by Hannes Wessels

Desperate to seek relief from deep despondency over the recent Zimbabwe elections, I reached out to cricket and my prayers were answered. I thrilled to the sight of young Sam Curran ripping through the Indian top-order with pace, skill and guile and then hitting a heroic 63 to save England from defeat. All this from a 20-year-old in his second appearance for England. But then my mood reversed when I watched him receive the Man of the Match award. Pride was displaced by anger because if it were not for the machinations of evil men in high places, he probably would have been the toast of Zimbabwe.

Sam’s mother Sarah and father Kevin are Zimbabwe-born. Sarah was born in Bulawayo, the daughter of a school-teacher who later taught at Prince Edward school in what was then known as Salisbury. His paternal grandfather was born in what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1928. Grandfather Kevin was a very stylish fly-half and played for Rhodesia and Kevin (junior) played full-back for the Rhodesian Under 20 side. Both excelled at all sports, but grandpa Kevin refused to play golf because he was made to caddy for his Mom as a kid and hated it. Father Kevin of course went on to play international cricket for Zimbabwe and also played for Northampton in the County Championship.

The Curran’s farmed in Makoni, the rural community which surrounds the small town of Rusape in eastern Zimbabwe and Kevin (sr) was a famously fair and fastidious farmer who spoke the Shona vernacular fluently, took special care of his labour and was known to be late for rugby practice because he stayed late to sweep the tobacco sheds after his workers had gone home. Aged 65 his special pub performance was doing flick-flacks when sozzled.

Like so many in the country, the farming families in the district were sport-obsessed and the Makoni Country-Club was a boisterous boozer where thousands of gallons of beer were drunk amid plenty of good cheer and was the nexus for fun and fierce competition on the golf-course, the tennis-courts, the cricket pitch, the rugby field and the bowling green. The sporting talent that came out of this district was outrageously disproportionate to the numbers. Hardly a family failed to provide a sportsman or sportswoman who did not win national colours in some discipline and their rugby and cricket teams were greatly feared.

This was a testament to the toughness and athleticism of the settlers that arrived in the area at the turn of the century to open up virgin land in the face of danger and enormous hardship. This was not a time or place that would have attracted the likes of sloppy socialists like Jeremy Corbyn or Peter Mandelson because the ‘nanny-state’ was a long way away. This was a stand-alone time and only the hardy and savvy prevailed. Out of the same pool came English batter, Gary Ballance whose grand-father Hugh was a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot – but Hugh had not fought his last war against Hitler. By the end of Rhodesia’s Bush-War, over 30 farmers, (including the Ballance’s manager Ken Hogg) farmer’s wives and their children were killed in ambushes, contacts, land-mine detonations and attacks on homesteads; the district survived but this was a heavy toll for a small community and it was shattered. Sam’s father Kevin served during the war with the Rhodesian Artillery Regiment.

Sam’s father Kevin.

After the end of hostilities in 1980 and the change from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, cricket recovered and Kevin Curran played a stellar role in putting the country back on the cricketing map. Under the astute leadership of Dave Ellman-Brown and a small group of pro-bono administrators, the team became an international force and money started to flow into the union. This attracted the attention of Mugabe-connected flunkies who quickly seized control and looted the coffers. As with FIFA, the ICC was complicit by suppressing publication of a damning audit which named individuals and the scale of the theft. As a result, Kevin and other top players focused elsewhere and in his case he looked to England and South Africa for opportunities.

The Curran boys had cricket balls and bats in their hands almost as soon as they could walk. The three boys, Tom, Ben and Sam all went to Springvale Junior School outside the town of Marondera and all showed immediate promise.

Close friend Graham Pritchard recalls: “Kevin worked hard with them right from the beginning and they were taught to take no prisoners on or off the pitch. They fought like hell among themselves and Kevin chose not to interfere; he felt it was all part of the toughening process. They were ultra-competitive and seriously talented but their father worked incredibly hard with them and gave them every bit of help he could. That shot Sam hit to go past his 50 in the second innings against India was one his Dad taught him a million times in the nets; inside out and over extra cover. I can still see him hitting that shot as a kid.

