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My job is to get Zimbabwe pulling in same direction: Cremer
Nisha Shetty| June 11, 2016
When Graeme Cremer decided to bring down the curtains on his international cricket career at age 26 in April 2013, he thought that was that. The game that he loved as kid had become terribly exhausting, with him having to deal with financial instability and shifting power dynamics in Zimbabwe Cricket. Two knee injuries added to his frustration. He had had enough. He decided he would instead pursue a career in golf, and failing to become the next Tiger Woods, he would set up a golf shop.
He did open up a store called Golf Spot, but slowly and surely he found himself watching cricket and missing it. “That never went away,” he tells Wisden India.
And neither did Cremer. The legspinner returned to the game in May 2015 and now a year later, he has been appointed Zimbabwe captain for the One-Day International and Twenty20 series against India. Leading a side that has lost nearly three times as many ODIs and T20Is that it has won in the past decade and trying to locate the light at the end of tunnel isn’t easy. But Cremer has set the team a simpler goal: to pull together in the same direction.
In a candid chat, he discusses the experience of touring Pakistan, how fear of failure grips Zimbabwe when they play against Afghanistan, and what fans can realistically expect from the team:
What ultimately prompted you to return to cricket?
It was the appointment of Dav Whatmore as head coach and Alastair Campbell as managing director that was the tipping point for me. I didn’t really know Dav Whatmore at the time; I knew who he was and his coaching background. But I’m quite close to Alastair Campbell and he convinced me that Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) was going in the right direction and that he would look after me. He saw value in me being in the team. I spoke to my family and they also thought it was a good idea. That’s when I decided to come back.
Interestingly, your comeback series was a landmark event: a Pakistan tour. What were your thoughts?
We were initially concerned with the security issues, but we had been assured by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and our board that we would have a lot of security and that we would be safe in Pakistan.
The security was a bit over the top … we had never seen anything like that. It was good that PCB stuck to their side of the deal, and we really enjoyed the tour. Most of the time it was just going to the hotel and going to the ground. There wasn’t much interaction with anyone except with the hotel staff, who were excellent, and the Pakistan players, who were very accommodating, but the support in the ground was amazing. There were a lot banners thanking us for being there. We really felt appreciated in Pakistan, and they don’t usually do that for oppositions.
By the end of the tour, it emerged that PCB had given the Zimbabwe players a financial guarantee before the tour, an amount that was substantially more than the monthly salaries. Was the tour a financially lucrative option the players didn’t have the luxury to decline?
Well, the money was important at the time. That said, I don’t think anyone, if they thought the tour wasn’t safe enough, would still go ahead; it doesn’t matter how much money was offered. Before the team left, ZC sent a management team out there to assess the situation. Once they came back and said it was safe, we knew it was okay to go there. We never felt backed into a corner to go ahead with the tour. Ultimately, it was the team’s decision to go.
So what is the takeaway lesson?
I can see other teams touring Pakistan in the future. For us, it was also about gaining that relationship with PCB. They would want to come play in Zimbabwe because we came to them. It just opens a lot of doors and shows to other countries it is possible to play in Pakistan.
Your personal form was impressive after your comeback. Did the time off from the game help?
I was definitely a more rejuvenated player. I also became more mature. I didn’t feel anything had changed in my bowling, it was just my mindset. I felt I was good enough to compete at this level. After a couple of games, the confidence was back too. I’m enjoying my cricket a lot more in the last year and a half, more than I ever have before, and I understand the game a bit more. I’ve realised that nothing beats being on the field in international cricket.
But then came the forearm fracture before the World Twenty20 in India. How big of a blow was that for you?
I felt shattered when it happened, specifically when I saw the X-ray of the fracture. We tried our hardest to find a way where I could play in the World T20, but it was too difficult to carry on. The silver lining, I suppose, is that I feel I’m more equipped mentally to deal with injuries now.
