Holding his head high

S. RAM MAHESH

Tatenda Taibu has managed to compartmentalise his thought processes.-V.V. KRISHNAN

TATENDA TAIBU has had a full life. And he's only 22. Thrown into a morass, which would have sapped the life force of many a man, Taibu despite three millstones — captaining an anemic side, batting and wicket-keeping — tied to his ankles has kept a proud head above the bog.

"It was very difficult to start off with because at the time when I was given captaincy my batting wasn't really paying off well. And you've got the thoughts about the team not doing well and you've got those thoughts about your personal batting not doing well," says Taibu.

"It was a bit of pressure. But when I had a chat with Phil Simmons and few other guys, they just told me I wasn't enjoying the game the way I usually do. I started trying to bring back the enjoyment and when I did that I found I was lighter in my head, started thinking clearer and started batting well."

For one so young, Taibu has managed to compartmentalise his thought processes. He has made two sets of partitions — one between the draining memories of losing and his own thoughts, and the other between the facets of batting, keeping, and captaincy.

"I don't put captaincy in the same category. Just my batting and my keeping. You can only do so much as a captain, you can't control what the other guy is going to do.

"Definitely not easy, especially as a top-order batsman and the captain, because if you are not careful, you get drawn into the team feeling," says the man who started off as an off-spinner and lower-order batsman before breaking into the team at 16. "But if you try and differentiate the two — if you are batting, you are just a batsman, you don't think about how the team is doing. And if you are a keeper, you have to think about the ball that you are going to catch first, get it out of the way and then think about the bowling changes or what fields you have."

Does he — like purported cerebral captains — read books on strategy and cricketing theory? "I definitely don't believe in trying to copy what others do and read other books on how they do things. The way things are run in Australia is very different to the way things are run here," says Taibu. "So you have to find the best possible solution to the way things are run in Zimbabwe. That's the way I am going to succeed as the Zimbabwean captain."

In a time when the purity of glovesmanship has been adulterated because of the preference of batsmen who can barely slip on the mitts, Taibu retains an old-world charm. He's a gifted athlete with a low centre of gravity and soft fast hands. He can power step well off either foot. "I think the turning point was when I had a chat with Gilchrist. He said he tries to work on the two differently.

"He says with him, he is a more gifted batsman than a wicket-keeper. So everytime he gets to practice, he practises 80 per cent of the time with his keeping and 20 per cent with his batting. I just try and divide 50-50 because I think sometimes I hit the ball nicely, sometimes I keep really well. I am still to find out where I am stronger".

But doesn't being one of only two world-class players in the side put extreme physical demands on him? In the first Royal Stag Test at Bulawayo, Taibu top scored with half centuries in both innings and crouched and flexed for over 150 overs. "I have always been a guy who has worked very hard at my fitness," he says.

The Zimbabwean captain's wicketkeeping has the old-world charm.-V.V. KRISHNAN

"At a very young age of 15, I'd wake up in the morning at 6. I used to stay in Highfields. Five minutes walk from my house was a soccer stadium. I'd go in and run up and down the stairs for a good 30 minutes non-stop. Do my stretches and my long-distances. Since then, I have always worked on my fitness. And if I don't work on my fitness, I actually feel bad."

Zimbabwe would have been in even more strife had Taibu turned his attention to football. In the nets he showed great skill bouncing a cricket ball off both thighs, either foot and chest, not losing control even once. "Yeah, yeah," he says, guffawing and swaying when asked if he considered changing loyalties.

"Growing up, we used to have a very tough coach. If you missed practice, you knew he would beat you. So whenever I missed practice, I wouldn't go for practice for a whole week, I'd just go and play soccer so when I get my beating it is just one beating for the whole week. Once I left cricket for a good six months, played for a soccer club. I really enjoy my soccer, and if I had more time, maybe I would have been a soccer player." In recent times, Taibu has had more to contend with — fractious disputes over player contracts that threatened to snowball into boycotts. "Don't speak about those issues with players. I try and say to the other guys when you are playing international cricket which is very tough, every other issue that you have got must be left in the car park. I try not to discuss it with players. I wouldn't know if it disturbs other players, but it doesn't disturb me because I leave every other thought I would have in the car park."

What does he think Zimbabwe Cricket should do to improve its level of play and build bench strength? "The only thing I have asked is to try and get the longer game straight with guys who are doing school, under-16, under-19. If we can have guys playing longer version, it would be better because what I found out is come international cricket, the guys do well in one-day cricket. In long games, they really struggle because they are used to the one-day league. Through school, they have been playing one-day cricket.

"When I went to Australia for the VB Series, I was having a chat with Geoff Marsh's son. He told me he's only 12 but when they play cricket, they play two-day cricket. So they have that long game in them, so when they grow up, they get more days where they go to three days to four days to Test cricket. It is a gradual thing. If we try to get that in Zimbabwe, it will be better."