“We were treated as heroes, absolute heroes”

It was the fourth match of the inaugural World T20, with Zimbabwe and Australia both making their first appearance.

In the evening shadow of Table Mountain, it was due to be a mismatch. Australia; World Champions just a few months prior. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, had failed to beat Ireland.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. That was probably the highlight of my career. I mean we went into this, obviously, as massive underdogs. But, you know, we just had the game of our lives really. I mean, everything we did turned to gold.”

It probably remains Zimbabwe’s finest cricketing hour, challenged only by the highs achieved by that great side of the ‘90s. Zimbabwe almost literally played out of their skins, and Australia looked the second-best throughout. For all but the entire match, Zimbabwe were the dominating side.

Bowling first, Zimbabwe started with desperate, scrapping fielding with niggly, solid bowling backing it up. Gary Brent took two wickets – the crucial scalp of Ricky Ponting, and then a ripper to dismiss Brett Lee. The latter wasn’t…entirely intentional.

“And then obviously getting Ricky Ponting, it was one of the great things. My best wicket was Brett Lee, I wanted to bowl a yorker, didn’t do it very well, but he obliged by missing it.”

After the spectacle of a rain delay, with Australia ahead on Duckworth-Lewis, Zimbabwe, who had been a touch shaky after the delay, edged to a memorable, magnificent five-wicket win off the penultimate delivery.

It was obvious, at the time, that Brent was pumped – the entire side was. This was going to be their day, and they seemed impervious to the name-strength of their opposition from ball one.

And when you bring that mentality and approach to your game, things fall in place. Fielding, for starters, becomes an easy art to master (and we all know that it certainly isn’t).

“We dived. I remember diving one time and I just palmed it on [to another fielder] and it looked like it was all planned – but it wasn’t, I just dived.”

Even Ponting rose to the occasion – “We’ve been outplayed…it’s a mental thing for us – we’ve got to start respecting the game a bit more.”

Zimbabwe weren’t the only ones happy with the result either.

“And then afterwards, being in South Africa, there is a lot of rivalry between the South Africans and Australians. So we were treated as heroes. Absolute heroes.”

It was a glorious comeback for Brent, who a matter of months earlier had returned to the international fold. Having been out of the national side since the 2004 player strike, he made himself available once more in late 2006.

He proved to be a hard taskmaster for himself – his resumption of international cricket timed in perfectly with three big challenges, with the 2006 Champions Trophy, 2007 World Cup, and 2007’s inaugural World T20 all in a short spell.

“I decided to get myself fit again, decided to train hard and obviously with the World Cup on the horizon, I thought, ‘well, let me give it a crack’. And that was that.”

That decision to return had been made in 2006, two years after walking out on international cricket. In 2004, things were at a new low in Zimbabwean cricket, and the fifteen players who called it a day following the Heath Streak affair were simply a manifestation of all that had gone on.

Following his ‘retirement’, Brent had become a coach, working with the young guns to keep himself occupied. It kept him in the game, and well primed to be at his best when opportunity came knocking.

It came knocking through chance – one of the players he coached was net-bowling for the national side, and when he was knocking down pins, Brent decided he might be able to give it a crack too.

“And I did okay, and I thought ‘well, maybe I’m not over the hill after all’.”

He eventually made his way back in the Champions Trophy 2006 against Bangladesh. Brent was a replacement player for Terry Duffin in the Zimbabwe squad, ahead of its final match. Duffin, the former captain, had been ill for much of the tournament and couldn’t take part in either of Zimbabwe’s first two matches in the tournament, heavy defeats against the West Indies and Sri Lanka.

As far as the tournament was concerned, it was an insignificant match but for the two teams involved this was their final chance to salvage some pride, and it was tangible that both sides wanted to finish the tournament on a high. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe were thrashed by 101 runs – then-lowly Bangladesh running out winners. But for Brent, even though it was his only match in the tournament, he had plenty of reasons to smile. He bowled with discipline and demonstrated a tight line and length, and finished his spell with figures of 7-0-28-1.

Fast forward five months, to the 2007 World Cup. It would be fair to say that Zimbabwe had a forgetful outing. Not only did they fail to register a single win, but somehow they failed to beat Ireland (their first ever World Cup) in a game where they were seemingly cruising. Brent however shone for his country with the ball, despite missing the game against the West Indies. He finished the tournament with five wickets, the best bowling performance for Zimbabwe after only Elton Chigumbura.

