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Exclusive Interview with Christopher Mpofu : The New-Look Zimbabwe Capable Of Pulling Off Heists In Test Matches Too

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Chris Mpofu ©Getty Images

As Sikander Raza Butt hit the winning runs by clouting leg-spinner Wanidu Hasaranga for a six in the fifth and final ODI between hosts Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in Hambantota last Monday, the Zimbabwean camp erupted in joy as they had won their first bilateral series against a top Test playing nation since 2001.

With the series poised at two wins a piece ahead of the final ODI at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, the series was pushed into a decider and it was Zimbabwe who eventually came out on top and emerged victorious to script a historic series win away from home against the former World Champions. However, the decider never looked like a lop-sided contest as the visitors were tormented by the guile of off-spinner Akila Dananjaya who rattled Zimbabwe’s middle-order by picking up four wickets, which brought the game to a kind of an anti-climax until Sikander Raza (27*) and Zimbabwean skipper Graeme Cremer (11*) held their nerves and stitched together a 29-run partnership for the eighth wicket to eke out a three-wicket win for their team and thus seal their first away series win since 2009.

With the series poised at two wins a piece ahead of the final ODI at the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, the series was pushed into a decider and it was Zimbabwe who eventually came out on top and emerged victorious to script a historic series win away from home against the former World Champions. However, the decider never looked like a lop-sided contest as the visitors were tormented by the guile of off-spinner Akila Dananjaya who rattled Zimbabwe’s middle-order by picking up four wickets, which brought the game to a kind of an anti-climax until Sikander Raza (27*) and Zimbabwean skipper Graeme Cremer (11*) held their nerves and stitched together a 29-run partnership for the eighth wicket to eke out a three-wicket win for their team and thus seal their first away series win since 2009.

A witness to that historic triumph, Zimbabwean pace-spearhead Christopher Mpofu opens up about the post-match celebrations, the influence of the troika of Streak, Ntini and Klusener on the Zimbabwean dressing room, the secret behind the upbeat nature of the squad and many more topics in this candid conversation with cricfit correspondent Ritam Basu.

Excerpts:-

Q: I believe the Zimbabwean team celebrated late into the night after thumping Sri Lanka by 3 wickets in the fifth and final ODI to win the series 3-2 last Monday.

Mpofu: Yeah! We wanted to party all night long and enjoy our triumph. Such moments don’t occur too often in everyday life. We didn’t go anywhere but simply enjoyed ourselves on the hotel premises.

Q: The Zimbabwean bowlers did well to put the brakes on the Lankan batting and restrict them to 203/8 in fifty overs. At the halfway stage, did you back yourselves to chase down the target or were there still jitters in the camp?

Mpofu: Even after we sent both Gunathilaka and Gunaratne back to the pavilion, we were a bit scared that they might pile up anything in excess of 300 because as a bowling unit, you know that one bad over at the death can cost your team the game. But once those two guys were dismissed, the rest of the wickets began to tumble at regular intervals. I think we bowled disciplined lines and lengths in the death overs and when we headed back to the change room at the interval, we knew we had the game in our pockets.

Q: Zimbabwe has a star-studded support staff comprising the likes of Heath Streak, Makhaya Ntini, and Lance Klusener. Do they inspire the team with pep-talks in difficult situations?

Mpofu: Having figures like Streaky (Heath Streak), Makhaya and Klusener around is always inspiring. They all played their cricket at the highest level and it’s always good to hear from people who are well aware of the nitty-gritty of the international circuit rather than those who haven’t played international cricket at any stage of their careers. It’s a blessing really to be coached by such great players and the ambiance around the dressing room is just fantastic!

Christopher Mpofu ©AFP

Q: What are the best compliments you received after registering your maiden series victory on Sri Lankan soil?

Mpofu: We received compliments and congratulatory messages from all over the world. Even in Sri Lanka, people have been very affable and courteous and I also have a lot of friends in India and Bangladesh. Sometimes it gets really difficult to reply to each and every message because every time I open my Facebook page, I see it being flooded with compliments from my well-wishers belonging to different parts of the world.

