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murungu

Zimbabwe cricket seems to pitch itself either as an unfathomable soap opera that wallows in a bathos that ill befits its position as a test playing nation or as the utterly forgettable sub-plot to the tale of international cricket, becoming more and more irrelevant as time goes on. In Alan Butcher’s new book The Good Murungu, however, we gain some real insights into the parlous state of the game in Zimbabwe, which is so beset by problems that one must only hope that this book is more exegesis than eulogy.

The book details his time as coach of the country from 2010 to 2013, and as well as a great insight into the country and its cricket, this book presents a fine insight into the man. Alan Butcher appears to be someone not just interested in cricket but in life. He wants to know what makes people tick, he likes people who have views of their own, he embraces new ideas, is happy to be proved wrong and has a firm view of what he ought to provide as a coach. This combination seems like the ideal start for a coach who has to pull together any group of individuals, especially as disparate and complex as Zimbabwe’s.

The overall impression of Zimbabwe cricket that one is left with, certainly in the years Butcher was coach, is that it was involved in a slow, painful act of self-sabotage. Butcher reveals that players were treated appallingly, were criticised, talked down to, and were not paid for months. Instead of wondering why so many Zimbabwe cricketers gave up and headed for the certainty of a county wage, one is left wondering why there weren’t more.

Zimbabwe Cricket had crippling debts and little income except ICC handouts. Butcher reports that the situation was so hand-to-mouth that someone from the finance office went to the bank daily, sometimes for as little as $20. The coach clearly shelled out for various things from his own pocket – what else could he do when his players couldn’t get to practice because they couldn’t afford to put petrol in their cars or didn’t have enough cricket jumpers to keep warm on a tour of New Zealand?

The attitude of the powers-that-be was remarkable – a kind of egotistical, macho micro-management that Butcher summarises as, ‘Everything was confrontation, rarely an effort to understand, empathise or help.’ He describes a strange, deeply-hierarchical system, where respect was demanded not earned and power was an end in itself rather than a means to the greater good. It was a regime that routinely undermined the players and the coaches – then complained when they had little success.

It’s telling that after one confident performance, Butcher was asked how he made it happen. His response of ‘I just gave them some love’ was clearly so off-message that by the time the quote reached the papers, it was ‘I just gave them some glove’, with the implication that it was a rather more of a stick than a carrot approach.

Butcher’s method as coach has a lot to commend it and I like his considered approach. He appears to have always been willing to look at the person behind the reputation and to disregard others’ agendas in favour of making his own mind up. He is very thoughtful on the dynamics of teams and nature of relationships – and any coach who talks of the human condition and the Johari Window (look it up, it’s like Donald Rumsfeld meets Sigmund Freud) is my kind of coach.

As well as the cricket, Butcher provides something of a travelogue and is clearly not shy of a touch of epicurean indulgence. For me, I could have lived with less detail about safari, steak and red wine but I know many other readers have thoroughly enjoyed the texture this has brought to his story.

This is an honest account and although no punches are pulled, it’s also a very humane approach that seeks to understand rather than condemn. Butcher clearly loves the place: ‘I found a country, or at least a population, that was trying to move forward, trying to accept; a country in which I felt safe and welcome wherever I went.’ Butcher is sincere, honest, wise and open to new ideas. I’m left wondering why no other team has snapped him up.