ZIMBABWE – Heath Streak is a busy man these days. He’s back playing cricket in the recently concluded Masters Champions League in Dubai where his team Leo Lions ended up as runners-up. He is the bowling coach of Bangladesh National team and will soon be joining Gujarat Lions as a bowling coach for the upcoming Indian Premier League season.
Talk of Heath Streak and the first thing that comes to mind is that Golden age of Zimbabwe cricket in late 1990s and early 2000s. The all-rounder was a crucial part of the team that put Zimbabwe onto the cricketing map. Arguably one of the best bowlers Zimbabwe ever produced, Streak’s career was a roller-coaster ride marred by administrative problems which brought an abrupt end to a career that promised more.
Streak ended as the highest wicket-taker in Tests and ODIs for Zimbabwe. He also had a Test century to his name and captained Zimbabwe in 21 Tests and 68 ODIS. Streak announced his retirement from international cricket in 2005 at the age of 31. The Zimbabwe all-rounder started off his coaching career in 2009 when he took up the role of bowing coach for Zimbabwe and continued till 2013.
In 2014, he signed up as bowling coach for Bangladesh and this is when he came to prominence as he helped a struggling Bangladesh team achieve remarkable results in ODIs which included an impressive showing in the World Cup 2015, and series wins over India, Pakistan (the famous Bangla-wash) and South Africa at home. Throughout this period, it was Bangladesh’ pacers that outshone the spinners which was a rare occurrence in the past.
Firstpost caught up with Heath Streak, where he talked about the golden era of Zimbabwe cricket, his career, bowling to Sachin Tendulkar at his peak, his coaching style and problems facing Zimbabwe cricket.
What made you get back to playing cricket?
The MCL is exciting for people like me who have retired from cricket but I am still able to play a little bit of cricket at a reasonable level. It hasn’t been long since we stopped playing as professionals so I think it’s a fantastic idea that everyone seemed to have enjoyed and the cricket was pretty competitive. When you finish playing cricket, you always wish you were back on the field, your desire to play never stops.
How was your experience of playing in the Masters Champions League?
It was very good. I think the standard of cricket was pretty good. The guys played hard and played to win. You can have the charity type of cricket where people not really putting in a lot of effort (but this isn’t like that). Everyone played to win and played hard and gave their 100 percent. It’s been really rewarding for all the guys. We saw some exceptional performances during the tournament.
You were a part of the one of the best Zimbabwe sides, how has Zimbabwe cricket changed over years since then?
There’s obviously a lot that has happened. I think the loss of players around the 2005 period because of the issues between the board and the players was the catalyst for a bit of a rough period at that stage and they haven’t really fully recovered from that. One of the other issues is the player retention. The lure of playing in other countries, earning big money in county cricket compared to what you earn in Zimbabwe and the security of playing in those leagues has seen the exodus of some really good quality players – guys like Gary Ballance who is a Zimbabwean, Sean Ervine, Kyle Jarvis, Brendan Taylor (most recently) and other young guys who left to pursue professional careers for example two current kids – one playing in England u-19 team and the other in the England Lions team. It would have been nice if these really good players would’ve been playing in the Zimbabwean domestic structure. They still have a lot of good young players and a few experienced players as well who are performing well at international level.
In between 1999-2003 Zimbabwe played some brilliant cricket, what made that team special and different from the other Zimbabwe teams?
We had been together for a while. We all knew each pretty well. We had started gaining confidence, we spent a lot of time in the late 1990s playing in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, in tough conditions and against top quality players against the likes of [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Rahul] Dravid, [Wasim] Akram, [Waqar] Younis, Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardena, all these guys as young guys coming through the ranks. So we had put in the time and got the hard schooling playing in the subcontinent as well as home. And it started paying dividends and we started competing more, believing in ourselves and gaining the confidence. Because it was a pretty established and stable unit, there wasn’t a big player turnover. We really started gelling as a team, everyone knew what their role was and we enjoyed each other’s company.
Do you think that period was the watershed moment that changed the dynamics of Zimbabwe cricket?
Ya, the 1999 World Cup was really where we announced ourselves on the world stage with wins over India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Making the super six stage was a big thing. Zimbabwe benefited quite greatly in those following years. A lot of teams wanted to play against us and we were able secure a lot of tours, home and away, as a result of that. Zimbabwe cricket grew financially as a result and we were offered much better contracts. We went from being semi-professionals to full time professionals. It was very good for Zimbabwe cricket and that is what established Zimbabwe cricket to what it is today.
You spoke about the 1999 World Cup where you had memorable wins over India and South Africa, Which win was more special?
