Dave Houghton © Getty Images
Dave Houghton © Getty Images

Dave Houghton, born June 23, 1957, was one of the best batsmen to emerge from the landlocked nation in Africa and the man who led the minnows in their first Test in 1992. The Bulawayo-born was also Zimbabwe’s best batsman till Andy Flower came along. Prakash Govindasreenivasan revisits the career of Zimbabwe’s first Test captain.

A young Dave Houghton attended the same school as former Zimbabwe skipper and coach Duncan Fletcher but cricket was not his first choice. Growing up in a country with a severe financial turmoil, the Bulawayo-born Houghton joined the police force to make enough money to feed his family.

He said, in an interview to BBC, “Sport was very important in Zimbabwe at that time and it was compulsory to play two sports a term. Ball sports came naturally to me — tennis, squash, hockey and cricket. In the end it came down to feeding my family. After school I joined the police.”

However, a change in governing policies meant he would have no future in the police force and he turned his attention to the gentleman’s game.

“I left the police and turned to the one thing I knew I could definitely make money from — which was cricket.”
That’s where began, his journey in which he went on to become one of the best cricketers to emerge from the country.

Dave Houghton – The goalkeeper

Houghton was nation’s hockey goalkeeper for several years. Kallimullah, the Pakistan hockey captain during Houghton’s playing days eulogised the Zimbabwean goalkeeper saying that he regarded Dave as the greatest goalkeeper he had ever played against.

As a boy he enjoyed being involved in the action all the time, and he continued to play behind the stumps until his early thirties when. A painful hand condition, caused by the constant battering of the ball, was also a major factor for Houghton giving up the wicketkeeping job.

Zimbabwe’s first Test match

A year after neighbours South Africa made their return to Test cricket after ICC-imposed ban in 1976; Zimbabwe experienced their first tryst with the game’s longest and the most respected format of the game in 1992.

Houghton, who had made his ODI debut way back in 1983, led the minnows in their inaugural Test against India in Harare. It was also the same match where a young Andy Flower made his debut.  Flower, who was Houghton’s under-study and the successor as wicketkeeper and captain of the side joined his skipper and shared a 165-run partnership for the fifth wicket to prove that Test status was rightfully awarded to them. Houghton was the chief architect of that partnership as well the Zimbabwean innings as he went on to make 121 and become the only man to score a century on Test debut while leading the side.

That effort helped Zimbabwe gain a 149-run lead in the first innings and eventually a draw against a strong Indian side led by Mohammad Azharuddin, giving Zimbabwe a decent start to their life in Test cricket.

Long before leading his side in the first ever Test, Houghton was one of the 11 players who made their ODI debut in the 1983 Prudential World Cup against Australia at Trent Bridge. It was not an ideal start, considering he failed to trouble the scorers when Graham Yallop got him caught behind by Rod Marsh for a golden duck. However, Zimbabwe went on to pull off a 13-run victory, their only win of the tournament. Houghton managed two fifties in the six innings he played during the tournament.

Houghton’s grand return

In the 1987 World Cup, on the flat wicket at Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad, Houghton played the best knock of his career and came agonizingly close to deny Martin Crowe a victory despite the latter’s efforts with the bat. Chasing 243, Houghton walked in with Zimbabwe reeling at 10 for 2 and staring at a big-margin defeat. He and Andy Pycroft began the rescue act, adding 51 runs for the third wicket.

However, the Kiwi bowlers dug in and a flurry of wickets followed. Houghton watched helplessly from the other end, as batsmen came and went in a jiffy. At 104 for 7, nobody would have even given Zimbabwe a chance to push the inevitable.

Houghton, however, kept his focus and his opposition on their toes. He went about his scoring and made 142 off just 137 deliveries to give New Zealand a run for their money. He found an able partner in No. 9 batsman Iain Butchart.

Butchart kept the pressure on the opposition till the end with his 70-ball knock of 54. In the dying moments of the game, when Zimbabwe seemed like they were heading for a historic win, Butchart was run out, to leave Zimbabwe just three runs short of New Zealand’s total.

Houghton’s innings, which had 13 fours and 6 sixes, was one of the best knocks in ODI cricket which came in a losing cause. This was the highest score by a batsman from an associate nation against a Test playing country.

Despite being a hard-hitting batsman, Dave Houghton had the ability to show great resilience © Getty Images
Despite being a hard-hitting batsman, Dave Houghton had the ability to show great resilience © Getty Images

1989: The greatest ever?

