‘I’m not a fan of one-day cricket’

“A Test is different. It is the ultimate. You go out and it is a fascinating contest. To me it is the real contest, to play against a guy, skill for skill. There is too much luck involved and too much of airy-fairy cricket in one-day games,” says David Houghton, the Zimbabwe skipper.

Easily approachable, Zimbabwe captain David Houghton is very popular among his team-mates.   -  V. V. Krishnan

David Houghton, the Zimbabwe skipper, made his country’s debut in Test cricket memorable with a resourceful century. It was a very slow innings, but it had to be commended all the same, because behind it was a resolve to prove a point to the cricket world.

The 35-year-old Zimbabwe skipper has been a member of his National team since 1978 and he fulfilled a life-time ambition to figure in a Test match when he went out for the toss at the Harare Sports Club ground. “It is a great moment for me and I am honoured to be the captain of my side,” he said on the opening day of Zimbabwe’s first-ever Test match. And Zimbabwe justified the ICC recognition as a full-fledged Test nation with a superb performance.

Indians, particularly Hyderabadis, would remember Houghton for his dashing knock of 142 against New Zealand in the 1987 World Cup. The spectators at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium were treated to some high class batsmanship by this Zimbabwean, who almost created a victory single-handedly.

Houghton is one of the few stylish batsmen in the game today. He is a purist and he makes that clear. “I don’t like one-day cricket,” he says even though his major exploits have come in the instant brand of cricket.

In the course of that magnificent 142, Houghton set a record for the eighth wicket by putting on 117 runs with Ian Buchart. It is a record in the World Cup competition and Houghton is proud of the feat.

Easily approachable, Houghton is very popular among his team-mates. In 74 representative matches for Zimbabwe, Houghton has scored 4148 runs at an average of 34.00. He gave up wicket-keeping after the 1987 World Cup, opting to provide an opportunity for the young Andy Flower.

As he says in the course of this interview, Houghton would like to play for a couple of years more before he settles down to work for upgrading the standard of cricket in Zimbabwe. He has elaborate plans and is already on to the job. “That’s the best way I can contribute to improve and sustain cricket in my country. I owe it to Zimbabwe,” he says.

Question: How important would you say your hundred was?

Answer: Honestly, I wouldn’t say it was my best knock but it was important in the sense that it was a Test. I had been dreaming of getting a hundred on my Test debut. I am obviously pleased I could achieve my dream. It wasn’t an easy wicket for batting. The odd ball was turning and there were not too many balls to hit from the medium-pacers. I am happy I could contribute to the team’s target of getting a big total. For Zimbabwe, it was important not to lose the Test. A win for us would have been a tremendous result.

 

Why do you say it was not your best knock?

Mainly because I can’t honestly remember a single shot. I could recall some shots I played in the seven or eight hundreds I had scored earlier, but this one was so different. I would remember this hundred as just another good knock. Not a special one.

What was on your mind when you went out to bat?

The idea was to stay at the wicket as long as possible. From the first ball, I was determined to do that. I had to curb my shots. The day I got the century was certainly a special day in my life. I went about it over by over and session by session. The idea was just not to lose my wicket.

How do you view the result?

It has rekindled the interest for cricket. I must say the draw is a big boost for Zimbabwe cricket. If we manage to do well against New Zealand also, I am sure there will be tremendous amount of interest for cricket and we would get crowds for our matches. I am absolutely satisfied with the result we achieved. If someone had said 15 days back that we would draw the game I wouldn’t have accepted it. I am pleased with the way the boys played. It is a young side and it speaks well for their temperament and the ability to adjust to the demands of five-day cricket.

What sort of cricket set up do you have in Zimbabwe?

We basically have a National league which consists of nine teams. We play one-day competitions of 60 overs on Sundays. We intermingle that with the inter-provincial competitions of two days duration. On long days, which is about seven and half hours a day, we get 15 hours of play in two days, which is just three hours shorter than a first-class three-day game. That’s basically our bread and butter competition. We do have the odd-35-overs afternoon knockout competitions, that sort of thing. That’s the main cricket we have.

What about competitions for juniors?

We have a league for various age groups throughout the schools. The youngsters who come into school play cricket up to under 12 in junior schools and then go to senior schools to play the under-13, under-14, under-15, and the under-19 league. From there, they go on to play for clubs. That’s the structure at the moment.

Do you have any development programme?

We do. We have a new but quite a large coaching development plan. We try and check youngsters from the senior schools. When they leave the senior schools, we try and sign them on to the coaching staff. We train them as coaches. We sign them for two years and use them to coach in schools straightaway. We send them to England for six months a year to get experience of play. If they become National players they become contracted professionals. We are trying to keep up the game as much as we can.

What have been your handicaps?

The biggest handicap for us has been the lack of foreign currency to bring in the equipment and build facilities. I have been part of the coaching scheme now for the last 10 years. You know we try and introduce the game to the majority black population and their enthusiasm is frightening. We don’t have enough equipment and facilities. You are out coaching 50 kilometres away in the high density areas. We found that they love the game and want to play. If they have to play, they would have to travel 50 kilometres to play in Harare. The new plan now is to try and build stadiums all over the country.

