Journalists are prone to hyperbole: the best ever, the greatest of all time, and the New Somebody are bandied about often. As for ‘what could have been’ – well, that’s where embellishment runs free. So for a writer to suggest what Eddo Brandes ‘could’ve been’ doesn’t mean much.
When it comes from Heath Streak, however, it takes on a bit more significance:
“Eddo could easily have captured 200-plus wickets in both formats had he had more opportunity. His era saw players as semi-pro which was always a challenge.”
Brandes himself is candid that he fell short of what he could’ve done: “I believe I underachieved.”
Many things stood in Brandes’ way. There was no significant or specialist coaching in Zimbabwe when he was making his way in cricket; until 1992 they had virtually nil international exposure beyond the occasional festivities of a World Cup; professionalism didn’t emerge until well after Brandes first appeared on the international scene.
As John Traicos, one of Zimbabwe’s great stalwarts, puts it, “there was a high degree of commitment to succeed which saw players make exceptional commitments to practice outside their daily work” despite players and administrators alike having to operate in “a challenging amateur environment”.
By the time contracts began to appear in Zimbabwe, Brandes already had his own business – the famous chicken farm.
“When I left university, I’d put out that I was looking for a job for about three-or-four months from late 1985 to tide me over until we went to England again in ‘86. A member of the cricket club, who became a friend of mine, he took me on. I eventually stayed with him for seven years, becoming a director of his company – that’s just how I was, you just go boots and all and get stuck into whatever you do.
“All along I was always discussing with him that I wanted to go into business on my own at some stage. We looked at and discussed different things – which was quite unique, to be able to discuss with your boss. Quite a few ventures he said ‘no that wouldn’t be a good idea,’ and then the farm became available and I took that on.”
It’s something that almost certainly held Brandes back in a cricketing sense, and Brandes concedes that his views fluctuate on the issue – “At times, I get frustrated; but then, at times, I’m awfully grateful to it”.
Brandes bought the farm in 1991, but was immediately swamped by cricket: the following year saw Zimbabwe perform solidly at the World Cup, followed by being granted Test status. It was a period of advancement for the side, and men like Andy Flower, Dave Houghton and Brandes himself were thrown into the world spotlight.
With cricket operating on a shoestring budget in Zimbabwe at the time, it was a noteworthy rise. Traicos recalls a Zimbabwe Cricket Union well managed by Alwyn Pichanick and David Ellman-Brown, “well supported by local industry and commerce which provided financial support to ensure that cricket remained competitive internationally.”
Sadly, this tight budget sometimes meant sacrifices had to be made: few cricketers could be contracted in those early years, and Brandes was one of the unlucky ones.
“At that stage, we had only one professional cricketer. By the end of 1992 we had another three professional cricketers. The first was Dave Houghton, and then Andy Flower, Grant Flower and Alistair Campbell. Then, about ‘93, I approached the board and I said, ‘look, this is getting pretty exciting, this Test cricket and all that. I’d like to become a professional cricketer’.
“At that stage, if they’d said yes, I was going to sell my farm – even though I’d just purchased it – and then focus full-time. But they said no, at this stage we’ve just taken on another three professionals, we can’t afford it, and in the next wave they intimated that I was on the wrong side of age, I was about 28 or 29 then.”
If it hindered Brandes, it certainly didn’t stop him: through the 1990s, only Heath Streak and Guy Whittall took more one-day wickets among the quicks – and each played at least 25 more games than their injury-prone contemporary.
If proof were needed of his ability to be a match-winner, his total of two ODI five-wicket hauls through the ‘90s – once against England; the other against India – was matched only by Paul Strang.
Streak and Bryan Strang took only one each; Whittall, John Rennie and Henry Olonga nil.
But despite the highs of 1992, and of the ‘90s in general, Brandes’ first big day in a national shirt had come some years earlier – not even in an official international. He was still a young lad in his early 20s, who was “just playing cricket”.
Few would have predicted such a display was coming – the West Indian B side, touring Zimbabwe through the 1986-87 season, had met little opposition from their hosts. Indeed, Brandes himself had failed to pick up a wicket in the first two ‘internationals’.
In the final First Class match, with Zimbabwe having fallen for just 170 in their first innings, Brandes stood up. It was an outstanding Caribbean batting line-up: Carlisle Best, uncle of Tino, had made his Test debut earlier in the year, with his first scoring shot a hooked six off Ian Botham. Phil Simmons, Carl Hooper and Eldine Baptiste were also in the top order, with bowlers of the class of Tony Merrick and George Ferris firing in.
Taking the new ball, Brandes dismissed Phil Simmons with just one run on the board. With the score at 17, Julian Charles departed too. Soon, Carl Hooper and future Test gloveman David Williams were added to Brandes’ tally. When he dismissed number-ten Tony Merrick, Brandes had his maiden First Class five-for.
