ZIMBABWE – It is more than a decade since Sean Ervine gave up his international career with Zimbabwe, aged just 21, for Hampshire.
Six trophies, 12,933 runs, 361 wickets and 210 catches later, it is a move he does not regret.
As he prepares to launch a well-deserved benefit year (seanervine2016.com) ahead of his 12th season with the county, at the Ageas Bowl’s Hilton Hotel tonight, Ervine puts an indoor net session on hold to reflect on his stellar career.
“I still remember arriving at the airport,” he smiles. “[Hampshire dressing room attendant] Terry Brewer picked me up and I had to call him from a payphone…eventually we found each other.”
Ervine is now one of Hampshire’s most recognisable faces and the county’s most decorated player since David Turner after helping to win three Lord’s finals, two T20 finals and the County Championship’s division two title.
It is a career that was born in Africa.
Ervine is the oldest of three boys encouraged to play by their dad Rory, a farmer who played first-class cricket for Rhodesia, in north Zimbabwe.
“My dad got me holding a bat as soon as I could stand and my grandad also played, so cricket was incorporated into our life from a very young age,” said Ervine.
“We had some great battles in the back garden.”
Ervine’s middle brother Craig, 30, is a key player for Zimbabwe and also a left-hander.
“My youngest brother Ryan is also a handy cricketer but is right-handed so never got the handy-downs,” smiles Ervine, who clearly has happy memories of a childhood that featured spectacular wildlife as much as a bat and ball.
“We grew up on a farm but only grew crops on 1500 hectares. The rest was bush, with lions, leopards, buffalo and antelope. We used to go camping, hunting and fishing and couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing. How we all survived, I don’t know!”
Ervine’s grandad was a huge influence on his career.
“I was a boarder from seven years old, three hours away at a school close to my grandparents,” he explains.
“My grandad would train all the kids and give 50 cents to whoever took a wicket, so we tried to make as much money as we could.
“We used to get retired at 50 so couldn’t get close to 100, but one day I whacked it everywhere with my Slazenger V12.
“The teacher asked ‘how many is Ervine on?’ and they replied ‘102’! He said ‘you’re retiring at the end of the over! That was my first-ever hundred.
“Sport was compulsory, quite different to how it is in the northern hemisphere. We played rugby, hockey, tennis and a bit of squash as well.
“When I went to college, only an hour and a half from the main homestead, I played a lot of cricket and made all the national teams at a young age.
“Then we toured South Africa and played against the the likes of Graeme Smith, Jonathon Trott, Jacques Rudolph.
“My cricket went to another level. I played first-team cricket at 15 and was a really quick bowler then, more of a bowler than a batter.”
Ervine was only just 17 when he played at the U19 World Cup against an England side including future Hampshire teammates Michael Carberry and Jimmy Adams.
“I learnt so much during that period,” said Ervine, who was still only 18 when he made his one-day international debut against England in Bulawayo in October 2001.
“I’d learnt a heck of a lot at the international academy run by Davey Houghton and then got called into play a warm-up game against England, who were touring at the time.
“I did reasonably well, I took three wickets including Nasser [Hussain’s] and Graham Thorpe’s, which I was pleased about.
“I’d shown enough potential to be picked up for the national team for that series. We lost 5-0 but I played the last two games.
“My debut was a bit of a baptism of fire – I went for 54 in seven overs. Nick Knight and Tres[cothick] blew me apart.
“I thought ‘this is something else’. But the the selectors stuck by me and nurtured me.
“You grow up wanting to play for your homeland and that was the ultimate. Both my parents and brothers were very proud of what I achieved. It was something for Craig to aim for.”
Craig, who has played seven Tests, 47 ODIs and 16 T20Is, scored his first centuries for Zimbabwe last year.
“He’s done way better than I did for Zim’ which is brilliant,” says Ervine. “Sadly, my grandad died 13 -14 years so didn’t get to see both of us play for our country but it was a huge honour for me and I’m very proud of what I achieved.”
Ervine made his Test debut against England at Lord’s, two months after England controversially refused to play the opening match of the 2003 World Cup against Zimbabwe in Harare because of security fears.
England’s forfeited points helped Zimbabwe qualify for the Super Six stage, but Ervine was more focused on the cricket than the politics.
He admits to being “oblivious” to Henry Olonga and Andy Flower’s black-armband protest against the death of democracy in Zimbabwe, during their opening game.
