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.
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?”