Q: Would you say Solomon Mire’s hundred in the series opener in Galle set the tone for the series?

Mpofu: Yes, absolutely. I think his hundred in the first game was crucial to the eventual outcome of the series. The way he batted and smoked the ball in Galle made us believe that if we played to our potential, we could go on to clinch the series. The current crop of players play a fearless brand of cricket and Solomon has definitely been the torch-bearer in that regard.

Q: The recently concluded ODI series against Sri Lanka saw all Zimbabwean players chip in with crucial contributions whereas, in the past, only a few players would perform in fits and starts. Has the team’s overall philosophy changed under the new coach and the new captain?

Mpofu: It’s good to see the youngsters, as well as the senior pros in the team, striving to help each other and even the small contributions can sometimes help a side win games despite being unnoticed. I can vouch that even the non-playing members of the squad were committed to the team’s cause as they would run on with water at frequent intervals since it’s very humid in this part of the subcontinent. The guys have shown the true sporting spirit of late and it is gradually getting reflected in our results.

Q: Since the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, Zimbabwe has featured in 47 ODIs and won 14 of those at a win/loss ratio of 0.466:1- which is incidentally higher than that recorded by the West Indies and Ireland over the same period. Has the team been following any specific process?

Mpofu: To be honest, we are not too concerned about how other teams are faring at the moment. The support staff is always urging the players to improve on their skill sets and bring the right temperament for winning more matches. I think this forward-looking approach has already started bearing fruit.

Q: Graeme Cremer, the Zimbabwean skipper has been pretty much leading the team from the front. Kindly elucidate his influence on the team.

Mpofu: He (Cremer) has been absolutely phenomenal! It’s no mean task to lead the side besides being the frontline spinner and I think he has performed the dual responsibility of captaincy and bowling with aplomb so far. He has also improved his batting and he’s looking to lead the team by example every time he steps on the field. Dedication has been a hallmark of Graeme Cremer.

Q: What is the stronger suit of Zimbabwe at the moment? Batting or bowling?

Mpofu: Let me be frank here. I think our batting department has been more consistent in recent times and our batsmen don’t shy away from chasing 300+ targets nowadays which wasn’t exactly the case even twenty-four months ago. Also, our spin department has been exceptional, especially on these sluggish Asian surfaces. They make the job a bit easier for us, the Pacers.

©Associated Press

Q: Being the pace-spearhead in the side, what kind of advice do you impart to the young Pacers coming through the ranks?

Mpofu: It’s a pressure-job to be the pace-spearhead of the team but I have embraced the responsibility with open arms. I might be leading the pace department but I am still learning because, at this level, you keep discovering new things about your game with each passing day.

Q: Ireland and Afghanistan have recently been granted full Test status by the ICC. The competition at the international level is cut-throat at the moment with very little room for error. You reckon now is the time for Zimbabwe to really push hard and try to progress to the next level?

Mpofu: It’s great to see Ireland and Afghanistan being promoted to the Test status but I won’t comment further about them. I would rather stick to my own team (laughs). I think we are already on the right track and with the Test match coming up shortly, we are eager to prove that we are not only capable of pulling off heists in ODIs but also in Test matches.

Q: Are you confident that Zimbabwe will go into the solitary Test against Sri Lanka beginning on Friday (July 14) high on confidence having attained the improbable in the ODI series?

Mpofu: The Test match will be a real acid test for us and if we manage to draw the Test or eke out a victory, it will make people stand up and appreciate our efforts because, in the last few years, even great sides like Australia and England have struggled to get going on Sri Lankan soil. It’s a big motivation for us.

Q: The last question. Can cricket enthusiasts expect this resurgent Zimbabwean unit to string quality performances together on a more consistent basis?

Mpofu: This series victory in Sri Lanka means a lot to us because it’s the first time we have won a series against a heavyweight Test playing nation since 2009, and that too away from home. I expect more people to start supporting us back home and I believe a few organizations will be willing to sponsor the side once the tour of Sri Lanka ends. Above everything else, the ODI series victory has brought smiles to myriad faces across Zimbabwe and we will be looking to push hard from now on in order to mature into a consistent unit.

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