On a typically cold summer evening in Liverpool, it's business as usual for Tatenda Taibu. He's at St Mary's college to pick his 13-year-old son, Tatenda Junior, from school. The usual daily elaborative review talk starts, and from Math, English, Arts, Music, it veers towards sports.
Tatenda Jr: Dad, the coaches showed us (Class 7 students) a video where players were hitting big sixes. There was this big guy, tall left-hander...
Taibu: Chris Gayle?
Tatenda Jr: Yes, yes, yes. How do you know?
Taibu: I thought it was him because he hits the ball a long way
Tatenda Jr: You know him?
Taibu: Yes, I do
Tatenda Jr: How?
Taibu: I played against him, and with him, and was communicating with him 3 weeks ago.
Tatenda Jr: No dad, you are lying
Taibu: Look here on my phone (shows videos of him playing cricket with Gayle).
Tatenda Jr (looks in disbelief)
Taibu: Let's get home and I will show you more.
A simple conversation between father and son would serve as the straw that would break the camel's back and bring Tatenda Taibu back to cricket after six years.
"You know with my family, even when I was playing and my boy was old enough (3-6 years) to understand a little bit between, I never took cricket back home," Taibu tells Firstpost. "Cricket remained at the ground and when I went home, I wanted my boy to know me as a dad and not as a superstar."
Unaware that his father played for the Zimbabwe national team and against some big stars, Tatenda Jr stared at the phone in disbelief as his father showed him more videos of his top innings after reaching home.
"He (Tatenda Jr) sort of knew that dad is famous but he didn't know what dad was famous for. I thought, let me tell him a bit more about what I achieved in cricket because I never really talked about my achievements at home. So then he said, 'I would really love to see you play, I would really love to see how you played'. So I said I will give my boy a chance to watch me."
The decision was made on an impulse, in consultation with his wife, Loveness Taibu, who has always been a supportive force. The doting father decided to return to professional cricket so that his son could watch him play.
When Taibu decides to take up something, he gives it his 100 percent. Just three months after having that conversation with his son, Taibu was back on the field, playing professional cricket in the Sri Lankan domestic arena. Signed as an overseas player for Baduraliya CC, his first four innings scores read: 13, 57, 39 and 13.
Ahead of the first match, it felt like someone had hit the reboot button.
"I felt nerves. I felt like I was playing on debut again. But as soon as I stepped onto the field, I felt it as a familiar place and the nerves quickly went away.
And then he animatedly singles out the 57-run innings and says with a tinge of regret, "I should have scored a hundred (in the second innings of the first match). When I got to 50, there was still enough time. I definitely should have got a hundred, I was feeling very good. I kept as well, took 2 catches and haven't conceded any byes so far, so it's been good."
So why play domestic cricket in Sri Lanka and not Zimbabwe?
Having visited the country in the past, he knew that the Sri Lankan first-class cricket was "quite competitive." And secondly, he needed to speak to someone who understood him well. So he got in touch with his good friend Roshan Abeysinghe, a long time broadcaster and commentator, and after a heart-to-heart discussion where some tough questions were asked, Abheysinghe put Taibu's name forward in the Sri Lankan domestic arena.
"I knew that I will walk into the domestic arena of Zimbabwe and score runs. I wanted something challenging, I like a challenge and I like to overcome a challenge," Taibu explains. "I never played first-class cricket in Sri Lanka, I don't know most of the bowlers. I have only faced one or two that I have played with before. So I am facing new bowlers, new conditions, new team, and new environment. Everything is new. So for me, it's a proper test of my ability. If I do well in that, I will have the satisfaction that I can still play the game."
The preparations had accelerated ahead of the Sri Lankan domestic season. The family had joined in to help. His wife and son would feed the balls in the bowling machine provided by his club where he played some cricket and coached in Liverpool.
Bereft of a team environment and cricket set-up, Loveness would help her husband schedule practices and instill discipline along with keeping a constant vigil to avoid complacency.
At 35, it is a given that the first question Taibu would have faced was about his fitness. That, however, is the least of his concerns.
"Gladly, I have always kept fit and I knew that just hitting a few balls in the nets over the bowling machine will get me back into form," Taibu asserts.
"Look, when I stopped playing cricket, I never really stopped training, even physical training. When I made the decision (to come back to competitive cricket), my schedule included running 7 kms on the beach, twice a week and then the other days in between, I would be doing sprints on the beach. I did all my fitness on the sand. So in terms of fitness, it's probably the easiest thing for me. I would not be lying if I said I am probably one of the fittest cricketers in the world. Without a doubt," he adds.
Taibu is no stranger to comebacks. And this was yet another twist in his life that has endured an Afridiesque curve. The diminutive 18-year-old Shona from Harare arrived on the cricketing scene as a promising wicket-keeper-batsman touted to be a potential successor of Andy Flower. He became Zimbabwe's first black captain, the youngest in the world, at 20. He then resigned from the captaincy, quit cricket, moved to South Africa, returned, and then again announced retirement at the age of 29 in 2012 finishing as the fourth-highest run-getter in ODIs for Zimbabwe, affecting the second-most dismissals in a decade-long international career. His decision to quit the second time came as a surprise as just hours ago, he had been named in Zimbabwe's provisional squad for 2012 World T20. However, at the time, his heart was somewhere else - towards the Lord.