Beating South Africa. Because it’s like India vs Pakistan as we are neighbours. We’ve always been like the little brother to South Africa so to beat them was special and it was also the result that got us into the super six. So for us that was quite special to beat the Proteas and come in the top six in world cricket.
However, post 2005, there was a sudden slide, what do you think went wrong?
In 2005, there were issues over the selection process. We had a quota system in place and that caused a lot of friction between the players and the board members who were in place at that time. The general feeling was that the national team should be selected on merit and there was an understanding that the local Zimbabwe players at domestic, grassroots and development level should get assistance. But at top level being a small country we couldn’t afford to not pick our best eleven and that should be irrespective of their colour, race, religion etc. Unfortunately that ended up being a big conflict and there were certain members on our cricket board who resisted and it led to a lot of people prematurely retiring from cricket in Zimbabwe.
You were forced to tell the top players that they weren’t performing because of the racial dispute and two weeks later you were fired. How difficult was that captaincy period?
It’s always difficult trying to manage people when there is a lot of peripheral matters outside the cricket field. At that time the biggest issue was concern of the people about their own futures in cricket. The issue we had was that the board weren’t prepared to give a definitive position on the quota system. They said that they would issue guidelines but it was too ambiguous and a lot of the players thought that there was no need to have that discrimination at the national team level and that created a bad environment for people to play cricket.
Did those problems affect the later part of your career?
It effectively ended my career when I was 31. I ended up missing probably last 4-5 years of my international career. I went on to play county cricket for Warwickshire. Sean Ervine also left at the same time. Other players – Douglas Marrilier, Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Travis Friend, all retired at the same time. So it left a big void in Zimbabwe cricket and subsequently people like Tatenda Taibu, Dion Ebrahim, MlulekiNkala also ended up retiring from the game before they should have.
Selection problems, political tensions, premature end to national career, how did you keep yourself motivated through all this?
I went on to play at Warwickshire so that was quite easy to motivate myself because it was a very professional environment, I really enjoyed it. Everything was about performance. As a professional cricketer, your job was to go out there, perform and produce results. And you had the environment to do that. You had the support structure, the coaching, the facilities, medical back-up, everything to give you the foundation to go and perform at your best. You couldn’t point fingers or blame other people if you didn’t do your job. So I enjoyed that environment because you could just focus on cricket and do your best.
With an abrupt ending, can we say the cricketing world missed the best of Heath Streak?
I certainly missed my experienced years. At that stage I was probably evolving into more of a genuine all-rounder as supposed to bowling all-rounder and certainly I had some good success with Warwickshire in all forms of the game. I ended up finishing with over 200 wickets in both forms of the game, if I had carried on, I would have probably ended up with 300 plus wickets in Tests and ODIs which would have been nice. That’s certainly one of those things which I look back with regret. But I was certainly lucky to have a successful career while I did play.
Somewhere amidst all this, Do you think Heath Streak the batsman was underrated and rarely talked about?
I suppose, to a certain degree. But like I said, towards the latter end, I was starting to play a much bigger role batting at No. 6 and 7. Putting in some performances with the bat for Zimbabwe and taking more responsibility as a batsman. And obviously because I was captaining as well. My batting stats in the last 3-4 years before I finished were pretty decent compared to other international batsmen. It’s something I enjoyed working on. And once I was established as a bowler and knew my game, I was able to focus on my batting which started to have an influence on some of the results for Zimbabwe.
How difficult was it to accept the fact that you had to play under an inexperienced captain – Taibu- almost 10 years younger than you?
Look as I said, the whole thing (Quota issue and player departures) how it all panned out was unfortunate. I just felt that I was going to help Tatenda as much as I could and give him as much support as I can with my experience while he was there captaining. Obviously it’s not common to have someone so young captaining but fortunately, Tatenda had a good cricketing brain and he was pretty responsive to suggestions when people like myself spoke to him about decisions and ideas.
Zimbabwe seemed to have a special liking for India. Where did the motivation come from?
Everyone knows that when you play India, it’s such a highly supported and watched game. So for us it was an opportunity to make a name for ourselves and to show the cricketing world that we could play against a cricketing country as big as India. We are a country of only 14 million and the fact that we could compete with a country of billion people was a major achievement. So we always raised the bar. Because we had played a lot in the subcontinent, we had very good players of spin in Alistair Campbell, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Guy Whittall, who could play well in the Asian conditions which made us even more competitive.
Speaking of India, there is one moment which is etched in minds of almost every Indian fan – Sachin taking apart Olonga in Sharjah, what are your memories of that match?
