Biography (updated December 1997)
by John Ward
Dave Houghton is one of the most remarkable players in world cricket today. At the age of 40 he is the oldest player in Test cricket today, and still one of the most effective. Only two first-class centuries before the age of 30 and denied Test cricket until the age of 35, he has at the time of writing the thirteenth-highest average of any current Test batsman. He can still master any bowling attack in the world, particularly the spinners, and it seems ridiculous that he should be contemplating retirement when he is batting as well as at any time in his career. He has remained totally loyal to Zimbabwe throughout his career, and has never been tempted away by fine offers to play elsewhere, as were several other leading Zimbabweans before Test status was granted.
Dave was born in Bulawayo, the youngest of three brothers, but the family soon moved to Salisbury (now Harare). Each of the brothers was a fine sportsman in a very sports-oriented family: Ken, the oldest, played hockey for Zimbabwe, while Billy also played first-class cricket, for Rhodesia B in the Currie Cup B Section. They lived in a cul-de-sac, which enabled them to play cricket in the street when young. Their parents gave them full support and encouragement in all their sporting activities. They all attended Blakiston Primary School, and in his final year there Dave played for the national junior schools team, known as the Partridges, hitting a couple of fifties against South African provincial teams of the same age. He was also a wicket-keeper at that stage; he just happened to be a keeper at all the sports he played, keeping goal in soccer and hockey -- in fact, he was the national side's hockey goalkeeper for several years. As a boy he enjoyed being involved in the action all the time, and he continued to play behind the stumps until his early thirties when, as he puts it, he `saw the light'; he had long since ceased to enjoy the job. A painful hand condition, caused by the constant battering of the ball, was also a major factor.
He attended Prince Edward High School, and scored his first century for the Under-13 team. The following year brought a double-century against Sinoia High School (now Chinhoyi), and centuries against Churchill and Mount Pleasant; these brought immediate promotion to the school first eleven. He recalls how fortunate he was in his coaches during those years; Colin Bland had played a part in his Blakiston years, and now he had Mike Procter and several overseas coaches, as well as Prince Edward coach Rex McCullough. After his schooldays, Peter Carlstein was a major influence. Dave represented the national Under-15 team, the Fawns, in Johannesburg, and the high schools team in the Nuffield Week in Kimberley, after scoring two or three centuries in his final school year. A fifty against Transvaal B was his only major contribution.
After leaving school, he was a policeman for several years, which meant he was required to leave his original club, Alexandra (known universally as Alex), and play for the Police team, which was then in the first league. When he left to become a sales rep with Rothmans, he joined Universals for a season, helping the primarily Pakistani club Universals to find their feet in the first league. He then joined Old Hararians, the Prince Edward `old boys' club, and has stayed with them ever since.
In 1984, he received an offer to play for Blossomfield in the Midlands League in England, so he resigned from Rothmans, and on his return the Zimbabwe Cricket Union decided to employ him as a professional coach during the local season to enable him to continue as a full-time cricketer. He also played for West Bromwich Dartmouth for three years, and spent three years with Quick in The Hague, Holland.
As far as the first-class game was concerned, Dave made his debut in the Currie Cup for Rhodesia against Transvaal at the Salisbury Police Grounds in 1978/79, at the age of 21. Despite the fact that the Rhodesia B team was adjudged to be first-class and was playing in the B Section, Dave was rather unexpectedly brought into the full national side as a batsman to replace the injured Stuart Robertson. He retained his place throughout the season and for most of the next in place of Gerald Peckover as wicket-keeper/batsman. Batting low in the order, though, he found it difficult to make many runs, and after two years, when Zimbabwe became independent, his highest score for the full national side was only 41. His solitary fifty had come for Rhodesia B against Western Province B, when he and his brother Billy added 116 for the eighth wicket in a losing cause.