"I had felt a calling in my heart to do some church work and I was on a spiritual journey at that time," Taibu explains. “I needed to find some peace in my heart and that was the calling that I believe I had. And my character is such that, when I am looking at a certain direction, I can't look at other things around. I just look at where I want to go and hit and then I focus on that. So when I was focusing all my energy on my spiritual journey, even cricket became a distraction. I was not giving cricket my 100 percent attention which I was giving to my soul-searching. So, cricket had to go."
Taibu set off to do work for churches. He was a trustee at a church where he would take care of the overall operations - look after the assets of the church, make sure the building is intact, benches, piano, and musical instruments are working. He took care of electricity and water bills and distributed money, food, and transport to the poor besides being part of the group that was praying for sick people.
Disconnected totally from cricket, it was a life changing experience. "I found that to be fulfilling in my heart. It gives you constant satisfaction to the day. I cannot describe it. Even though I got no cent the satisfaction it brings even when I talk about it now, cannot be measured with money."
All through this, he was living on the money generated from renting posh houses purchased during his playing days. He was doing some business with his Indian friends and was a shareholder in a gold mining company. But with the political and economic condition deteriorating in the country Taibu shifted base to the United Kingdom in 2015 where he enrolled his children in St Mary's college to give them the best education possible. Being on a tier 4 visa (the visa is issued to a parent in support of a child who is doing their education in UK), the 35-year-old is not allowed to work in the UK and he still lives mainly off the money from the rented houses.
"I wasn't foolish with money when I was earning a lot as a player," he says. "I had bought several nice houses and rented them out. They cost about 1200-1400 USD monthly. That's a lot of money. That's quite comfortable and I have been living like that since I left cricket.
It was after four years, he returned to the field, playing for Liverpool and District team Hightown St Mary's where he coached the kids too and also opened an academy.
And then again, life took another turn. Taibu was back with Zimbabwe Cricket as convener of selectors and development officer. It was a year-long on-off conversation with Zimbabwe Cricket chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani which started when he bumped into him at a bank in Bulawayo, that culminated into the former captain taking up the position after a lot of convincing.
He didn't take the proposal seriously at first given his tumultuous relationship with the board over the years. But after some intense one-to-one conversations with Mukhulani, he decided to take up the job.
After almost two years in charge, he was sacked earlier this year, along with coach Heath Streak and captain Graeme Cremer after Zimbabwe failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. The lack of (or no) communication and explanation from Mukhulani after sacking left Taibu unhappy.
At 35, Taibu has seen it all and still going strong. However, he doesn't want to go overboard. A national return is still far away from sight. He wants to take a realistic route rather than an idealistic one.
"I haven't thought that far. Because to start thinking about international, I have to be comfortable in first-class and I have to have the confidence that my body is still in shape, I have to have the confidence that I will score hundreds, I have to have the confidence that I will take not only good catches but great catches. So it's a little bit too early to be thinking about that."
It will also mean moving back to Zimbabwe along with making sure that his other projects, which are under the supervision of his agent and wife in his absence, aren't affected. He might take a decision on the next step at the end of the Sri Lankan season, around March-April. Then spend the summer with family before getting back onto the field for club cricket.
All through the chat, the excitement in Taibu's voice is palpable. Just like his inexhaustible energy, the nostalgia factor too hasn't gone away. Every time he has a conversation with ones who know the game, memories come back.
"They remind me that I used to hold the record for the youngest captain in the history of Test cricket. I am reminded about that all the time. Every time I am in India, I am reminded about playing in Kolkata (for Kolkata Knight Riders). Only two days ago, someone sent me a message saying 'I didn't know you were the player of the tournament in the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand.' We played against SSC here whose coach is Thilina Kandambi, he asked me, do you remember you once bowled me out in a one-day game? So yes, when people send messages, I have to remember those things. It brings back memories."
So, just like the Chanderpauls, is there a chance we could see the Taibus playing together? Well, Taibu senior has no plans of getting his son into professional cricket.
"He doesn't have the basic talent for a cricketer. He loves the sport but doesn't want to practice. I have only done practice with my boy twice. He doesn't want it. He would play for school or club, score two runs, not take a wicket and come back and say, I enjoyed the cricket today. From a young age, I was taught to enjoy cricket and I enjoyed my cricket when we won. But with him, they can lose, he won't have contributed but still, he will come back and say, 'Dad, I enjoyed my cricket today' (laughs). So I am happy with him like that.”
It might seem far-fetched but if it does happen, what would it feel like donning that Zimbabwe jersey again?
“The feeling will not be for me but my boy. I think I have passed that stage where I think for myself. All the decisions I make now it's either for my wife or kids, it's never me anymore.”
If it does happen, it will be a fairytale even Tatenda Jr has to believe.
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