My memories of that match was I came on as the fifth change bowler that day. Campbell was the captain at that time and I had opened the bowling against Sri Lanka in my previous game but in the next match against India, Olonga opener the bowling and he bowled really quick and bounced out Sachin. And of course we discussed that this was the weakness we can exploit and bowl really aggressively. When he first comes in, we’ll unleash Olonga and bowl short at him but of course he had thought about it and apparently had gone in the nets and was sitting in his room practicing pull shots. So when we tried to execute our plan it didn’t work too well. I think we had scored only a 180 odd (196), it wasn’t a big run chase either for them so they could afford to come out and play aggressively and as Sachin can only do, he took us apart.
Were you surprised with his approach?
Not really, he’s such a great player, so we knew that he’s not just going to go to his room and not think about how he’s going to play next. He is not just talented but also a good thinker of the game. He understands how the opposition are trying to get him out and what he can do (to counter) knowing the conditions at hand. That’s the thing we all admire about him. And of course it was a very good batting wicket so it wasn’t easy, I’ve bowled plenty of times on that [Sharjah] wicket not just to him but to the likes of Shahid Afridi who at that stage of his career was scoring lots of runs.
So after the match did Olonga say anything in the dressing room?
We all sat in the change room and said ‘Jeez! What do you do when someone as good as that just decides he’s going to bat like that!’ It just felt like he could do whatever he wanted. He could hit the ball anywhere he wanted anytime at will. Sometimes you get these sort of innings where you just think that whatever you do or whoever bowls at him is going to make no difference.
What was is like bowling to and watching Sachin at his peak ?
(It was difficult to bowl to Sachin) especially in subcontinent conditions. You just felt that you (are in trouble) if you couldn’t get him out early because his conversion rate was so good. Sachin, as good as he was, like any other human being, your best chance of getting him out was in the first 10 or 15 balls that he faced. There were a couple of occasions where we did get him early. The problem was that you knew that if Sachin got to 15-20, chances are very high that he’ll go on and score a big hundred. He wasn’t one of those guys who easily gave away his wicket. He put a price on his wicket. It’s something which stands out with him and Dravid. When you got him out, you knew you had to have bowled a good ball, it wasn’t often that you thought ‘Oh, that was lucky, he gave me his wicket’. His conversion to 50s and 100s was unbelievable.
You’ve been doing a really good job with Bangladesh as a bowling coach, can you elaborate on your coaching style? what kind of a coach are you?
I’ve always liked to think of myself as someone who is easy going and approachable. My thing is to understand the personalities and what makes individuals tick. There can be a massive contrast in the way you manage different personalities. Yes, you’ve got to be consistent but you got to be able to treat people differently. People are driven in different ways, some people are motivated by pushing them hard, others need a little bit more support, so understanding that as a coach especially at elite level is biggest thing. We do a lot of analysis on opposition, conditions, specific field, grounds and venues that we are going to play at and how we can exploit weaknesses of the opposition.
The biggest challenge is having a good rapport with your players, having their trust and being able to understand what makes them work and pick up the signs when they need your help. I am quite easy going, I am not an in-your-face aggressive sort of guy. I like chatting a lot about cricket and see what motivates the guys.
You will soon be joining as a bowling coach of Gujarat Lions in the IPL, How do you go about coaching world class players when your are with them for such a short time? Do you talk about tactics or technique or both?
I am there to talk about whatever they need. I think as cricketers, you are always a student of this game. Not only am I there to help them to keep evolving as bowlers but I am also able to learn from them and consequently evolve as a coach myself. It might be a small technical thing that you might pick up but predominantly for us it will be tactical support in making sure that they are ready for the game, they are comfortable with their preparation, they are executing their skills, how they would like to do it and then post match analysis to see how we are going about, are we executing our skills and game plans and may be evolving more. It’s simple but you’ve got to make sure you don’t interfere too much but support where needed and make sure that the guys are clear with their game plan.
What needs to happen to recreate the “golden age” of Zimbabwe cricket that you were involved in ?
What they (Zimbabwe Cricket) need to do is the retention of players. You can’t keep losing players like Jarvis, Taylor, Taibu, Ballance, these sort of guys should be in the current set up. If you add those handful of guys into the current group, it makes a massive difference. No international team would look at that side with those names in it and say that they are going to just easily beat them. Zimbabwe is still able to be competitive but they haven’t had a great last year, they lost a couple of series against Afghanistan, their performances have been down. Definitely if they had some of these players along side the quality players they have in Chigumbura, Ervine, Williams, Masakadza, Cremer, along with the ones I mentioned before, they would have a serious team that would be upsetting some of the big nations regularly.
Would you be happy to go back to Zimbabwe and coach the national team one day in the future again?
At the moment my career is involved with Bangladesh and I am enjoying that, Yes, may be something in the future but for now I am really enjoying doing the work I am doing in Bangladesh and looking forward to my challenge in IPL so I am not looking too far ahead.