After independence, he usually continued in his dual role, although occasionally played as a batsman only, while Robin Brown kept wicket. However, it was generally agreed that Dave was the better of the two, and many judges still rate Dave as Zimbabwe's best keeper since independence. During the early 1980s Dave and Andy Pycroft were the mainstay of Zimbabwe's batting and frequently had to rescue the team between them after a bad start. Yet Dave reached fifty on 15 occasions before he finally broke through with his maiden first-class century, in England in 1985, just before his 28th birthday. He added 277 for the fourth wicket in partnership with Graeme Hick, another former Prince Edward pupil, who also hit his maiden first-class century.
Why did it take him so long? Part of the reason was that, for a while, he was batting low in the order while keeping wicket. "I don't think at the time I actually knew enough about my batting to make hundreds consistently," Dave explains. "Up to the age of about 29 or 30 I was just batting instinctively as opposed to knowing my technique and knowing how to bat. It's actually been during the last ten years that I've made the majority of my runs. I wasted quite a few possible centuries, and when I'm coaching now that's one of the first things I bring up. When I see young players with talent who just get pretty forties or fifties, I relate my own story and tell them, `You're just wasting it.' When I look back now, I can see that I wasted the first eight years of my batting life getting forties and fifties. At the end of the day, all people look at is the last two columns: how many hundreds you got and what your average is."
Dave did not feel that he had really established himself in first-class cricket until the age of 33 or 34, despite carrying the fragile Zimbabwe batting, along with Pycroft, through most of the eighties. He first established himself in the national side against the Young West Indians of 1981/82, when he scored a gallant 87 against such bowlers as Malcolm Marshall, Wayne Daniel and Hartley Alleyne, although facing their slower bowlers for much of his innings. He was approaching his century when he was struck on the cheekbone trying to hook Daniel; with the last man at the crease, he was unable to retire and take a breather, and was out shortly afterwards. In those early days he did appear to have a weakness against genuine pace, but his ability and confidence to handle these bowlers gradually developed over the years.
He batted consistently well over the following years without making any centuries in a representative international match. He opened for a while before going in at number five, just below Pycroft, and many were the valiant fourth-wicket stands in those years after the first three had gone cheaply. He himself was often out for single-figure innings, but once he settled in he frequently passed fifty.
After his century in England, he took over a year to score another, for a President's XI against a Young West Indian team, and a third the following year, when captaining a Zimbabwe B team against Sri Lanka B.
But, at the age of 32 at the start of the 1989/90 season, his highest score in a representative first-class international match was 96, against Pakistan B in 1986/87. This excludes, though, his brilliant 142 in the World Cup of 1987/88, against New Zealand at Hyderabad in India. Brilliant batting against the medium-pacers and spinners took his team to within sight of a glorious victory, only for Zimbabwe to fall at the final hurdle. Dave rates this as the finest innings of his career, along with his Test double-century.
His first great season came in 1989/90, when he was captain and, by his own admission, he had finally learnt how to build a big innings. With Pycroft having temporarily retired, the Zimbabwe batting was at perhaps its weakest ever. Thanks to innings of 165 out of 344 for nine wickets declared and 56 not out, Zimbabwe managed to draw the first unofficial Test against another Young West Indian team. The tourists struck back in the second match, to win by an innings, with Houghton scoring 36 out of 106 and 48 out of 102. He missed the third, accepting an invitation to play in an exhibition game in Toronto, and Zimbabwe succumbed in his absence to another innings defeat.
Against England A, he was helped by the return of Pycroft and the general improvement in morale due to the ICC decision to play Zimbabwe's unofficial Tests over five days. 108 in the first match was followed by his first double-century, a fine 202 in Bulawayo. Since then, he has never looked back, and further centuries came against Pakistan B and Australia B.
"Round about that time I felt that I was consistently scoring hundreds, so it was about that stage when I felt I had my act together," he says. "Then, when Test cricket came, I have been fairly consistent, scoring four hundreds and a few fifties in 18 Tests. The way I work it out is that if I can be scoring fifty or a hundred every three or four innings I'm going quite nicely, and the way things are going at the moment I feel this is roughly where I am. Obviously if I can turn those knocks from 50 into 150 it makes a big difference overall."