What is the incentive for a youngster to take to cricket in Zimbabwe?

We just got into the big league and are concentrating on the coaching scheme. Any kid in the under-12 category, if found talented, is given sponsorship for the rest of his school career. We take him out of the high density area and put him in a private school. We pay his fee for the rest of his schooling career. That is an incentive straightaway. To start leading a different life. It is slowly getting professional. The National team is starting to pay the players a little bit. Even the clubs have started to pay the players a little bit. Now obviously, for Test cricket there will be match fees for every player. That will make a lot of difference. It will get to a stage where all the clubs would become professional and you would get a bonus if you play for the National team.

What else do you have in mind?

I am not sure how long I am going to carry on playing. I would like to play a couple of years more. But my target now is to get out and build these stadiums. Make them self-sufficient stadiums within the high density areas. I have been there often. You start off with 15 kids and soon you find about 150 kids turning up. They want to know what’s happening and want to learn. So they need their own facilities. Once we have these facilities going, they can make their own coaching scheme under our umbrella. Local coaches can live with the players and run the scheme completely and comfortably, do the groundmanship, run the coaching. You see the whole thing takes off . That’s going to be my target now.

Do you think you have the basic talent?

The talent is there. I am sorry you didn’t come here a week before the Test because we had our under-19 trials. If you had seen the talent on display there, you would have felt as confident about our future as I do. There is a lot coming through. There is no Sachin Tendulkar around, but there is lot of talent there.

How many professionals do you have in the National team?

At the moment, we got just three professionals. Myself and the two Flower brothers. But we have Alistair Campbell from the coaching scheme. He is one of our young coaches. That makes it four in the side.

What made you stick to Zimbabwe? Hick went off to England. Didn’t you ever get tempted to play somewhere else?

I always believed we would get Test status at some stage. I thought it should have come a bit sooner. That’s one of the reasons which kept me going. I don’t think I could have played for another country. That’s not my idea. I am a Zimbabwean. I was born and bred here and I would always like to play for Zimbabwe. It’s like going to the World Cup. I would hate to stand on the other side when the National Anthem was being played. Everyone thinks differently. Maybe it doesn’t worry Hicky very much, but I don’t have any ties with England. I am not English. I would only play for Zimbabwe.

“I enjoyed the most playing the World Cup in India,” says Houghton.   -  V. V. Krishnan

Could you tell us something about yourself?

Well. I have been playing in the national side since 1978. When I first toured, we were Rhodesia still, and we went and played in the Currie Cup. I had two seasons in the Currie Cup in South Africa. In 1980, we became independent. During that time, I was a policeman. I left the police in 1981 and took up employment here. Cricket was still a hobby for me and it was only in 1984 when a club invited me to play in England that I thought I should cash in on my cricketing talent. I came back and joined the coaching scheme as an active member. That’s what I have been doing ever since.

What has it been like as a cricketer?

It has been fantastic in the sense that I have met so many people and travelled so much. That’s been absolutely magnificent and I have friends in all the cricketing nations. There is another side too. The lonely side. I am a married man here and the cricket sort of upsets my life. I don’t mind that because at the end of the day you meet people and make more friends. Some of them come and stay with me. It has been really wonderful.

Where have you enjoyed playing the most?

I must admit I enjoyed the most playing the World Cup in India. I thought the place was just fantastic. I am really hoping we get a chance to go back. The cricket fever in India is simply fantastic. You leave your hotel, people recognise you and want your autographs. We couldn’t go anywhere without crowds and crowds of people. That was just amazing for us. It was even more amazing because being Zimbabweans, we thought nobody knew us in India. But I was surprised even the young kids knew and recognised us by our names though. They had never seen us before. That sort of cricket fever was absolutely fantastic. I remember the second game we played against New Zealand at the Eden Gardens. We were both out of the competition and it was a really meaningless game, but 60,000 people turned up to watch the match. That’s absolutely amazing.

What about your knock in Hyderabad?

It was a really special day. Everybody has such a day. Everything you try, you get in the middle of the bat. I enjoyed it a lot. The crowd supported us because we got so near to the target. I will remember that day to the rest of my life.

Which was the toughest side you played against?

Pakistan and Australia. They have a good bowling side and the batting too is quite formidable. They are, I think, good balanced teams and always very hard to beat.

Why does Zimbabwe often lose from winning positions?

You get yourself to a winning way. Once you become a team which wins all the time you get into the winning habit. When you see us play in the Associate member tournaments, you would find us a different side altogether. We win all the time and you can see the confidence in the players. All the tight situations go our way. It never goes the other way. When we go for the World Cup, we are the bottom side. We don’t have that confidence of being winners. So when you get into tight situations, it goes the other way. Maybe we might change if we get more experienced. I can tell you by my experience. I have improved with every World Cup. I had a fifty in my first World Cup and a hundred in the next. Everytime, we play a World Cup, we find our game has gone up slightly, but the other sides have changed a lot. We spend three or four games in trying to adjust. It is very difficult.