Houghton’s greatest season came in 1989-90, when he was captain of Zimbabwe. He finally learnt how to build a big innings. With Andy Pycroft having temporarily retired, the Zimbabwe batting was at perhaps its weakest ever.

Thanks to Houghton’s innings of 165 (out of 344 for 9) and 56 not out, Zimbabwe managed to draw the first unofficial Test against another Young West Indian team.

The tourists struck back in the second match, to win by an innings, with Houghton scoring 36 out of 106 and 48 out of 102.

He missed the third unofficial Test, accepting an invitation to play in an exhibition game in Toronto, and Zimbabwe succumbed in his absence to another innings defeat.

Against England A, Houghton scored 108 in the first match followed by 202 in Bulawayo. Centuries against Pakistan B and Australia B enhanced his reputation as country’s finest batsman.

Houghton’s best in flannels

While in ODIs Houghton could play the role of a hard-hitting and aggressive middle-order batsman, he had the ability to show great resilience and play the waiting game with great patience and endurance amidst the rigour of Test cricket. He showcased his ability to play a long knock by occupying the crease for 11 hours to score 266 against Sri Lanka in Bulawayo in 1994– the highest score in Tests by a Zimbabwe batsman. His monumental effort took 90 overs, a little less than half of what the entire team used up in the middle.

1995 Test vs Pakistan

Houghton was part of Zimbabwe’s epic innings victory over Pakistan when the Flower brothers — Andy and Grant — piled on the runs at the Harare Sports Club to post a huge first innings total of 544.

Bowling spearhead Heath Streak complemented their efforts and ran through Pakistan’s batting line-up, finishing with figures of 6 for 90 as Pakistan conceded a first innings lead of 222. Following on, they were bundled out for 158. Zimbabwe thus won their first Test match, securing a victory by an innings and 64 runs. Although Houghton failed with the bat, scoring just 23, he took two catches in the historic match.

Houghton’s coaching prowess

Houghton’s sharp eye for the fine intricacies of the game meant he would stay close to it even after retirement. When he hung up his boots in 1997, he managed English county side Warwickshire.

He then returned to his country to take over as national coach. During his reign, Houghton strived to build a side that can compete in Test cricket and often spoke of his dreams of watching Zimbabwe play in Tests again after their Test status was stripped following string of lacklustre performances.

As coach, he brought interesting methods into practice, and the national players spoke very highly of him; many young Zimbabwe players consider him their mentor. Worcestershire were also very sad to lose him. During Dave’s four years there they won the NatWest Trophy once, in 1994, but his final season was marred by rain which frequently frustrated the team when in a good position in a match.

Houghton’s fundraising walk

On 27 June, 1998, Houghton, the then Zimbabwe National Cricket Coach, finished his fund-raising walk from Bulawayo to Harare in which he raised over  US$40,000 towards the establishment of a new cricket academy in Zimbabwe.

Houghton completed the 400km distance in 22 days and he was joined by many different people through his gruelling journey. A marching band, a number of children, and Zimbabwe cricket and sports administrators accompanied him. Houghton entered the grounds of the Harare Sports Club with sore feet but optimistically said “Now we have to market the product.” He said the walk was aimed to raise cricket awareness in Zimbabwe.

With only two first-class centuries before the age of 30 and denied Test cricket until the age of 35, he had at the time of his retirement the thirteenth-highest average of any current Test batsman.

Houghton’s life after cricket and career summary

In his short career, Houghton showed an uncanny ability to play both spin and pace with equal ease that helped him become one of the greatest batsmen to emerge from Zimbabwe.

He holds the unique feat of not getting out for a duck in his 22-match Test career. He may have been dismissed off the first ball he faced in ODI cricket, but he has made up well for it in Tests by scoring most runs (1,464) in a career without a duck at an average of 43.05.

He took just 24 innings to reach 1,000 Test runs – fastest by a Zimbabwean cricketer. In ODIs, his numbers aren’t as flattering as he would have liked them to be. He has 1,530 runs in 63 matches at an average 26.37. Houghton also kept wickets until Andy Flower came along and took his spot behind the stumps.

After a successful stint as head of cricket of Derbyshire between 2003 and 2007, Houghton rejoined the county side as their batting coach in 2011 and helped them to a title in the Division Two Country Championship.

(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is a reporter with CricketCountry. His twitter handle is @PrakashG_89)