Guy Whittall, born on September 5, 1972, is a former Zimbabwe all-rounder. He was an attacking batsman, but toned down his aggression in the longer format and had the ability to play big innings. His medium pace was handy, especially in the limited overs format. Sarang Bhalerao revisits the career of Whittall which was curtailed by frequent injuries.
At 31, Guy Whittall had had enough. That’s the age to enjoy the game and use all the experience gained over the years in the development of country’s cricket. Zimbabwe was muddled with politics and President Robert Mugabe’s regime kick-started the decline in the country’s cricket progress. However, the frequent injuries — knee, calf or hamstring — deterred Whittall’s spirits. He no longer had the hunger to play for the country fighting the injuries.
When you talk of Whittall, he was always a workhorse. At times he played amazing shots and built his innings methodically. On most other occasions he would throw away his wicket making his batting look laboured.
He was part of golden era of Zimbabwean cricket which did largely well in the limited overs format. Whittall was an integral part of Zimbabwe’s One-Day International (ODI) setup. His aggressive batting suited the format while his medium pace was handy.
Whittall attended Ruzawi School and got his first formal cricket coaching at seven. He scored his first century in the intra-school game. At eight he scored another century against country’s best school — St. John’s. In an interview to John Ward, Whittall thanked his school coach Ben Curtis for encouraging him in his early part of the career.
Young Whittall would often travel to Harare to catch a glimpse of the national cricketers. He idolised the big-hitting Peter Rawson and Ian Butchart. It is therefore no surprise that, one day, Whittall himself became one of the great stroke-makers of the country.
Whittall attended Falcon College where he got the opportunity to lead the team at the end of his first year. He scored truckloads of runs and with future Zimbabwe cricketers around, the team was a force to reckon with. He also played rugby and hockey for his college, but excelled in cricket where he was making a name for himself courtesy of his big scores.
At 16, Whittall made it to the Zimbabwe schools side and toured New Zealand and England. In a Logan Cup game, he rose into prominence scoring a ton against the Harare central team. Scoring a century was akin to a walk in the park for Whittall. But at one point in time he was consistently getting dismissed in the twenties and thirties. He worked on his concentration as per his father’s advice and got rid of the habit of playing a loose shot when he was set. That stood him in good stead at the international level as he looked at ease once totally set.
At 18, Whittall made his First-Class debut against Worcestershire as an opener. He made reasonable impression and won the place in the team that toured in England in 1993. Although he failed to notch up big scores, Whittall made the cut for the Pakistan tour that year.
Till that point Whittall was considered a pure batsman, but had the ability to bowl natural outswingers which impressed coach John Hampshire. He got Basit Ali’s wicket on his debut caught down the leg-side, failing to control the flick. Whittall scored 33 and two batting at No 6. In the subsequent matches, he scored 29, zero and two.
He got to his first Test half-century in the sixth match against Sri Lanka. Whittall’s unbeaten 61 was a patient knock where he batted with composure and put a premium price on his wicket.
Zimbabwe’s first Test win
Whittall played a pivotal role in Zimbabwe’s first Test win ever against Pakistan in Harare. Zimbabwe were reeling at 42 for three on the first morning and Whittall was slated to bat at No 6. The wait just got agonising as the Flower brothers kept the Pakistani attack at bay. The duo put on 269 runs for the fourth wicket before Andy fell on the second morning.
Whittall was the benefactor of some sloppy fielding from Pakistan. After he was put down twice, Whittall took the attack to the cleaners as Zimbabwe marched towards a mammoth first innings total. At 98, he was dropped by Aamer Sohail in the slips; that was a nervy moment for Whittall. Two balls later he reached the three-figure mark for the first time in his career by pulling the ball towards mid-wicket. Zimbabwe declared their innings at 544 for four.
Whitall dismissed Saleem Malik and Rashid Latif in the first essay, as Pakistan were made to follow-on. He got rid of Saeed Anwar in the second innings for seven which kick-started the Pakistani collapse. He dismissed top-scorer Inzamam-ul-Haq and Latif to complete a match haul of five wickets.
The struggles and the maiden double ton
In the 12 Test matches after Zimbabwe’s famous win over Pakistan, Whittall scored only two half-centuries. His batting lacked the usual flair and it became a laboured affair. His place in the team was questioned, but soon Dave Houghton was nearing retirement and the Zimbabwe management decided to promote Whittall at No 4.
In the second Test match of the home series against New Zealand at Bulawayo in 1997, Whittall played a classy knock. He was dropped at five and New Zealand went on to rue that miss. He went on to score his maiden double ton (203 not out) and kept the New Zealand attack clueless for 453 minutes and 359 balls. In the second innings he scored 45 before being run-out in an unfortunate manner when the ball ricocheted off the bowler’s hand and hit the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Nevertheless, those 248 runs in the game gave Zimbabwe a lot of hope as they had unearthed a hungry batsman. Whittall was expected to be the lynchpin of Zimbabwean batting line-up along with the Flower brothers, the talented Alistair Campbell and youngsters like Stuart Carlisle and Murray Goodwin, who came into the side after Houghton’s retirement.
Injuries hampered his career albeit briefly. He suffered a knee injury mainly due to wear and tear. The problem aggravated as Whittall played more and more. In September 1998 he had his knee operated upon which took him a while to recover from. In the brief hiatus, Zimbabwe secured a famous win over India.