Zimbabwe were not at their best in the tournament and were eventually ousted by Afghanistan, your biggest rivals of late. They’ve been a bogey team for you guys. Why is that?
Afghanistan are a free-spirited side and making a few mistakes against them can cost you. But it’s probably down to a fear of failure. And that fear of failure comes up more against Associate teams because you know in your heart that you should be scoring runs or taking wickets or beating them. Whereas if you play against a top-ranked team, there’s no fear – you know it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you lost and if you did, it’s how you lost that gets examined.
The players need to believe in their ability more and not have that fear of ‘Oh, if I don’t perform, I’ll get dropped or we could lose’. Afghanistan play with aggression and fearlessness, and I think we can get better at that.
Zimbabwe Cricket have made several structural changes, including you being named as captain. How did you find out and what do you make of it?
I had heard from a newspaper that there had been a board meeting and that my name came up in regards to the captaincy. When we were at the camp in Bulawayo, I was called in to a meeting with the chairman, the managing director, and the head of the cricket committee. That’s when they told me.
All the changes that were made did come as bit of surprise and it was hard to know what the motives were behind it. But I can accept that the output hasn’t been good. It was a disappointing World T20 and our board is also under pressure to try and get some results. So I can understand both sides of the story.
What can the team expect from you?
The team knows me very well. I’m honest and I stick to the straight and narrow. The players respect what I’ve done in my career so far and they know I’ll be there for them. My job is to get the guys pulling in the same direction.
And the fans?
The fans will see a difference in the team. We’ll hold our heads up high. We won’t give up on the field, and we won’t give up on our country. Whether we’re winning or losing, we’ll put up a fight. I think that’s what the fans want to see.
Zimbabwe will be facing a young Indian side …
MS (Dhoni) is very experienced and he knows what he’s doing, but we can’t be discounted. We’re playing in our home conditions and we have more games under our belt and experience compared to their guys. We feel we can put them under pressure. I mean, why not? Everyone feels pressure. If we come hard at them in the first game, we can put the squeeze on them later.
How’s life with Makhaya Ntini?
He’s very, very loud (laughs)! But he’s brought energy to the team. He says what he thinks. He’s big when it comes to fitness and getting the guys ready to go onto the field. He sets discipline standards, which is something we’ve lacked in the past. He’s been drumming into all the players to have belief in their ability and telling them that if they didn’t have the ability, they wouldn’t be here.
The return of Tatenda Taibu must please you ….
I was really happy when I heard he was convener of selectors. He has played with a lot of us, he knows the Zimbabwe culture and he’s very honest. I think he would work well with the coaching staff and myself in getting the best team possible on the field.
How do you reconcile with your criticism of how Zimbabwe cricket has been run in the past? And as captain, do you feel a greater responsibility to protect the board’s image or your players?
Zimbabwe cricket has had its ups and downs, but since I’ve come back to the side, I haven’t had an issue. I know the chairman and the managing director have been there for a while, but they’ve promised us that the players will be put first and they would try to get us more games. So far, it’s happened and it’s good to see.
I will always stand up for the players, but I will also stand up for what’s right. If the players act unruly, then I will side with the board. But generally, I will consider the players’ point of view first and look after their best interests.
In the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Brendon McCullum said New Zealand’s turnaround began when they focussed on playing with soul. Do you think that path is feasible for your team?
Yes, certainly. I think when you look at the New Zealand team, the thing you immediately notice is that they’re a tight unit. And you get the impression all of them are good friends on and off the field, which makes a huge difference. Us, as Zimbabweans, can learn from that. Once you have that unity and one group pulling in the same direction, all wanting the same thing, that’s when you get the results.
Essentially, that has to filter down through the system from the administration to the coaching staff to the players. You trust your board and they trust you. You trust your teammates and they trust you as a captain. To turn our fortunes around, it all boils down to one thing: trust.
Nisha Shetty is Senior Sub-Editor at Wisden India