“One thing that was a big factor in my success was a guy by the name of Dean Woodford. He was our fitness trainer at the time and he made me realise what I had to do. Obviously I was a lot older than everybody else, almost a decade older than everybody else in the team. I had a lot of regrets in the first part of my career. He said to me, ‘Why not give it a full go. Be the fittest you can be, bowl as much as you can. Be the most prepared you could be’. He was very good for me mentally, as well as physically and a big component in my success.”

In 2008, he made the decision to walk away from Zimbabwean cricket for good. Given he was only 32 at the time, it couldn’t have been an easy decision – but the wake-up call he received jolted him to it.

“I was playing a franchise game. It was a representative game against a South African side and I went for a catch and I smashed my baby finger.”

Although it wasn’t a serious injury, it made Brent realise that other than cricket, he had nothing else to his name. He had a young family at the time and living in a place like Zimbabwe, he couldn’t survive on playing ability alone, with no other qualifications to his name.

So Brent took the decision to go for a coaching qualification while playing club cricket in the UK; simply, he believed that coaching was something he could get into. Now a level-three coach, Brent believes that the agonising decision to retire from the international game has paid dividends in the long run.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time Brent had walked away from the game. In 2004, politics was as strong as it has been virtually throughout Zimbabwe’s cricketing history. Looking back, Brent sums it up in a sentence:

“I just think the board have never really taken the players seriously.”

Apart from in the early 2000s, when Andy Flower led the agitation in numerous situations and “they did take us seriously then,” the “hierarchy…don’t operate with our players.”

It’s something Brent pinpoints as needing to chance – that the board needs to recognise that fault, and that “to look after them [the players], and to put their interests first, is of paramount importance.” There is a need for transparent selection processes, and having the right people in high places, which is the “key”, Brent believes.

And Alistair Campbell is beginning this process: “he’s doing a lot in that regard…and things will get done while he’s there.”

Perhaps the moment when politics and cricket combined to the most devastating effect was in 2004. Then-captain Heath Streak had confronted the board with the team’s issues, so they sacked him. Fifteen senior players backed him up, and thus walked out – or were sacked, depending on who you speak to.

“We were under the impression that cricket was going on a route that we didn’t want it to go on. We certainly had the longevity of the game in our sights. As much as it looked it at the time, it was never really a racial thing. We were looking at the betterment of younger players coming through. We wanted the best players to play and we wanted transparency and things like that and we felt very strongly about it. We felt it was the right thing to do at the time. So I wouldn’t say it was a hard decision because all of us stuck together, stuck to our guts. We spoke about team spirit, with these guys we have been through lot of highs and lows together. We were all pretty close.”

It was a far cry from back in the 1980s, when Brent grew up. They were the tumultuous years following Zimbabwean independence. But the cricketing structures were excellent.

“It was very good. It was excellent in fact, yeah I was very young so I didn’t know what was going on around me. I just knew what was happening at school and everything was fine. Our infrastructure was good in those days. Very, very good.”

And it was in that environment that Brent developed a love for the game.

“Ah…I don’t know. I just played at school really. And then it just…my love for the game came from that.”

Brent certainly had cricketing pedigree – his uncle, Jon Brent, was a former national representative and later selector. But it took a while for the elder Brent’s influence to shine through.

“My uncle wasn’t really influential early on but I think gradually he became more and more influential.”

Brent eventually made the Zimbabwe one-day team at 20, and walked into a side that had a number of great names – the Flowers, Murray Goodwin, the Strangs, Campbell, Johnson, the list is virtually endless. Walking into Zimbabwe’s most successful ever must have been imposing at that age, but those greats ensured that not only did they have a positive influence on Brent, but also his transition in the team was seamless.

“Oh my goodness! I can’t emphasise how much of an impact they had on me. You know with the likes of all the people you have just spoken about, they were senior players in the true sense of the word. They taught us the right way to go about and I’m very grateful to have had those incredible people as well as incredible players to look up to.”

Brent managed to make a spot for himself in the ODI side from about 1998 onwards but it took until 1999 to break into the Test team. He played the two Tests against Sri Lanka, performing very solidly. But he didn’t get another chance for two years, when he played two more games.

