These days, I suppose, they would call it a gap year. In my case, it was nearer two. Idling around Africa with a rucksack, that is. Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia then, and in 1961, in my early twenties, I chased a haughty blonde Virginia Veitch from London’s Earls Court, whose pa worked for Barclays in Harare (then Salisbury) and who, when I arrived with gormless grin — ‘Dwarling, ’tis me!’ — smartly sneered, ‘Get lost, punk.’ Africa was a large place to get lost in when you were a bum and broke. Nevertheless, between sweltering subbing shifts for the local Herald and sending back naive chancer’s dispatches on flimsy airmail to the Manchester Guardian (each spiked to death on arrival), I did volunteer for a bit of (strictly) whites-only cricket at the Salisbury sports club. But the bowlers were too hostile, the wickets too fast and the sun too hot for a Stroud Straggler village bat brought up on the muddy molehills of north Glos, and I gave up after a particularly humiliating first-ball blonger against the tobacco farmers of Trelawney (played-on, off my ear).
I am transported back this week to that exclusive bougainvillea-blossomed little colonial field (close by Pres. Mugabe’s des res). England’s cricketers play on it with sullen grudge, sent by the same fuming mandarins of Lord’s who, little more than a decade ago, were whining about not being allowed to ‘build bridges’ by playing against a then altogether more obnoxious regime to the south.
The most rewarding cricketing I had in old Salisbury was watching in awe the Rhodesian Springbok Colin Bland practise his fielding. He would stand a single stump in front of a hockey net and at full pelt and from every angle and distance, 18 times out of 20 his throw would ping it out of the ground. Four years later I saw Bland thrillingly run out England’s Barrington and Parks in the dazzling blink of an eye in the Test match at Lord’s. Still the finest cover-point of all. Second best ever fielder from Salisbury, they say, is England’s present coach, the cheerless cod-cold fish Duncan Fletcher, who would have been 12 when I was there and, for all I know, was in our star-struck bunch mesmerised by Bland at practice. Graeme Hick (Trelawney tobacco-farmer’s son) was not born till 1966 and the local cricket tales of my time still centred on the Rhodesian boy wonder Bob Crisp, demon Springbok pace bowler on the 1935 tour to England. Bob climbed Kilimanjaro regularly, founded the African magazine Drum, was intrepid Africa correspondent for the London Daily Express, won the DSO and MC as audacious wartime tank commander (it would have been two VCs had he not told Monty where to get off), published three volumes of rollicking memoirs, spent a year walking nonstop round Crete, cured himself of cancer by ‘drinking two bottles of red wine a day’, combined mink-farming with leader-writing on the East Anglian Times, and was found dead in his Essex armchair at 83 in 1994 with Sporting Life on his knee and a (losing) £25 betting slip in his hand. All on top of five for 99 against the cream of England (Bakewell, Hammond, Wyatt, Leyland, Duckworth) at Old Trafford in 1935.
It is a different Zimbabwe now, and that’s for sure.