“I didn’t play in that game but didn’t really understand it, I was just excited to be at a World Cup,” says Ervine. “As you get older you come to understand the reasons and the huge risk they took.”
Ervine prefers to recall his performance against New Zealand at the Super Six stage.
“Myself and Heath Streak put on a record 62 from the last three overs to push us to a decent total of around 250 [252-7],” he recalls.
Ervine contributed an unbeaten 31 from only 14 balls against an attack led by future Hampshire teammates Andre Adams and Shane Bond.
Zimbabwe went on to lose but Ervine – who had had hit a 41-ball 61 against a Pakistan attack of Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram, Shahid Afridi, Saqlain Mushtaq and Azhar Mahmood a few months earlier – was dropped for the next game.
It was a selection that contributed to Ervine giving up his international career a year later.
“It was a massive thing for me to give up, but it was coming for a while and that was one of a few instances where I thought ‘where’s this going?’. I was dropped because they needed someone of colour in the squad.
“We all thought it was wrong. With Zimbabwe being a minority team in world cricket, we needed the best XI on the park at all times, regardless of what colour they were. You play to win.”
Later that year, Ervine was the pick of the Zimbabwe attack in Perth during the first of two Tests against Australia.
He took the big wickets of Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Darren Lehmann, but of more significance than his Test-best 4-146 was a meeting with Bruce Reid, the former Australia fast bowler who was Hampshire’s bowling coach at the time.
“Bruce put me in touch with Paul Terry, the Hampshire coach, and he told me there was an offer on the table.
“So I knew I had that backing when I eventually came to my decision in May 2004.”
Ervine made 53 in that Test at the Waca before twice top scoring in what transpired to be his last two Test innings – a gutsy 86 and a match-winning 74 against Bangladesh in Harare.
He had made his first century for Zimbabwe, a run-a-ball 100 against India in Adelaide, a few months before bringing the curtain down on his international career, after five Tests and 42 one-day internationals.
Ervine was one of Zimbabwe Cricket’s 15 ‘rebels’, former Hampshire bowler Streak being another.
He also played for Western Australia from 2004-08, but could not have asked for a better first season with Hampshire in 2005.
“Having to leave home at 21 and start all over again after reaching what I thought was the pinnacle of my career made it hard to focus, but I was able to go home for a week before joining up with Hampshire and that was pure medicine,” he recalls.
Ervine was helped to settle by the presence of his old school friend Greg Lamb. Lamb had joined the Hampshire staff a year earlier, and was partly responsible for the ‘Slug’ moniker that followed Ervine to the Ageas Bowl.
“It came about at high school when I was 15 and very, very slow between the wickets,” explains Ervine, who developed a good friendship with another African during that first season – a certain Kevin Pietersen.
Their paths had first crossed seven years earlier. “He cussed me pretty hard when he was bowling his filthy off- spinners for Natal UI5s against Zimbabwe,” laughs Ervine.
“When we were in the same changing room together in 2005 I made sure I reminded him of that and he apologised for it!
“We’ve got on well since then and probably will do for years to come. He’s an amazing cricketer; so much talent but he worked hard.
“His hands, especially, are amazing but he wasn’t even a recognised batsman to start with. He was batting in the lower order for Natal when I first played against him. He worked really hard on his batting to be the best.
“He’s a great example for youngsters.”
Ervine’s annus mirabilis was 2005, Hampshire’s second season under Shane Warne.
His 821 runs at 30.4 and 42 wickets at 32.4 helped Hampshire to the runners-up spot behind Nottinghamshire – their best County Championship position for 20 years.
His first season with the county reached its zenith with centuries in the semi-final and final of the C G Trophy as Hampshire claimed their first silverware for 13 years.
“That is well documented as being one of my best seasons,” continues Ervine. “The relationship with everyone in that change room was massive. Playing with Warney was amazing and definitely one of the highlights of my career.
“His vision and understanding of different players, his ability to pick weaknesses, change the field accordingly and for it all to come off. . .he was a freak of cricket nature.
“It was the start of a very successful period.”
That season was not all good. It reached its nadir when Ervine ruptured cruciate ligaments while bowling to Notts captain Stephen Fleming in the final game.
He has not taken more than 26 first-class wickets in a season since.
“I’ve always said you’ve done well if you get through a county season with no major injuries,” he says. “That affected me and I might have lost a bit of pace because it took the spring out of my knee.
“I was told I had four years of bowling left but have worked really hard to maintain it.”