“Yeah. It was very disappointing. It was a tough time. I always wanted to play Test cricket, Test cricket is obviously the pinnacle of cricket. I had an okay start with the ball in Bulawayo but I think my style of bowling probably wasn’t suited for longer version cricket. Although I think I got better towards the end, I learned to move the ball more consistently and probably with more control. And you know, what was being conveyed to me, I had mixed messages from a few coaches. So it was up to me. It was not the coaches’ faults, it was certainly my fault. I wasn’t as consistent as I needed to be in First Class cricket. Then if I’d got the results, I would have played more. So I’ve probably let myself down if anything.”

He said in an interview after his Test debut that the entire team had supported and encouraged him.  Not only that team spirit was a perceptible part of the Zimbabwe side throughout his time, but they also had a marvellous environment.

“That was the best team spirit we’ve had. It was an incredible environment. I remember getting my first Test wicket and Alistair Campbell coming up and giving me a hug! And you know, he’s not the sort of ‘huggy’ person, he was just happy for me. The whole team…I can’t put into words what it felt like to play for a team like that. And you literally wanted to go out there and go through walls for each other.”

After a blip of about 12 months he returned to the Zimbabwe side in late 2001. This came after he had been playing League Cricket in England. And that experience helped him immensely.

“Yeah. In England I played club cricket, you have a lot of different sorts of pressure. You know, being an overseas player, it does put a bit of pressure on you. And how well you do sometimes determines how well the side does. So having that sort of pressure was excellent for me, and being looked up to as a senior player. It definitely did mould my career. I was just lucky enough to be at some amazing clubs and they were just fantastic to me throughout the time I was in England.”

After his return to the one-day side, Brent performed perfectly commendably. From his return in 2001 to the 2003 World Cup selection cut-off (in late December 2002), Brent had taken 20 wickets in 19 games at the efficient run-rate of 5.05.

Despite this, he was omitted. He described it as “gut wrenching”. You never get another chance to play a tournament like that on home soil, and Brent was within four places of a spot to boot.

“Yeah, I know. It’s very difficult to describe the low that I went through. I made the last 19, but didn’t make the last 15. It was gut wrenching to say the very least. It was a very, very hard pill to swallow. But yeah, just one of those things.”

It wasn’t long after that, that the 2004 Heath Streak affair came about. Given that it truly was a central moment in Zimbabwe’s cricket history, it seems appropriate that it keeps cropping up. After that, he took years off, made a return, decided to retire, and has now settled down into coaching.

It’s given him a chance to look back. “Things have changed,” he says. Sadly, it’s not necessarily for the better.

“The culture of the dressing room needs to be changed. I think one thing that really surprised me was, we went to Bangladesh when I first came back from my ‘exile’, as such. I came back, we were in Bangladesh and we were beaten five-zero by Bangladesh. It was a tough pill to swallow. And, then when we came back home, we beat Bangladesh in our first game in Harare. And we beat them quite comfortably.

“I was very, very eager to celebrate that with my teammates and I went to the changing room and not one person was there. So, I think the changing room, the team spirit, the team ethos- that’s not there anymore. That needs to come back for us to be consistently competitive.”

But the right people are involved now, with the head coach Dav Whatmore, with Alistair Campbell in-and-around the environment, with the assorted assistant coaches and trainers, it’s shaping up to be a positive time in Zimbabwe’s history.

The likes of Ray Price, Tatenda Taibu and Brent himself may have moved on, followed with the likes of Kyle Jarvis and Brendan Taylor finding home elsewhere, but there’s a new crop coming through.

Sikandar Raza’s abilities with bat and ball have punctuated the last few months in Zimbabwean cricket, and with the likes of Charles Coventry and Stuart Masikenyeri returning to help strengthen the batting order, with Hamilton Mazakadza and Elton Chigumbura adding steady senior hands, and with bowlers like Chris Mpofu, Graeme Cremer, Tendai Chatara and Tinashe Panyangara, the future is bright.

All that’s without even mentioning Sean Williams, the hero of the recent World Cup.

“My wish is that Zimbabwean cricket goes from strength to strength. And I think, with the current set-up, we are on the right track. Dav Whatmore, Douggie Hondo, Bundu [Andy] Waller, all to help there, with Sean Bell at the fitness – I think they’ve got a good team there, to make things get along and I just hope the administrators can support them in every endeavour.”

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