Upon his return, Whittall’s batting number was uncertain. At times he batted at No 9, below Heath Streak. In 1999, at Bloemfontein, he batted at No 8 against South Africa and top-scored with 85 in the first innings as Zimbabwe folded for a mere 192. South Africa scored an imposing 417, even as Whittall got Jacques Kallis and Daryll Cullinan. In the second essay Zimbabwe managed to score 212. Whittall top-scored again scoring 51 as Zimbabwe lost the game comprehensively by an innings and 13 runs. On being asked about his lean patch and his reaction batting at eight, Whittall told ESPNCricinfo: “I didn’t actually think I had done enough to get into the side at all. Fortunately I got another chance, and I just went out there with a different approach. I made sure of getting right across my stumps, forcing myself to get on the front foot, pointing it straight down the pitch instead of towards extra cover — just a small technical point, but I was trying to get my head coming towards the ball, getting in line. It was quite a good pitch to try and do that, because there wasn’t much sideways movement.”
His third ton came against New Zealand at Harare in 2000, when he hit an unbeaten 188 after Zimbabwe followed on. New Zealand scored 465 and dismissed Zimbabwe for 166. Following on they were reeling at 48 for four. Whittall took the onus of resurrection upon himself and batted for 503 minutes. He was determined not to give away his wicket. The 429-ball compendium comprised 27 boundaries and two sixes. He ran out of partners and Zimbabwe set New Zealand a modest target of 72. The home team lost the game by eight wickets but Whittall’s solo-act stood out.
Whittall’s fourth and the last century of his Test career came against Bangladesh in Bulawayo in 2001 as an opener. After Bangladesh were bowled out for 257, Zimbabwe lost three early wickets but Whittall had got his eye in. He scored 119 and gave a solid platform to the home side. Zimbabwe got a decisive lead of 200 runs and the visitors collapsed to 168 in the second innings thus losing the game by an innings and 32 runs.
Whittall the ODI player
In ODIs, Whittall was a utility player. He was in the team primarily as an aggressive batsman but his medium pacers were also handy.
He scored 2,705 runs in 147 ODIs at an average of 22.54 with 11 half-centuries. Consistency was not his ally. He often got out in the twenties and thirties — a problem he suffered from his childhood. Between two half-centuries, there were strings of poor scores.
He started his career with 36 and 33 against Sri Lanka and India respectively in the Hero Cup in 1993. Soon the bug of mediocrity bit him and he didn’t have any big scores.
His 79 off 80 against Bangaldesh in Nairobi in 1997, 83 on the next day against Kenya and 52 against Bangladesh the following game showed his promise. But he needed to translate his potential into performances against the major teams.
In 1997, when Zimbabwe played New Zealand at the Harare Sports Club, there came a moment that was a first in cricket history. Three set of brothers played for Zimbabwe: The Flowers (Andy and Grant), the Rennies (Gavin and John) and the Strangs (Paul and Brian). It could also have been Whittalls — Guy and his cousin Andy. Andy was the 12th man for the game.
There were sparks of brilliance in 1998 — 52 against Sri Lanka at Colombo, 50 against New Zealand at Christchurch and 53 not out off 42 balls against Pakistan in Harare. The high point in his ODI career was the 1999 World Cup in England where Whittall’s all-round abilities was one of the reasons Zimbabwe progressed to the Super Six stage of the competition. He scored 104 runs and took seven wickets as Zimbabwe upset India and South Africa. In 2000 he hit 83 off 111 deliveries against West Indies in Canterbury which helped Zimbabwe win the game by 70 runs.
Whittall’s final ODI appearance for Zimbabwe was the 2003 Cricket World Cup. He scored a mere 59 runs in the tournament and picked up four wickets.
Retirement and afterlife
In March 2003, Whittall announced his retirement from all formats of the game. In his press conference, he said he was privileged to be part of Zimbabwean cricket for over a decade.
Talking about injuries and plans after retirement, he said: “I’m riddled with injuries at the moment. Every time I walk on the park I seem to get something else: if it’s not a calf, it’s a hamstring; if it’s not that it’s my leg. My knee has obviously been a big part of it for three years. I was up and down all the time, and that’s the major factor in my retirement.
There are other major factors. I’m quite tired of going on long tours away from my family now and I’ve been away quite a lot. There’s also a family hunting business and I want to try to expand the business within the region. I’m off to Tanzania in May to have a look around there; we’ve extended into Mozambique and I also want to get into Zambia and Tanzania. We’ve got a good base in Zimbabwe, with about 25 or 30 years in clients, so we can afford to expand.”
Whittall played 46 Tests and scored 2,207 runs at an average of 29.42. He got 51 Test wickets as well. In 147 ODIs, he averaged a modest 22.54 and got 88 wickets. He was also part of three World Cups and has seen Zimbabwe cricket reach amazing heights and a few lows. Currently, Whittall is busy managing his family’s game-ranch business.
(Sarang Bhalerao hails from a family of doctors, but did his engineering. He then dumped a career in IT with Infosys to follow his heart and passion and became a writer with CricketCountry. A voracious reader, Sarang aspires to beat Google with his knowledge of the game! You can follow him on Twitter here)