Ervine has several fond memories from his Hampshire career. The T20 win at the Rose Bowl in 2010 was the highlight of a season in which he was at his most prolific with the bat, his first-class aggregate of 976 runs at 42.43 including a career-best 237 not out against Somerset
His C G Trophy-winning 104 against Warwickshire in the 2005 Lord’s final stands out as his greatest Hampshire knock, but ask him for his favourite Championship innings and it is not one of his ten centuries.
“My 94 not out against Durham at Basingstoke in 2008,” he replies.
It is hard to argue with that. After conceding a first-innings deficit of 60, Hampshire needed 240 to win after bowling Durham out for 179 at May’s Bounty. They were 77-5 at one stage, against a Durham attack including Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett.
But Ervine was magnificent on a club wicket as Hampshire won by two wickets. It was one of four victories from the last five games as Hampshire secured their place in the first division for another season.
The archetypal team man, Ervine explained: “When I got 237, Tresco also made 200 and it was a draw. But the 94 in that win against Durham helped us stay up from a position where we were not going to come close.
“Mark Davies was also playing and [off-spinner] Paul Wiseman was turning the ball what felt like half a metre!”
A big-game player, Ervine also made 44 not out in the 2010 T20 final against Somerset and 57 when Hampshire completed the 2012 limited-overs double by beating Warwickshire.
“I thrive under pressure and probably learnt that from playing international cricket,” he said.
But the 2012 double may not have happened had Ervine decided to return to the international stage with Zimbabwe so he could play at the 2011 World Cup.
It is the only occasion he has considered leaving Hampshire.
“I’d been home during the winter and had an offer on the table,” explains Ervine. “They said ‘listen, we want you to come back [to Zimbabwe], would you be interested?’
“I said I really needed to speak to Hampshire. It was quite short notice because they needed to give the World Cup squad to the ICC.
“Before I knew it my name was on their list for the World Cup.
“I had Chalks [Hampshire director of cricket Giles White] ringing me to ask what was going on.
“I said ‘I don’t know why they’ve done it’ and ‘don’t worry because I hadn’t signed anything’. I had a chat with Chalks and Rod [Bransgrove] in Barbados during the Caribbean T20 [in January 2011] and said I needed make a decision.
“The lure of coming back to international cricket, to play in the same team as my brother, was pretty great.
“That wavered me towards playing for Zimbabwe. But I said ‘let me just test the waters and ask Zimbabwe Cricket to pay a portion of what they promised by a certain date just to see if they were actually legit’.
“When that date came there were no funds. So I rang them to ask why and they said they were just waiting on a few things.
“I said ‘you’re obviously not serious about this situation so I’m out’. I’d committed to Zimbabwe the day before but went back to Rod and Chalks to say what had happened, that I didn’t feel comfortable and that if their offer was still on the table I would take it.
“It was the right decision. Even though they’ve shown a lot of potential, Zimbabwe have really struggled. I get feedback from Craig all the time and they weren’t paid for playing at the last World Cup in Australia and New Zealand until three months afterwards.”
Zimbabwe’s loss has been Hampshire’s gain, twice over. Only Jimmy Adams has played more first-class matches for Hampshire since the move to the Ageas Bowl and Ervine is confident he will be around for a few years yet.
“I’ve got loads in the tank, I’ve only just turned 33,” he says. “Time flies but my broken finger [which sidelined Ervine for much of last season] was a freak accident.
“I’ve played every other game for the last few years and in terms of fitness I feel great.”
Ervine first played at the Ageas Bowl during the stadium’s first one-day international, Zimbabwe against South Africa in May 2003, but it is now hard to imagine the place without him.
He often walks to the ground through Telegraph Wood from his home in West End, where he lives with his partner, Rachel, a former England netball trialist, and their children – Scarlett, five, and Ellis, who will soon be one – and is confident his contract will be extended beyond the end of this season.
“We’re waiting on Hampshire to put forward something both parties can agree too,” reveals Ervine, who believes the county can build on their Great Escape of last season in 2016 – and enjoy their best Championship season since 2005.
“Staying up was an amazing effort and if we can take that hunger and fight from the last six weeks of last season into the whole of the next, we will go close to second or third place.
“It’s going to be a huge task and tough cricket because eight of those [first division] teams are all Test counties.
“There may be a slight worry in that quite a few of us are in our mid-thirties and, potentially, could finish all in one go.
“That would leave a big gap, which could be an issue, but our 25 year-olds have a lot of experience and there are loads of players coming through.”