According to one of his opponents in that game, George Ferris, Brandes “bowled with relentless speed, control and stamina that day on a good pitch.” Given the quality of the opposition Brandes was shooting out, it’s no surprise that Ferris says he was “very impressed” with his display.
“He didn’t say much on the field,” Ferris recalled, “and was a great bloke off the field.”
Later that season, he added to his West Indies B display a six-for against Pakistan B – he took 17 wickets in three games in that series. Bowling alongside Peter Rawson, the pair complimented each other well, especially with Malcolm Jarvis and Kevin Duers nearby. But Brandes doesn’t attempt to over-promote those performances.
“At that stage, we were just playing cricket. Because we were so little-exposed to world cricket […] we used to play about six weeks of First Class cricket a year, against touring teams.”
And those touring teams were invariably the youth sides, never the real deal. But Brandes emphasises that “just playing cricket” doesn’t mean they weren’t putting in effort:
“I was challenging myself, and I wanted to become a better player. I also challenged myself to make sure that I kept my place in the side, because I really enjoyed being a part of that, and it’s something I thrived on.”
It was a particularly important period for Brandes, as he developed from being “probably just a military medium bowler who batted a little bit” to a frontline opening quick. He’d been on part of the 1985 tour of England while still at university, and then went to the 1986 ICC Trophy, where his appetite for international cricket was whetted.
“In 1986 we had the ICC World Cup Qualifiers, and I had a taste of the national side. I identified where there was a slot to fit into the side […] I wasn’t going to be an out-and-out batsman, so the only other position that I saw was the opening bowler’s spot.”
With Peter Rawson – described by John Traicos as “very hostile and aggressive” with ball in hand – the only genuine opening bowler, there was a gap. So Brandes set about transforming himself.
“From there my practise just involved trying to bowl as fast as possible. That took a couple of years to step up from medium pace to medium-quick or whatever I was categorised as in the end. I started to add pace to my bowling, and that slot then became mine, and I was able to keep my place in the side.”
So came the 1987 World Cup: after the win against Australia in 1983, it was now evident that the side would be competitive. With senior heads like captain John Traicos, vice-captain Dave Houghton, and others like Kevin Curran, Iain Butchart and Robin Brown, it was a side that certainly had ability.
“If I look at it now, we got there and it was just such a phenomenal, huge event. It was so huge that we didn’t realise how huge it was. We were just excited to be there, and tried to play the best we could.”
While Brandes tends not to focus too much on his own performances, Captain Traicos notes that World Cup as the first time his young bowler really ramped up the heat.
“He first showed his ability to generate a high level of speed when he surprised Martin Crowe with sheer pace in Hyderabad on a flat deck in the first match of the 1987 World Cup. He was able to keep Martin Crowe pegged back at a critical time in the slog overs of the game and helped reduce the New Zealand total to a target that in the end we nearly reached.”
Brandes recalls that “At this stage we didn’t have a coach […] right up to this stage we were coached by senior players”. Brandes’ captains at both the 1987 and ‘92 World Cups agree: Traicos saying that experienced players “saw themselves as responsible for mentoring and motivating younger players”.
Dave Houghton recalls that while there were some difficult times for the team, an environment where senior players helped the juniors “did bond us as a close-knit unit”.
But while Brandes continued to do well in the opportunities he got – Zimbabwe’s first hattrick in First Class cricket, against the Young New Zealanders, for example – the national side played very little cricket over the next five years.
“When I was working at the furniture shop, my boss was really good to me with regards to times. I used to leave at four in the afternoon and go to practice, I used to train in the morning before work. I really became – I wouldn’t say an elite – but towards an elite athlete, in regards to my training, and work.”
Although that had to change once he became self-employed, it had served Brandes in good stead for the 1992 World Cup, where the side built on the progress made in both 1983 and ‘87.
“That whole tournament was quite an incredible event.”
It’s a fairly concise description of the 1992 World Cup – one which had everything anyone could have wanted. Strong performances from the underdogs (Zimbabwe), surprise semi-final results (Pakistan beating New Zealand), an Ian Botham swansong and the South African choke that began a more than two-decade trend.
But it wasn’t just a great tournament for those reasons. South Africa were readmitted, still very fresh in their return to international cricket. It was the first to have floodlights and coloured clothing, the first to use white balls – it was the first Packer World Cup. As Malcolm Gray, Chairman of that World Cup, put it: “there had been quite a lot of change [in cricket over the previous 15 years] so change was afoot.”
Zimbabwe started by giving Sri Lanka a real fright – they set 312, after an Andy Flower masterclass, and the Sri Lankans only scraped home by three wickets in the last over. Brandes suggests he “bowled badly in that game,” but given the tiny boundaries of Pukekura Park, it’s not surprising that he went at sevens.
They fell to Wasim Akram in their second game, struggled against the West Indies in their third match, and were undone by the weather against New Zealand – “we should never have played there”.