“At junior school, aged 8 Sam played for the Colts against 10-year olds, scoring 50 and taking a hat-trick. He was a star from the start and was taught to push the boundaries. In practice if you were lucky enough to get him out he would invariably claim he wasn’t ready! If he got bored batting in garden cricket he would switch hands but still no one could get him out. He was also a very slick scrum-half and somehow managed to keep himself injury free. Golf also game easily to him and he had his first hole-in-one when he was only 13. His school-cricket stats in Zimbabwe are crazy – 22 centuries, two double-tons and five hat-tricks. Despite this I always found Sam very humble and almost embarrassed about his talent. Apart from being gifted these boys are tough like their father. When Kevin got his first contract with Gloucestershire he went to the interview hiding the fact his back was in a plaster-cast and he could hardly walk. Two weeks later he pitched up and played but he locked horns with Eddy Barlow and eventually moved to Northants.”

Two years after Sam was born Robert Mugabe’s land-invasions began and this time the Rusape farmers were not allowed to fight for their land. Some went quietly and others were violently evicted but their numbers dwindled fast and the community dwindled then disappeared. “Kevin thought he might be able to hang on to the family farm because he was national cricket coach at the time,” remembers Graham. “But he was mistaken, it made no difference they took the Curran family farm along with everyone else. I had to send my lorry to collect the family’s personal possessions. It was a lousy day I’ll never forget but for Kevin and his family there was really nothing left for them in Zimbabwe. And that’s really a big part of the reason why Sam’s there for England and Zimbabwe has lost these stars. I suppose they can thank Robert Mugabe for Sam, Tom and Ben Curran?”




14 thoughts on “The Sam Curran Story”
  1. Very interesting read and a sad comment on the destruction of a beautiful country that was once called, the bread basket of Africa. Brings back fond memories of the days when I played cricket at Milton Senior in Bulawayo and also at Queens Club . I watched Currie Cup matches between Rhodesia and S. Africa at that club.I worked for the Rhodesia Native Department stationed at Beitbridge, then Nyamandhlovu and final post at Fort Victoria. I left Rhodesia in 1957 well before the bush wars and worked for the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland at Rhodesia House in London until 1960 when I resigned and moved to British Columbia, Canada, then to the USA in 1961. When I resigned I predicted that the Federation would collapse within 5 years. It was actually three because it dissolved in 1963 with Southern Rhodesia getting screwed by the British government. The bush wars started in 1964 and from there it was all downhill for the Rhodesians. Ian Smith was forced to declare independence from the UK in 1964, with Rhodesia becoming a Republic in 1970. My last visit to Rhodesia was in 1979 when I visited my family in Bulawayo. It was an unsettling experience to see armed soldiers standing guard on street corners in the city.

  2. It is sad that his father and grandfather did not live to see their success. It is only a few years ago that Kevin Senior was still playing tennis at Old Georgians and as competitive as ever. On serving he would rush the net and adopt the ‘split’ position near the net, as would a graduate from a modern tennis academy. Not often seen in men of his age! The coach of the Soviet rugby team which visited Zimbabwe in the 80’s told me that they study the sporting history of any country they are going to play. He said the Soviets were of the opinion that until the emergence of East Germany as a sporting power [fueled by drugs] Rhodesia was the strongest sporting nation in the world per capita.

  3. This excellent article brought many wonderful memories flooding back. I was at Plumtree when grandfather Kevin was at Milton, fortunately a few years younger so I did not have to face him on the field. However we met again several times in later years when I used to go out to the Districts with a friendly Salisbury cricket side. Thankfully Kevin was a bit slower by then , but no slouch after the game. It remains a mystery how we found our way back to Salisbury some time around midnight.

    I see New Zealand is also benefiting from ex Plumtree and Rhodesian stock -de Grandhomme.

  4. Thanks, Hannes. And you’ll see us in exactly the same position in a year’s time. Only we have nowhere to go.

  5. Sam Curran — Bowled over, emBATtled, or caught in the midst of the “Curran..ts” of the rising tide of England’s new cricketing heroes? Is it not time for a fresh perspective on the origins of the English team … more Ballance, perhaps? — with one or two “l’s”, it matters not!

