There was a bit of a stir when Zimbabwe finally unveiled their men’s T20 World Cup kit, just a few days out from their first game of the tournament, against Ireland on Monday. The crimson red had been replaced by a fiery yellow, with an image of the bird that symbolises an independent Zimbabwe. That bird isn’t a phoenix, but, in that orange against the clear yellow, it looks almost aflame, ready to rise from the ashes.
Which is perhaps apt. Because just four months ago, it looked like Zimbabwe wouldn’t need to design a World Cup kit at all. They had just played T20I series at home against Namibia and Afghanistan, and lost both. And at the World Cup qualifiers, one loss could have put paid to their chances. Their chances of getting to the tournament were iffy. But they made it.
No player’s fortune embodies what Zimbabwe cricket went through in this time – both the nadir and the rebirth – as well as Brad Evans‘. Evans, the 25-year-old fast bowler, made his debut against Namibia in May. With Zimbabwe losing the final two games of that series, it would perhaps have felt more like a hazing ceremony than an induction.
“As a Zimbabwe side, we are starting almost from rock bottom,” he tells ESPNcricinfo. “When I joined, we lost to Namibia in a five-match T20 series. That’s rock bottom.”
He doesn’t want to talk much about his time under former coach Lalchand Rajput, pointing out that he wasn’t there long enough to form a nuanced opinion. But when he speaks about Dave Houghton’s arrival, he sits up in his chair. The eyes sparkle; the contrast he draws need not be put into words.
“Forget the cricket. The changing room between the two series that I played is such a different place. It’s jovial, guys are making jokes. It’s just a happier place,” Evans said. “The only thing that Dave has come in and done is said, ‘Guys, I don’t care if you get out, but I want you to play your shots’. So you’ll see someone play a terrible shot and you’ll think, ‘Oh, my god, what do you think the coach is going to say to him?’
“But Dave will actually just ask him about his thought process and say, ‘Maybe try this next time; but I like the way you batted today’. That gives that same guy the freedom to go out next time and still try and express himself. He doesn’t hammer guys for getting things wrong because at the end of the day, we’re all human.”
“If you have 11 guys being aggressive, the chances are two or three of them are going to come off on any given day,” he says. “And the day that five or six guys come off on a day, we’re going to beat anyone in the world”
Comparisons with Bazball are easily drawn, even though Houghton, in an interview with ESPNcricinfo, had declined to get into them, saying Brendon McCullum “was a slightly bigger player doing it with a slightly bigger side”.
But in the last three months under him, Zimbabwe have scorched their way through the World Cup qualifiers, beaten Bangladesh in T20I and ODI series, come within inches of a win against India, and won a first-ever ODI in Australia.
Evans was part of three of those four campaigns, taking five wickets in an ODI against India and hitting the winning runs off Mitchell Starc in Townsville. “I was quite disappointed, though, because we needed one to win and I hit the ball and it went for four. But because we ran the single, they only gave me one,” he says in mock frustration. “No one’s going to even know that I cover-drove Mitchell Starc for four.”
Such excitability would have been unthinkable in May. The confidence – the swagger, even – this purple patch has bred, streams through in everything Evans says about his still-new international career. While Houghton’s decades-long experience meant he was content to play it down gently, Evans’ youthful exuberance allows him to play up Zimbabwe’s World Cup chances.
“If you have 11 guys being aggressive, the chances are two or three of them are going to come off on any given day,” he says. “And the day that five or six guys come off on a day, we’re going to beat anyone in the world.”
A pause follows that statement, but Evans ends it by doubling down. “Honestly, we’re not untalented cricketers. Everyone can play a cover drive or a sweep shot. Everyone can bowl an awayswinger. Everyone can spin the ball. The day five or six people fire in a day, there’s no one we can lose to,” he stresses. “We can take big teams further. We’re just trying to get into the swing of things. This is the way we want to play and hopefully guys are pulling in the same direction. That’s what we’re after.”