Rain again proved the issue at Seddon Park against India; the rain rule of the time required Zimbabwe to score at an RPO of 8.4 in their 19 overs, despite restricting India to 203 in 32, and being 104-1 in response. Although under modern requirements, Zimbabwe were five balls short of the required 20 overs to constitute a match, they were in fact eight runs ahead on the current Duckworth Lewis Method.
But they couldn’t quite go one better. South Africa had a few nervous moments, but generally dominated their African brothers, and Australia were even more crushing.
Leading into their final match, Zimbabwe had seven losses out of seven – and yet, in four or five of those matches, they’d had a decent chance; and did well in at least one facet of the game each time.
“If a couple of things had gone our way, we would’ve had a really good tournament. Going home from that World Cup, it was a realisation that, hold on, we’re there or there abouts, we just need to tweak a few things, work real hard on a couple of other things, and things are going to happen.”
But Zimbabwe, and Brandes in particular, still had one trick up their collected sleeve before they returned home – and it was England who copped the brunt.
“He had told [Graeme Hick] the night before as we finished a great reunion dinner – ‘Ash tomorrow I have got your wicket’.”
That’s the story as told by John Traicos; Brandes doesn’t recall the night before, but mentions something may have been said in the few days leading up to the match. Either way, Brandes did dismiss his “best mate” from school – as well as Graham Gooch, Allan Lamb and Robin Smith.
As Traicos puts it, it “ranks with the best bowling feats in World Cup cricket”. Zimbabwe were defending just 134; only Dave Houghton and Iain Butchart had shown any spine with the willow. For England, assured of a semi-final place, it should have been a canter.
Instead, courtesy of a spell of outstanding quick bowling, the Poms fell nine short. Brandes finished with four, Traicos ground out 10 overs for just 16 runs, Ali Shah conceding just one run more.
Brandes and Traicos finished as destroyer- and smotherer-in-chief, respectively. Appropriate, then, that they’d worked together in the nets in the lead-up to that game. As Brandes says, “I was getting wickets, but I just felt I was leaking a few too many runs”.
“Eddo and I spent a lot of time bowling in the nets,” recalls Traicos, “and we were always looking to improve. I believe that at the time we probably worked on Eddo pushing the left arm up in the delivery stride to ensure that he maximised his pace and bounce.”
On the day itself, it had started with Brandes running a straight one into Gooch’s front pad – first ball of the innings. The golden duck, celebrated most passionately in the slips cordon, set in place a chain reaction. Gladstone Small was the last out, scooping Malcolm Jarvis to Andy Pycroft.
“The enormity of what was happening, I think we only realised at the next World Cup how big a thing it was, winning a game at the World Cup. Obviously we beat England and were excited for that actual result, but in ‘96 we didn’t win a game against a Test side […] that was when it sunk home how big it was to win a World Cup game.”
But Brandes’ personal performance gave him an injection of confidence, showing he was capable of performing on the biggest stage – “you just wish you could do it more often”. It was especially encouraging for Brandes when he finished as fifth top wicket-taker, even without making it to the knockout stage. “That was a catalyst, and a boost,” he says.
Even bigger things than a World Cup victory were to come, with the granting of Test status. With it suddenly opening the opportunity for more, and much more regular, international competition it was a huge change to Zimbabwe’s position.
“It was something that Zimbabwe was striving for. There was only one way we were going to get better, and that was by getting exposed. Ideally, looking back, I think we should’ve got Test status in ‘83, after that World Cup.”
Brandes believes there was a good balance between the senior players and the new entrants to the national side at that time, and that it “probably was our strongest base to do what we did from ‘92 onwards”.
Had Test status been granted then, there was the possibility of men like Duncan Fletcher, Kevin Curran, Graeme Hick and Peter Rawson not moving away from Zimbabwe, as occurred with each of them.
Traicos fully agrees “on reflection,” and also names Brian Davison and Paddy Clift as among those who may have been lured by the offer of Test cricket. “Unfortunately the ICC probably felt we were not ready for Test cricket and that there was not enough depth of players in the country to maintain Test status.”
Davison, who was offered the chance of playing ODI cricket for Zimbabwe, turned it down – “I hadn’t been back in a number of years, and I just felt that, imagine if it’d been me and I’d worked my butt off to get into the Zimbabwe team, and someone who didn’t even live there anymore came back and took that mantle from me, I’d be really disappointed” – and doesn’t believe Test cricket on offer would’ve changed that.
So instead of a team with batsmen like Hick, Davison and Houghton; all-rounders like Curran and Fletcher; and bowlers ranging from Rawson to Clift to Traicos, it came a decade later. Some of the players were the same – Traicos, Houghton and Andy Pycroft would likely have played Zimbabwe’s first Test in 1983 as they did in ‘92 – but for Clift and Rawson, read Brandes and Jarvis. Kevin Arnott and two Flowers were now around, as was Alistair Campbell.