    Well researched, Hannes, and a timely reminder, too, of the immense sporting talent germinated, nurtured and partially-developed in, but ultimately alienated from the Makoni district and other rural districts in (the former) Rhodesia. Fortunate, indeed, are we — the lost generation? — who have witnessed both the proud legacy of cricketing excellence that hails from Zimbabwe, as well as the match-winning performances of the current (or Curran T, S or B, as appropriate!), genetically-gifted batch of sporting prodigies, albeit that these inherent (or, rather, “inherited”) sporting skills know no political boundaries and have therefore been honed, enhanced and eventually allowed to find expression in geographically far-removed places, distant in every sense from their origins. We might forever wonder what the alternative development opportunities might have yielded, or even whether they would have existed at all?

    One laments — but understands no less the reasons for — the enforced exodus of so many talented youngsters from their “home turf” in Zimbabwe in search of greener pastures (?), more level playing fields — figuratively speaking — and better opportunities to demonstrate their sporting prowess in the global arena.

    At the same time, like you, Hannes, I have experienced mixed emotions of pride and frustration — pride in identifying with and sharing the success of these Young ‘Uns (“Currans”, in code!), yet frustration in acknowledging where and for whom they have achieved such success. Ultimately, however, one cannot help but be delighted by the care-free — even audacious — spirit characterising some of these stand-out performances — yes, even at Edgbaston, Lords, the Oval and elsewhere on English soil! Youthful exuberance? Yes, indeed — in abundance, too, and no doubt culturally ingrained from birth and ever-present in their upbringing.

    Whatever one’s present-day sporting affinities and bias — and irrespective of whether these have been shaped by birth, or by Life circumstance, or simply by a blind following stoked by spontaneous fanaticism (a loyalty that, for the most part, is as fickle as it is fleeting, as one suspects is true of many English sports fans) — one must admire the precocious talent of young Sam … and Tom, Dick, and Harry as well, and no doubt many others of their generation, but I cannot personally vouch for young Ben at this stage — is he, perchance, lurking beneath Big Ben?

    You have done us proud, young Currans, as indeed you have brought immense pride to the many in your adopted homeland! No doubt, a good number of your admirers — fans? — labour under the mistaken belief that you, Sam and your siblings, are “home-grown” products of England and therefore entitled to revel alongside you in your newfound celebrity status and to be accorded the tag of “kith and kin” — “one of us”! Let us not deny them that pleasure — nor, indeed, begrudge Sam and Tom (or, for that matter, Gary Balance) their time of success and celebration — long may they endure. As much as we might look on with a hint of nostalgia, a tinge or more of regret and the realisation that this success has been achieved far, far away from the place that they once called “home”, let us accord them and the rest of the English cricket fraternity the credit that is rightfully theirs. It is, after all, thoroughly deserved, no matter how and by whom achieved.

    How proud, too, would Sam, Tom and Ben’s father, Kevin, and grandfather, Kevin (Senior), have been had they been alive today — they are, one trusts, also smiling from afar … and far above the land of their birth — the pitches and playing fields of Rhodesia of yesteryear — that they, too, once graced with such distinction. May Your Dear Souls Rest in Peace.

    1. Ballance — always with two “l’s”, as in one “Hell” of a fine family of sportsmen (and women!). My apologies for being overly-dependent on Spellcheck in my previous posting!

      As the standard-bearer of the Ballance clan and brand ambassador for New Balance(with one “l”!), young Gary Ballance — current Yorkshire and former England player — epitomises the sporting prowess of his Rhodesian heritage. I was especially privileged to have known three generations of the Ballances’ and have many happy childhood memories of times spent with some of them — on and off the sports field.

      Oh, to reminisce over days of Yore … when one could truly celebrate a Life in “Ballance”?

  6. Great story. So sad and yet so inspiring. If it was not for liberals the Currans would be representing Rhodesia. Thanks for great articles.

  7. Haines so well written I have given a short summary of his 2 years at St Georges and his achievements to some journalists and said England’s gain Zims loss ! Regards Mini Mac.

    1. Thanks Mini. We would have been at the Police Grounds watching him!!

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