Up until March of this year Tatenda Taibu had been the convenor of selectors for Zimbabwe Cricket and the founder and head of the Rising Stars Academy but since then he along with head coach Heath Streak and skipper Graeme Cremer have been removed from their roles to the chagrin of cricket lovers in Zimbabwe.
Taibu agreed to speak with Cricket365 in an exclusive interview where he shared the reasons he is optimistic about cricket in Zimbabwe despite the challenges facing the game in that corner of southern Africa and gives his candid opinions on those currently running the game in his country.
Every country has a different approach to talent development from the carefully thought out programmes in place in England and Australia to the seemingly random nature of talent scouting in Pakistan and so we asked the former Zimbabwe skipper what Zimbabwe’s approach to talent development was.
Taibu responded: “Zimbabwe actually doesn’t have an approach to be honest. When I was growing up there was a scholarship programme in place players that were talented but came from poor backgrounds and I was one of them.
“There were several primary schools that were targeted that would produce a lot of players for the national team. That is no more now. Then you also have a lot of countries that used to play competitive cricket against each other and there would be several tournaments but that is no longer there.
“There really is very little going on where talent identification and talent development are concerned but we can’t really start to compare with other countries.
“Let me take an example, this example is on a higher stage than what I was asked about but you look at the various A sides from the Test playing nations right now and Australia A are about to tour India, India A are in England playing West Indies A and the Lions, Bangladesh A and Sri Lanka A are also playing and Bangladesh A will visit England and Scotland later this year if I am not mistaken, and Zimbabwe A are doing nothing, the Academy; are doing nothing. So on almost every level there is little to nothing going on where talent development is concerned.”
Struck by a lack of programmes to develop talent and nurture cricketer’s as human beings Taibu founded the Rising Stars Academy that gave young players from Zimbabwe and opportunity to spend a few weeks in their off season playing in England.
The goal of the project as outlined by the man himself was to pull players out of a system flooded with negative thinking and try to produce world class cricketers for Zimbabwe.
“When I was asked to go to Zimbabwe to be the chairman of selectors I realised that for different teams that I was selecting the same names were coming up,” says Taibu when asked about the Academy.
“The names I was putting into the national team were the same names coming up for the A side and other names would pop-up when I was selecting the teams for the T20 tournament in South Africa and then again the same names for a development squad that played against the UAE and Sri Lanka.
“I knew there was a problem here because I didn’t have a wide base of players to choose from. What I did was I then started to watch a lot of first class games. It became immediately obvious that there were a lot of players playing first class cricket that would not be able to go beyond Zimbabwe domestic cricket because they have their standards set at a very low level.
“I thought if I could have the more numbers of players with the right professionalism and the right mentality to challenge for a place in the national team and not just be content with doing well in first class cricket that would improve the standard of our game.
“I came up with this project when I was speaking to a friend of mine, John Armstrong, who coaches my son at school. We were just bouncing cricket ideas off each other and we found ourselves talking about a project like that (The Rising Stars Academy).
“I then got the project together and really and tailored the project for Zimbabwe. That project was simply to get young players from Zimbabwe, who have got raw talent, and get them away from the negative atmosphere in Zimbabwe, which I had experienced myself going to watch cricket there and selecting from them, and teach them to be professional, teach them to be good citizens, teach them to be competitive and teach them to make a difference really. Such a project was intended to mould players who could win games for Zimbabwe in the future.”
Even after Zimbabwe had failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup the feeling was that their cricket was improving and young stars were coming through in the shape of players like Blessing Muzarabani who could play alongside experienced hands like Brendan Taylor and Cremer but the board were apparently not satisfied with the progress and in a move that shocked the cricketing world sacked the coach, skipper and selectors as well as most of the backroom staff.
Taibu wasn’t as shocked as everyone else though having endured a prickly relationship with a board he feels are not fit to run cricket in Zimbabwe.
He added: “I cannot speak for Heath Streak, I can only speak for myself. There was never any indication from the chairman that he was displeased with my work but I know that I had had a few conversations with board members that were not pleasant.
“I told some of the board members that they thought just wearing a suit and sitting in the presidential enclosure makes them special and I told them that they have no idea what it is like to produce a player that goes out there and performs at the highest level because they have never even held a bat in their lives.
“I knew that wouldn’t go down well, it is only normal that it wouldn’t go down well so for me it wasn’t really much of a surprise.
“I would say to them they are going downhill if they don’t start to listen.
“With comments like that you know that you are going to be fired.
“As far as my work goes I think it speaks for itself, just look at the results we got in six months with the academy and look at the comments that I got from the players when they heard that I had been dismissed. Almost all the players I worked with sent me messages saying that I was fair so really that was a selector is there for, to be fair and choose the best team he can at the end of the day.”
