Tests.
That's right. I have on occasions not been able to consolidate on starts. I know I have not done justice to my ability. I think a lack of mental toughness has been the biggest stumbling block for me. But I am only 29, and hope to set the record straight in the next few years. The benchmark for any good Test batsman is an average of over 40, and by the time I finish, I hope to be there. I want to be remembered as a good Test batsman.
You have a much better record in the ODIs. Which is the innings that has stayed with you?
It has to be my 131 off 115 balls against Sri Lanka in Harare, '94. I was stroking the ball well against an useful attack. It was my first ODI hundred too. The first time you achieve something is always special.
You became the captain in the late 90s, and the team did record heady wins, like the away series Test victory over Pakistan. Why did you choose to give up the job ?
I had my reasons. My batting form was a concern. I had to take a decision either way during that period. In the initial days after I relinquished captaincy, I did miss the captain's privileges. And then I got used to it. You are a part of the team and your job is to perform to the best of your ability.
Alistair, you performed well, and appeared relaxed at the crease during the tour.
During the period I was dropped I worked on quite a few things technically like back-lift and feet movement, and on mental strength as well. Playing in the 'B' side helped. There is far less pressure and it enables you to relax and concentrate on certain aspects of your game. The kind of things you overlook in today's international cricket given the hectic schedules.
How has it been in India?
It's very good to be in India. There is a great passion for the game here, the crowds are huge, you are treated like a superstar, and its been enjoyable here. The runs have been coming too, although I would have been happier if I had got a big score in the Test series.
Both in the Tests and the ODIs, who is the most demanding Indian bowler you faced on this tour?
Harbhajan Singh without doubt. He's world class. His accuracy and the ability to deliver different balls at will sets him apart. He can turn it both ways, has a top-spinner that bounces more than usual and keeps coming back at you. He's a real challenge. In the Tests, with the close in cordon in place, you cannot relax for a moment.
What about the new coach Geoff Marsh? Has he been able to make a difference with his Aussie approach and attitude?
He has, but it's a long process. Marsh, Kevin Curran (assistant coach) and Stuart Carlisle (captain), have worked well together and it's helping the team.
Does the fact that Carlisle was not a settled player in the Zimbabwean team before he was elevated as captain, undermine his authority?
That's not true. He knows his job and is captaining well.
Your remarks on Zimbabwe's selection policy wasn't taken too kindly back home?
Certain statements were taken out of context. Let bygones be bygones. At the end of the day, we are all working together for the betterment of Zimbabwean cricket.
In all your years with the Zimbabwean team, what is it about the character of the team that stands out?
We may lack the depth and resources of some of the other teams, but we are a close knit bunch and have that old fashioned courage. We have survived.
(This article was first published in Sportstar on April 13, 2002)
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