Dave was appointed captain of the national team in 1985/86 but held the job for only one year before resigning; by his own admission he did not find it easy to communicate with the players under him, especially when he had to keep wicket and play the role of leading batsman as well. However, in 1989/90 with the absence of Andy Waller through injury and the absence of any other senior player who wanted the job, he was appointed again against England A and kept the job until 1993/94, when he handed over to Andy Flower who was now ready to assume the role.
So it was that Dave led Zimbabwe into their first-ever Test match against India in 1992/93. This was to be a memorable occasion for Zimbabwe, who had the better of that match against India, but even more so for Dave himself, who became the first player to score a century on his Test debut when captain as well, and only the second to score a century for his country in its inaugural Test (the first being Charles Bannerman for Australia in the very first Test of all, in 1876/77). He hit a chanceless 121 from 322 balls, batting for almost seven hours, and it was an emotional moment for the home crowd when he pulled a ball through midwicket to reach his historic century.
He struck another purple patch when the Sri Lankans toured Zimbabwe two years later. After warming up with 58 in the First Test, he christened the Queens Ground in Bulawayo in its first Test match with a superb 266, an individual Zimbabwean Test record that may well remain unbeaten for many years. Then came 142 in the Third Test.
By the time the tour to Australia for the World Series Cup came round that season, Dave had the remarkable record of having played in every one of Zimbabwe's Tests and official one-day internationals, but he missed his first one in Australia, returning home in time for Christmas to be with his family, who have had to endure much separation from him over the years. Then he missed the 1996 World Cup after breaking a toe during the course of an invaluable Test century in New Zealand. Finally he was forced to miss Test matches for the first time, the two in Sri Lanka which coincided with his Worcestershire duties at the end of the English season in 1996.
To Dave goes the greatest credit for Zimbabwe's fine performances against England in the recent series. He knew most of the England players quite well from his time at Worcestershire, but he recognised Mike Atherton and Darren Gough as the two key players in that team. By concentrating their attention on pitching the ball well up to Atherton and swinging it early in his innings, before he got his feet moving, the Zimbabweans ensured that the England captain scored few runs on the tour, and they concentrated on keeping Gough at bay. Dave made no high scores against the English, but batted consistently, often frustratingly getting out when he seemed well set. Prior to the Test series, he had made big scores in virtually every match, so he considers it a strange season from a personal point of view. He felt in good form, but never really capitalised in the international matches. It was clear that he still had a great deal of cricket left in him and a great deal still to offer.
In 1994 he was appointed coach of the Worcestershire county team in England, and in 1996 of the Zimbabwe national side, in succession to John Hampshire. Very quickly he made his mark on both teams, but the jobs tended to conflict, and in 1997 the Zimbabwe Cricket Union persuaded him to become the country's national coach full-time, as well as to continue as a player. He has brought new, interesting methods into practice, and the national players speak very highly of him; many of them consider him their mentor. Worcestershire were also very sorry to lose him; during Dave's four years there they won the NatWest Trophy once, in 1994, but his final season was marred by rain which frequently frustrated the team when in a good position in a match. However, they have a strong squad now and Dave expects them to win more trophies in the near future.
Despite an uninformed rumour that he had retired from one-day internationals, Dave has continued to play a full part as a player for Zimbabwe. He has, however, dropped lower in the batting order, at his own request, so as to give extra experience and responsibility to the younger players whom he hopes will be his successors. Against the New Zealand tourists, as against England, he made no high scores, although his strokeplay was as superb as ever. He had a tendency to give his wicket away unnecessarily through faulty stroke selection, but no doubt physical and mental tiredness after a hard season at Worcester played a part. He proved fallible in the slips and retired to the outfield in the Second Test, but he still managed to effect a vital run-out through sharp fielding.
Asked which innings he rated as the best of his life, Dave immediately thought of his 142 in the 1987 World Cup against New Zealand: "I didn't make too many mistakes during the day and nearly won the game as well from a `nothing' position. Also I think of the double-century (266) I scored against Sri Lanka, when I only played and missed about twice during that time."
