(Last Updated on July 27, 2013 by Editor)
“Mrs C” remembers the small things. Whose father once had to drop them off earlier than usual because he was adjusting to life as a single parent. Who presented what for their annual English speech. And who prefers their tea a certain way. What she does not often recall is the cricket score.
Strange that, because Letitia Campbell is the woman behind some of Zimbabwe’s best-known cricketers. She is the mother of Alistair and played an important part in the development of Brendan Taylor, Malcolm Waller and Trevor Madondo, all of whom attended her family-run school, Lilfordia.
In her home on the school’s sprawling property 40 minutes from Harare’s city centre, a discarded pair of orange pads, “which must be Alistair’s from some time or other”, welcome visitors into the hallway. The bar is a cricket museum with caps and shirts from various era of Zimbabwean cricket decorating the walls. “I don’t really follow much cricket even though it’s such a big part of this school,” Letitia says with a laugh.
The 104-year-old institution has been run by the Campbell family from the beginning. It is a junior boarding school catering to boys and girls from the ages of six to 12, and its primary focus is sport.
“Lilfordia is definitely not about the education you receive in the classroom,” Waller says. “Of course, the teachers wanted us to concentrate on our academics, but the main thing is really the sports.”
On massive grounds that include three swimming pools, at least six fields for rugby or hockey, tennis courts and cricket pitches, it’s easy to see why outdoor learning was more attractive than anything involving a desk and chair.
Waller remembers learning about sport in an uncompromising but fun way from a man who reared two first-class cricketers – Alistair, who went on to captain Zimbabwe, and Donald, Lilfordia’s current headmaster – as well as a daughter, Mary, who is now the school’s director of sports. Iain “Polly” Campbell was headmaster when Waller, Taylor and Madondo were in attendance and “was the main influence on a lot of us,” Waller says.
“Although he was a very gentle and quiet man he taught us the hard way. We had a few weeks where we played with tennis balls and then we went on to the red Slazenger balls really soon after that. And then we moved on to hard balls. I remember how our fingers and hands used to hurt from catching them but we were learning and Iain was very good to us.”
Cricket was Iain’s first love but the school wanted to give pupils a rounded sporting education, so they made physical activity central to every day. Even while the youngest children, six-year-olds, were adjusting to spending three weeks at a time away from their parents at Lilfordia, it was compulsory that they played sport. Boys had to participate in cricket in summer and rugby and hockey in winter. For girls, there was tennis in summer and hockey in winter.
That was after the school day ended. During regular hours, swimming was part of general lesson time. “And then there was the one I don’t think anybody enjoyed – the cross country,” remembers Waller.
Every day at 5pm, irrespective of weather, Iain would ring a bell and the entire school had to meet on the main field to run. The younger kids were required to complete a circuit of about 4km, while the older ones ran up to 8km, scampering along the sports fields and through a forest.
Donald and Mary have no intention of letting the tradition die. “Sport is an integral part of our ethos and a major focus of our holistic approach to education,” says Donald. “Our malleable time table allows for sport to be played on every day for every age group. We start with movement-skill programmes and move on to ball skills. We also get in highly qualified coaches to enable high standards to be maintained.”
Former Test bowler Bryan Strang is one of the high-profile people who worked at Lilfordia, though only for a short time. “He was in the process of obtaining his teaching qualification and needed some practical experience, so he came to us,” Donald says. “He added great value on the coaching front.”
Although Lilfordia does not specifically recruit coaches, they are often contacted by almuni who want to get involved and spot young talent, like Iain did. He identified Madondo – described by Donald as a “prolific” batsman and “someone who had the ability to go all the way” – and funded his further schooling at Falcon College, the institution attended by Heath Streak, the Whittalls and the Strangs. Madondo went on to play for Zimbabwe and scored 74 in his third Test, against New Zealand, but his promising career was cut short when at the age of 24 he succumbed to malaria, a disease that claims more lives in Africa than any other.
Others who Iain hand-picked for success continue to enjoy it in the national side. Taylor is one of Zimbabwe’s best batsmen at the moment, as he was at Lilfordia as a young boy. “With the exception of Alistair, Brendan was the best schoolboy cricketer to emerge from Lilfordia and broke every record going,” Donald says.
What made Taylor exceptional was his maturity. “We were all just kids and we liked to hit a few big shots when we were batting,” Waller says. “Usually we would score a few boundaries and then get out, but Brendan was a little different. He liked to bat a long time and sometimes he would bat the whole innings and we would all be amazed.”
Waller, himself, “impressed in every facet of the game,” according to Donald, and earned a scholarship to Brighton College in the UK. Waller believes his formative years at Lilfordia played a significant role in the things he went on to achieve.
“It was a really good school and it had a great reputation. Even now, when we have a bit of banter with old mates and things like where we all went to school comes up and Lilfordia gets mentioned, guys respect it. The focus on sport was also important for our discipline. We knew what we had to do and we did it.
“Iain never really shouted at us, unless we had to go to the headmaster’s office for a talking-to, but Mrs C… she was the sterner one and I think everyone was scared of her. I was,” he says.
But these days Waller and Taylor visit her for tea when they can and she jokes about the things they did as children. They also support the projects she is involved in. For the last four years, both players have featured in the annual match played between old boys. The fixture is the marquee event in a schools tournament played under lights at the main oval. Given that not even the country’s premier cricket ground, Harare Sports Club, has floodlights yet, the presence of pylons at Lilfordia is an indication of the investment that has gone into cricket at the school.
Iain died in 2008, aged 75, and did not live to see the school’s centenary. The ground’s pavilion is named after him and his influence forms an important part of the Lilfordia’s culture.
Donald and Mary have promised to continue trying to breed international sportsmen as best they can. “I remember how hard my parents worked, even during the holidays, to manage a top-flight private school by themselves,” says Donald. “Members of our family have maintained the interest and drive to run the business. That’s what we will keep doing.”
Lilfordia survived some of Zimbabwe’s darkest days when the economy was collapsing, and it remains as well-maintained and equipped as it has always been. A morning in the family’s company serves as an assurance that they will remain an establishment running smoothly for generations to come.