As a former player and lover of the game, Taibu found it hard to gel with ZC board members whom he says know nothing at all about cricket. He reveals that his biggest regret in taking up the role was trusting Zimbabwe Cricket Chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani.
“There wasn’t really a relationship to be honest,” he says wryly.
“You know the saying birds of a feather flock together? I could never flock with them.
“It was quite embarrassing, we hardly ever talked cricket when we were in the presidential enclosure because how can you talk cricket with someone who doesn’t know cricket? I mean you’ll be talking Greek and they don’t speak Greek. To try and make someone understand is just a waste of time because they are board members they should know cricket, all the other countries have people who played cricket or at least understand sport.
“Our relationship was not there at all, the one mistake that I regret to date was that I trusted Mukuhlani.”
Given the secrecy around Zimbabwe cricket’s discussions with the players we asked Taibu if there was anything he would like to say to the young players, many of whom he mentored at the Rising Stars Academy, who are involved in the pay dispute.
He said: “Well when I want to say something to someone I don’t beat about the bush, I go to the person and I tell them. When I started saying some comments about players backing up Brendan Taylor for the stand he took [against the non-payment of salaries and for a player’s union], which is an honourable stand, one of the Rising Stars players called me wanting to find out what was going on so I did tell him what was going on and I advised him that he and the other players must stand with Brendan Taylor.
“I reiterated that I am not asking the players to boycott the game, I am asking them to sign that sheet of paper that forms a players union and I explained to them that they are the one’s who will benefit from doing so because all the other countries have got a player’s union. Player’s will have a voice and they will not be in the position that they are in where they won’t get their funds and they won’t be in a position where they are targeted and divided because the chairman will go and speak with them each individually. I said to them at the end of the day you are at liberty to do whatever you like but I felt it was my duty to inform them, as the person who gave them an opportunity, what the right thing to do is.”
Now Zimbabwe head into a triangular series against Australia and Pakistan without some of their best players including Taylor and Sikandar Raza who have refused to take the field unless they were paid salaries owed stretching back months
With all that has gone on and continues to go on inside cricket in Zimbabwe you would think it might leave a person disillusioned but Taibu is confident that change is brewing in his homeland and that cricket will enjoy a new dawn.
When we asked what needed to be done to ensure cricket not only survives in Zimbabwe but thrives Taibu said: “Number one, there are things being done already.
“The Sports and Recreation Commission which every sporting board in Zimbabwe falls under has the mandate to look into cricket and I know that they are looking at cricket and I know there is a lot of information in their hands so that is a good start.
“I know Zimbabwe is on the agenda for the ICC as well with people going on social media voicing their displeasure with Zimbabwe Cricket.”
Taibu returned to his message encouraging player solidarity, which he feels will be key to a bright future for cricket in the country.
He went on: “But if players want to have a future, a bright future, they have to learn to stand together. A house that is divided can never stand and you need to pull together to go far. Once they are able to stand together and form a union there will be a player’s representative who will then be affiliated with FICA and therefore the ICC so then when players need help they have other countries to rely on.
“When players stand together they will have the power to stand up for things that are right, these are their careers and they should have more say in who they want to govern the sport, that is what I think needs to be done and then there will be transparency with the fans and between the board and players. When cricket improves the crowds will return because who doesn’t want to be associated with good. I believe with the talent we have in the country we will start to get back to where we used to be. That is what I think needs to be done.”
There is a definite sense that Taibu has been emboldened by the positive response he has enjoyed when speaking out against alleged unethical behaviour from Zimbabwe Cricket.
Having seen him speak his truth to power on Twitter we asked if he had been hit with any sort of backlash from internet trolls or real life detractors but he said the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“All you need to do is read the tweets and follow ups to know that apart from a few negative comments everyone else has been in support. If you go to the Zimbabwe Cricket page where I know that there are people who are paid to speak against the truth I speak for, there are more people standing on my side… I don’t even want to say it is my side it is just the right side.”
Taibu is also confident that Taylor will play for Zimbabwe again in a new era of good governance.
He concluded: “There is a proverb I Zimbabwe, I’m not going to say it in Shona but the proverb is what has got a beginning has an end so I believe that all this is coming to and end and the right people will come in and take over Zimbabwe cricket and that Brendan Taylor will play for Zimbabwe again, he has a good few years left to play. I believe this is all coming to an end.“
The former selector continues to work within cricket though the future of the Rising Stars Academy is unclear at this stage, Taibu is currently working on what promises to be a revealing autobiography set for release in June 2019.
Interview by James Richardson