His words struggle to keep up with his emotions, and it almost feels like he’s producing an impromptu team talk. It suddenly becomes clear how much buy-in Houghton has managed to achieve in such a short time.
“The way that Dave structures his training sessions is telling,” Evans says. “The other day, we batted in pairs. You had six overs in pairs to bat and try and score as many runs as possible. It was quite intense because we’ve got a squad of 15 guys all trying to put their hands up and get into the playing XI for the World Cup. There was no consequence for getting out. Normally a coach might say, right, we’re doing this drill, and if you get out, it’s minus five runs or something like that.
“West Indies are beatable, but at the same time, they can beat anyone else in the world. If they have a day out, they’re going to be tricky to beat. But at the same time, they can have a bad day and they can be poor and we can have a good day and beat them”Brad Evans
“With the idea that if I get out, it’s just a dot ball, there’s so much freedom to play your shots. And you should have seen the quality of cricket that was on display in that little centre-wicket training. It was ridiculous.”
Zimbabwe’s dearth of fast-bowling resources has been well documented, as has the tendency for any exciting prospect they do produce to end up in other, more affluent parts of the world. Evans looked like he was on a similar trajectory when he left St John’s College in Harare – a prestigious institution that has produced several world-class athletes – a year before finishing, accepting a sports scholarship to Cardiff University. He had a future in county cricket in mind, and eventually a British passport.
“I did really well whilst I was at school,” he says. “I was playing Sussex second team. But then once I left school, it wasn’t allowed anymore because I was on a different type of visa. So I actually had to stop playing second-team cricket overall.”
He was faced with the prospect of a frustrating wait for a passport that could take several years. “I just looked at my life and I thought, by the time I leave uni, I’m going to be 23 years old. And in that time, I wouldn’t have been able to play much cricket. I felt like my cricket was on the decline. So about halfway through university, I sort of made up my mind that I was going to come back to Zimbabwe and pursue my career here.”
Evans possesses the self-belief and confidence elite sport seems to demand as a prerequisite, but tempers it with disarming self-deprecation. He says, almost matter-of-factly, that he “had visions of playing for Zimbabwe at 18” and was confident he was good enough. He talks about becoming a batting allrounder by the end of his career, “someone like Ben Stokes”. But immediately after, he insists he isn’t comparing himself with Stokes, and a few minutes later, even laughs off the idea that he was always destined to be a fast bowler for Zimbabwe.
“Fast bowling happened because I started sliding down the batting order,” he says with a laugh. “Growing up, I was an opening batter and quite a good one. There came a stage where I did have a growth spurt and then I just thought, why not bowl?
“My first three years of bowling fast, I remember there was one game where I bowled 60 extras. I could not control the ball. And the opposition made around 140 and 60 of those were my extras. But I could bowl quickly. By the age of 14, I’d broken two people’s arms by bowling bouncers. So I could bowl quickly, but I just couldn’t control it.”
All that despite never really receiving much professional fast-bowling coaching. “Gary Brent [former Zimbabwe fast bowler] tried to get me to bowl a little bit more front on and I think I took a little bit just before I did my ankle a year and a half ago,” he says. “But apart from that, I’ve always been a free spirit and just gone out there and played my cricket the way I play my cricket.”
It is an attitude well suited to Houghton’s philosophy. He had said he wouldn’t consider his side to have qualified for the World Cup until they reached the Super 12 stage of the tournament, and it’s a message he appears to have drilled into his players well. Evans accepts the opening game against Ireland is a must-win, and feels even West Indies could be beaten.
“West Indies are beatable, but at the same time, they can beat anyone else in the world. If they have a day out, they’re going to be tricky to beat. But at the same time, they can have a bad day and they can be poor and we can have a good day and beat them,” he says. “We’re not going there to come back before the main World Cup starts.”
If Zimbabwe can manage to scale these lofty heights over the next week in Hobart, it won’t just be that dashing yellow kit causing a stir. And this time, everyone will notice if Evans cover-drives Starc for four.