How do you view the proliferation of one-day cricket? Is it good?

We lived on one-day cricket, but I am not a fan of one-day cricket. I don’t like one-day cricket. I enjoy playing three, four, five-day cricket. I understand the financial reasons for it. People want to watch result-oriented cricket and the one-day games suit the administrators well. You need money to run the game, isn’t it? A Test is different. It is the ultimate. You go out and it is a fascinating contest. To me it is the real contest, to play against a guy, skill for skill. There is too much luck involved and too much of airy-fairy cricket in one-day games. Your bowlers try and bowl into the blockholes because you tell them not to swing the ball. Because if you swing it you tend to give the batsmen too much room. It kills the art of cricket as far as I am concerned. There are particular bowlers I love to see running in and trying to get the batsmen out. I hate this idea of a bowler running in only to stop the batsmen from scoring runs. It is not my idea of cricket. You know my father is not a great cricketer but he says one-day cricket is the most boring game in the world except the last five overs. That’s about right.

Do you feel that the money coming into the game is good for cricket?

It was obviously going to come about, but there is not so much money in cricket as there is in other sports. But certainly the game has become more professional. Players are far more fitter and they train harder. In a way it has not done cricket much good because there are few characters left in the game now. You don’t see an Ian Botham in the England side because they are too regimental. Because he doesn’t train much, doesn’t go to bed early. I think it has taken away the characters from the game. Money is obviously the reason for it. If you want to make a living out of cricket, you got to follow these regimens. But you lose characters this way.

What future do you see for Test cricket?

You are losing crowds for Test cricket. You found it here when we played our first Test match. The one-day game was a sell out. It is the same all round the world. People want to watch one-day games more. It’s because, like I said, they get to see a result. In a five-day game, you got to be there all the five days. There is no result on the first day and at the end of it there might be a draw. I hope it stays like that because eventually I think the crowds will come back to Test cricket. What I would hate to see is going in for coloured clothing, white ball and day-night Test matches. That would ruin the whole concept of the game. Once you start getting the characters back, you will find the crowds coming back too. Look at a side like Pakistan. You would pack any ground in the world just to see those guys bowl. Certainly I would go, though I am not a great cricket watcher myself. I would love to see those guys bowl. It is the same like going to watch Viv Richards bat. I am sure you would have had packed stadia when Gavaskar was around. You need the characters to attract crowds. I wonder what would happen if say India beats South Africa and starts winning against England. I am sure the stands will fill up. Everybody loves a winner, isn’t it?

Is it an advantage to be the underdog?

I don’t think we would be taken lightly. We are newcomers to Test cricket and we are aware that people would be playing against us for rich pickings — a couple of hundreds and five or six wickets in an innings. Everybody would be looking at us like that. We are aware of this situation. But we also have a situation where we are not playing for ourselves but are playing for the country also. We must be seen as Zimbabwe being able to play at such a level. The team has to play well.

What are your views on neutral umpires?

I quite like the idea of neutral umpires. Honestly, I am not for having three umpires. There have always been two umpires and there has always been an element of doubt, odd person being given out when he is not out, and someone given not out when he is out. But it is all part of the game. Neutral umpires is not a bad idea but not three umpires. Every umpire has got his own finicky areas which he likes to look for. We have an umpire who likes to look at people running down the middle of the wicket. There is another who may not watch this the whole day. So you can be bowling 26 overs a day without a problem, but the next morning you might be warned in the first over itself. Why have different umpires? That, to me, sounds crazy. You bowl a line one day and the next day the same line could be called wide. The second umpire sees the wide differently.

What about the TV umpire?

I don't agree with it either. There’s always been an element of doubt and that’s been part of cricket. I am sure there have been bad decisions in the past. Everyone makes mistakes. The bowlers, the fielders, the batsmen and the umpires. They all make mistakes. That’s all part of cricket. You might as well play cricket on a game of computer. I used to play hockey for example. I used to be a goalkeeper and a short corner on grass was always a fair contest. There was always an element of chance with the ball bouncing at times and not bouncing on other occasions. On astro-turf, it has all become machine-like. I would hate to see the same thing happen to cricket. If you make an appeal, you look around for the TV screen to get the decision. That sounds and looks funny.

What would your plans be after retiring?

We are building an academy here (in Harare). We are going to have 24 nets, offices and change rooms. I will be running the academy. Finances permitting. I would like to invite cricketers from other countries to come and train here. Sponsorship is encouraging now. Being a full member, we would get money for playing the World Cup, in the sense we don’t have to spend on qualifying tournaments. I remember everytime we left, my president would tell me, “Don’t lose, we can’t afford it.” It has been a cut-throat business for us all these years. Now we are more assured. The academy should be functioning fully by September next year. You might see a different and stronger Zimbabwe when you come here next.

This article was published in The Sportstar of November 7, 1992