As a batsman Dave has all the strokes, though he has perhaps become most famous as a leading exponent of the reverse sweep, which drives spin bowlers to distraction. Several years ago he was rated as the best player of that stroke in world cricket, and it rarely gets him out. In his 266 against Sri Lanka, he had the confidence and skill to bring up both his 150 and his 200 with reverse sweeps for four.
One minor regret that Dave has is that he never had the opportunity to play in county cricket. He was never prepared to abandon Zimbabwe in favour of a county career as several other top Zimbabwean cricketers did before Test status was granted. Zimbabwe has never been a fashionable country for counties seeking overseas players, and in any case Dave was into his thirties before finding the sort of form that would attract attention.
Dave still sees his future as lying with Zimbabwe cricket, certainly for the next three years as player-coach. "How long I carry on playing for will be determined by how quickly I can get some of the young lads through," he says. "Obviously my own personal goals tend to go out of the window now in favour of a team goal. The first thing is to win a Test series, and to continue going well in the one-day games, with a view to being in the last six in the World Cup in 1999."
He rates Wasim Akram without doubt as the bowler who has given him the most trouble during his career, and expects that he will continue to do so. "There have been great bowlers in world cricket, including a few that I haven't faced," he says. "But Wasim, for his all-round ability and speed, is by far the best bowler I've ever played against."
Outside cricket, Dave is interested in all sports and is a keen spectator, although at present he has very little time to participate. He enjoys watching golf and tennis in particular. He would like to do some fishing and get up to Kariba, but hasn't had the time to do this for five years or so. He is married to Shirley and has three daughters: Kirsten (17), Carley (16) and Jamie (8).
Alistair Campbell says, "He's been around a long time and has a lot of experience; I believe he is one of the finest batsmen in world cricket, still at his peak and one of the finest players of spin bowling in the world. He is one of the match-winners, able to win a one-day game on his own. Technically and tactically he is very sound; I'm always picking his brain to hear what he has to say about certain situations and certain bowlers. He's a great batting coach; Graeme Hick in his articles points out how much he owes to him. He is to Graeme what Dave Ledbetter is to Nick Faldo, so that's pretty high praise and sums up the man's capabilities.
"Since he has come in as coach, there has been a major turnaround in the fortunes of the Zimbabwe team, and a lot of the credit is due to him. He has revised all our training and practising schedules; he has given guys greater belief in their ability and made us very positive, even when we're playing the best sides in the world. It has worked wonders, and I'm glad that the Zimbabwe Cricket Union has signed him for three years. I have a good working relationship with him and hope we can continue improving as we have been doing."
Andy Flower says, "I think it's good that Dave has been brought back as coach. He's a very good tactician, very good with the team, and it was important for Zimbabwe to re-sign him. I also think it's important that he carries on playing for us. In the middle order he is not only a stabilising influence but a presence that gives the batting side confidence. But he can also when necessary produce those attacking innings that can turn games. He has been a brilliant cricketer for Zimbabwe over the years. Given the opportunities, had he played in another Test-playing country, he would have been a world-renowned batsman, but with playing in this country, with such limited opportunities in the past and limited media exposure, he hasn't had the recognition a guy of his talent deserves."
Grant Flower says, "Dave is a role model for everyone, including those of us in the team. I admire the way he thinks about the game, and he has become more professional in his own game from his time at Worcester. He takes a pride in showing that he can still play the game himself! He's still our best bat."
Craig Wishart says, "Davy is a mentor to me; I learn so much just from watching him at the crease, and he always seems to come up with the goods at the right time and score runs under pressure."
Guy Whittall says, "The bit of coaching he did at Worcester has really rubbed off on the players. We are having really quality practices, nothing routine. He has revived our fielding after the practice was becoming a bit of a bore. He has been building up our confidence and we just know we can do it. Having no fear is an important part; for example, his policy is that if we want to hit over the top, then hit over the top and have the confidence to do whatever you want."