Alistair Campbell, born on September 23, 1972, was one player who played a crucial role in shaping Zimbabwe into a good unit in the 1990s after they were awarded Test status. As a captain, he led them to a few memorable victories and with the bat, he was a delight to watch. That he couldn’t live up to his full potential is a mystery. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at Campbell’s career.
In the 1990s, Zimbabwe had blossomed into a competitive unit which could take on the world’s best. Alistair Campbell, the southpaw from Harare, was a vital part of that Zimbabwean side and led them in one of their major successes in their cricketing history. In the presence of Andy and Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Guy Whittal to name a few, Campbell set off on a task to shape a good side. Alas, internal politics and controversies derailed those plans and Campbell’s task was left incomplete.
Born on September 23, 1972 to Iain and Letitia, Campbell’s choice of sport was obvious given his father’s passion for the game. Along with his elder brother Donald (who is also a First-Class cricketer), Campbell started playing cricket at a very young age. Initially, he was a right-hander, but his father prevailed over him to change his style. Speaking to Sportstar, Campbell said, “He was the one who turned me and Donald, who were right-handers, into left-handers. His belief was if you were a natural right-hander, then your right hand, the stronger hand, should be at the top of the bat. That was his theory.”
In his early days, Campbell went to a school run by his family — Lilfordia. Campbell isn’t the only cricketer to have emerged from the sporting atmosphere at Lilfordia. As ESPNcricinfo reported, from the current squad, Malcolm Waller and Brendan Taylor are a part of the alumni. Campbell continued to play in that atmosphere and made good progress in the Zimbabwean ranks. In 1990, he was picked to represent Zimbabwe B against Pakistan B. Over the next two years, he continued to be a part of the Zimbabwe setup, representing them against various sides including the touring counties. His maiden First-Class ton came against Glamorgan in April 1991. At the time, he was the youngest man from Zimbabwe to score a First-Class ton.
Campbell was then picked to play for Zimbabwe at the ICC World Cup 1992 and made his debut against West Indies at Brisbane. Batting at number six in the run-chase he could only score a solitary run. It was a tough tournament for the 19-year-old as he could only score 13 runs in four innings. In fact, it took him as many as seven One-Day Internationals (ODIs) to get into double figures. On the Test match front, he didn’t have too many problems initially. He was picked for Zimbabwe’s inaugural Test and scored 45 in his maiden outing, although he got a blob in the second innings.
In his first six Tests, he had five fifties, but it took him 15 ODIs to get his first half-century. Campbell showed his first spark of brilliance when he scored an unbeaten 131 off 115 balls against Sri Lanka in an ODI at Harare in 1994. That innings contained 11 fours and four maximums as Zimbabwe won the game by a mere two runs. A few days before that, he got very close to his maiden Test hundred when he was dismissed for 99 against the same opposition. The wait for that maiden ton continued.
The Flowers were Zimbabwe’s prime batsmen, but Campbell wasn’t too far behind. The talent was obvious as he could crunch the ball to any corner of the field with the typical elegance of a left-hander. But, he did not quite fulfill his potential. Then in 1996, he was appointed as captain of the Zimbabwe team and his first assignment was the tour of Sri Lanka. While his search for a maiden Test ton continued, he did get a few in ODIs such as his knock of 102 against Australia in 1998 and 100 against New Zealand at the Wills International Cup in Dhaka.
The year 1998 was a good year on the leadership front as well. Under Campbell’s captaincy, Zimbabwe won a Test match against India at home and then managed to win their first away series, which was in Pakistan. The win at Peshawar was enough for the tourists as they drew the second Test and the third rubber was abandoned. His most memorable moment as a leader came in 1999 when he led them to the Super Six stage of the World Cup. His personal form may not have been encouraging, but an inspired run in the Group Stages saw the team through. However, in late 1999, he had given up his captaincy.
On the tour of India in 2000, Campbell’s long wait for a Test ton came to an end. In the second Test at Nagpur, Zimbabwe were in a tough spot following on at 61 for three, when he was joined by the in-form Andy Flower in the centre. In tandem, they put up a 209-run partnership to see to it that Zimbabwe drew the match. Campbell was finally dismissed for 102. The expression on his face showed how much it meant to him. The next year, he got another one against West Indies at home, but this time it wasn’t enough to save his side.
In 2001, Campbell made a few remarks about the inclusion of black players and was penalized by the board. Speaking to Daily Telegraph, he said, “The race thing has spilled onto the field, and there hasn’t been the same commitment. The team are being torn apart. If race becomes an issue it makes things unpleasant for everybody. People want to see the best team representing their country.”
He was then kept out of a few tours, only to be called up at the eleventh hour for their Sri Lankan sojourn. He wasn’t able to make the trip and only scripted a return on the tour to India in early 2002. He made a very successful comeback as he scored three back to back fifties in a one-day series where Zimbabwe gave India a scare. In November 2002, he had to captain Zimbabwe against Pakistan as Heath Streak was unavailable. However, he lost his spot for the ICC World Cup 2003, but was called up to play one game when Mark Vermulen was out injured.
That was Campbell’s last international game and he moved away from the sport thereafter. He did get back later when he was called to offer his insights to the Zimbabwe team in the lead up to the ICC World Cup 2007. In 2009, he was appointed a chairman of selectors and picked Zimbabwe’s first team on their return to Test cricket in 2011. A few months after that, he called it quits. Campbell continues to be a television commentator and is seen at many tournaments.
Out of the 248 international matches he played in, Campbell captained Zimbabwe 107 times. With an ODI average of 30.50 and a Test average of 27.21, one feels he could have done a lot better in international cricket. Sometimes it isn’t meant to be!
Alistair Campbell’s career stats