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Dave Houghton Interview

by John Ward

Zimbabwe's cricket coach half the year -- Worcestershire's coach the other half -- not to mention Zimbabwe's premier batsman at the age of 39. Dave Houghton is undoubtedly one of the busiest and most influential professionals in world cricket today.

On his return from England, Dave spoke about his recent season there. It had started disappointingly, with Worcestershire losing all interest in the one-day competitions early on, and in the championship failing to win any of their first five or six matches. Injuries had played a significant part: he lost two of his front-line bowlers early on, with Gavin Haynes failing to appear at all and Phil Newport appearing only for the first three games. With Worcestershire in the process of rebuilding their team, this left Stuart Lampitt as the only experienced bowler in the side. Tom Moody, the Australian who is currently Worcestershire's captain, bowls good, lively seam, but early season is too cold for his back, which does not allow him to bowl freely until about July onwards. He did have the benefit of a young bowler they had signed from Leicestershire, Alamgir Sheriyar, who was really learning the ropes in his first full season. With such an inexperienced bowling attack, they had a poor first half of the season, and at one stage they were 17th out of 18, without a victory. Finally came a really good win against Somerset, where they scored about 450 in over a day to win the match; this signalled a change in fortunes, so that, of the final ten games of the season, they won six, lost two and drew two. Their final position was seventh, and so the season ended with optimism and enthusiasm in the county, as they had brought on a young team which was coming through well.

Graeme Hick lost his Test place halfway through the season, but from Worcestershire's point of view this was an advantage in that it meant many more runs in the top of the batting order. Dave commented that Graeme would be the first to admit that he felt physically and mentally jaded at the start of the season, after playing for so long with so little rest. He did make a couple of early centuries, including a double-century for the county against the Indians. But he then lost form for a couple of months in the middle of the season; quite justifiably he lost his place, as he was not scoring runs at the time. Those who replaced him did quite well, so it was simply a matter of current form.

Towards the end of the season he began to score heavily again for Worcestershire, but the winter off, despite lucrative offers from Western Province and two New Zealand provinces, should do him a power of good. He will enjoy a good rest without picking up a cricket bat in anger until the start of the 1997 English season, when he will hopefully return with his batteries fully recharged. He had very much hoped to be included in the England touring team to Zimbabwe and New Zealand, but he also realised the need to have some time away from the game. He did finish the English season in good spirits and still has high hopes of regaining his England place. Knowing Graeme and how hard he works, Dave said, he will probably start training seriously and get himself more fit than he has been for a long time in preparation for the visit by Australia. Those in current form will obviously be at an advantage when the England Test team is selected, but the English tend to change their team around very quickly in home series, especially if they are not winning, so he is clearly in with a chance; he must just see that he is ready to take the opportunity when it arises, and then score the runs.

Graeme currently has 90 first-class centuries, and will probably be the next batsman to pass 100 centuries, a very select group which does not yet contain a player born in Africa. The more he plays for Worcestershire, the quicker he will get there, as he dominates county cricket very easily; the end of next year should see him close. Although he is obviously aware of records, he is very much a professional cricketer: he gets in and does the job on the day and if it leads to a century, well and good. If he reaches 100, he likes to go for 200; he is one of the cricketers who is clearly very upset with himself if he gets out for 150.

The ease with which Graeme dominates county cricket contrasts with his frequent struggles at Test level. Dave Houghton feels that the major problem is that Graeme is under constant pressure, especially from the English press, who are very quick to build up their heroes and then tear them down just as suddenly. Graeme has spent his England career knowing that people are just waiting for him to fail rather than wanting him to succeed, because it makes a better story if they can write him off in the paper once again. This is hardly a pleasant way to play cricket, and Dave feels that this is more responsible for his downfall than anything. Another factor is that opposing teams, whoever they may be, from the Australians downwards, recognise Graeme as potentially the best player in the England side, and so he becomes their prime target; if he takes root, England are likely to win. Everybody else has this rating for Graeme, while the English press have a rating of their own. Even if he turns out back-to-back Test hundreds, the next failure that follows will lead to his being slagged off in the press, and he knows it.

Despite this, Graeme probably has no regrets about his decision to leave Zimbabwe for England. He has played in winning teams for Worcestershire in all the major English competitions, and Dave considers he did the right thing at the time. He is very much an Englishman now, and is likely to stay in England, although he doubtless has an affection for the land of his birth and upbringing.

Contrary to press reports here in Zimbabwe and overseas, Dave has not decided to retire at the end of the current season, although that is still a possibility. He admits that his body is not shaping up like it should do; when reminded of Graham Gooch's success as the leading English batsman of 1996 in county cricket at the age of 43, Dave replied with a chuckle that Gooch has had a slightly different fitness schedule over the years! Until about the time of the Second World War, professional cricketers frequently kept their form until their mid-forties, so clearly it is possible for players like Dave to adjust their games sufficiently to prolong their careers. Dave mentions another side to this, though; the fitness schedule for cricketers today, he feels, is so strenuous that it actually takes years off their careers. Players of the past used to turn up at the nets for a gentle knock or to turn their arms over just before the first match of the season, in contrast to the prolonged strenuous training demanded today. This, Dave feels, has contributed to the numerous injuries so many cricketers suffer; their muscles are wound up so tightly that one movement out of place can easily throw them out of action for three weeks or so.

Practising what he preaches, Dave is not at work pressurising the bodies of Zimbabwean cricketers unnecessarily. He has his week as coach divided mainly into hour-long sessions, and is dealing with individuals rather than groups. Each squad player has about three hours of individual coaching per week; Dave is especially keen to improve the techniques of our batsmen. The generally placid Zimbabwean pitches tend to lead to bad habits, which means that, on more testing pitches overseas against the world's top bowlers, the techniques are found wanting. Once or twice a week there is a squad fielding practice, and Dave is confident this arrangement is more efficient and concentrated than the previous system of perhaps three hours in the nets most nights, most of which were inevitably wasted.

The hope is also that Dave will pace himself similarly and thus prolong his career. He recognises the youth and inexperience of our batting line-up, and it is thus all the more vital for Zimbabwean cricket that he himself stays long enough to see them to maturity. His absence in Sri Lanka was sorely felt. Zimbabwe cricket would be much poorer were he to call it a day.


Date-stamped : 03 Jul1999 - 14:45