Mpumelelo Mbangwa, born June 26, 1976, was part of Zimbabwean cricket’s golden era from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Shrikant Shankar looks at the relatively short career of the man called as ‘Pommie’ and his transition to become a well-known commentator.
Zimbabwe, as a cricket nation, were always there or thereabouts in terms of competing with the top teams. From starting their World Cup 1983 campaign with a promising win against Australia to almost winning against India a few days later, to beating the then world champions Australia in the 2007 World T20, Zimbabwe have had their moments in world cricket. Key to those have been some of their players. Not a country that produced players of international quality on a regular basis like their more illustrious neighbours South Africa, Zimbabwe have had their fair share of quality players.
From the likes of Heath Streak, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Paul Strang, Henry Olonga, Guy Whittall, Andy Blignaut, Tatenda Taibu, Dave Houghton, Neil Johnson, Douglas Marillier and many more — Zimbabwe have had a lot of good players to have played the game. There have been many more who have had a lot of promise, but withered by the way side in international cricket. Mpumelelo ‘Pommie’ Mbangwa is one of them.
Mbangwa, born in Plumtree, Matabeleland, was a right-arm seamer during his playing days, who relied more on swing and seam than pace. His start to cricket is rather interesting as he did not have any family background in the game. He played in the local sides in the junior levels. His chance to prove his potential came in 1994 when English school team Dean Close from Cheltenham toured Zimbabwe. At the time he was playing for the Matabeleland Schools team. Mbangwa did well against them and they offered him a chance to play for their school after being impressed.
He spent an entire season with them. In 1996, he went to the Madras to be coached by Australian great Denis Lillee. Then in October of that year, aged 20, he was selected in the Zimbabwe squad for the tour of Pakistan. His debut came in the second Test in Faisalabad on October 24. Zimbabwe lost the match by 10 wickets, but Mbangwa did well as picked up the wickets of Ijaz Ahmed and Wasim Akram in the first innings.
Mbangwa’s career then had a steady progress. He played eight Tests for his country in 1998. This included his purple patch. In March 1998, Pakistan toured Zimbabwe. In the second Test, he took three wickets in the first innings. But eventually Pakistan won the match and the two-match series 1-0. Then in November that year, India played a one-off Test in Harare. Mbangwa took the wicket of Rahul Dravid, who had scored 118, in the first innings. He then did the unthinkable and took ‘The Wall’s wicket yet again in the second innings and then took the wicket of Ajit Agarkar as India lost the match by 61 runs. This was Zimbabwe’s second victory in Test matches.
His most important contribution as a player came one month later when Zimbabwe toured Pakistan. Mbangwa seemed to like playing against Pakistan. In the first innings of the first Test, he picked up the prized wickets of Aamer Sohail, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Ijaz Ahmed. In the second innings, he took three wickets yet again. This time the batsmen were Moin Khan, Mohammad Yousuf (then Yousuf Youhana) and Wasim Akram. His figures of three for 23 turned out to be his best ever in an innings. His match figures read six for 63, again without any doubt his best ever. This not only helped Zimbabwe win a historic match by a comfortable margin of seven wickets, but also win the series 1-0 as the other two matches produced no results.
He was part of the Zimbabwe squad that qualified for the super six stages of the 1999 World Cup, knocking out hosts England in the process. He played in Zimbabwe’s last match in the tournament against Pakistan at The Oval. It was a must-win match for them to qualify for the semi-finals. But a Saqlain Mushtaq hat-trick, off which Mbangwa was the last wicket, denied them any faltering chance of making it.
His One-Day International (ODI) career failed to take off as he only managed 11 wickets from 29 matches with a best of two for 24 at an average of 103.63. Batting-wise he was the perennial 11th man. His highest score in ODI’s was 11 and this was his only double-digit score in international cricket. His highest score in Tests was eight.
In all he played 15 Test matches and took 32 wickets at an average of 31.43, something that is not bad especially when one considers the team he played for and also being in and out of the side throughout. His last outing for Zimbabwe came in the ICC Champions Trophy 2002 in Sri Lanka. He played his last international match against England in Colombo in the group stages. England won by 108 runs. So, he was 26 years of age when he played his last international match. Quite early for any sportsman, let alone a cricketer. He has a unique distinction in international cricket. He has exactly scored 34 runs overall in both ODIs and Tests!
As there seemed no opportunity to get back to playing, Mbangwa then tried his hand at coaching. But that too was short-lived as he made the transition to become a cricket commentator. His commentary skills were appreciated and Mbangwa got more opportunities. He usually traveled with the South African team on their tours. He has been part of ICC events like the World Cup, World T20 and Champions Trophy. He also is a regular during the Indian Premier League.
He has also taken part in various awareness campaigns. He joined North Star Alliance as an ambassador, using cricket as a tool to raise awareness on Aids and HIV in Southern Africa.
And of the nickname — Pommie — he said that former Zimbabwe player Gavin Rennie was the one who dubbed him during their junior levels as everyone had trouble saying his first name. Well whatever the reasons, the world now knows him as ‘Pommie’. Still just 37 years of age, Mbangwa has many more years left in the commentary box and many more tournaments to be part of.
(Shrikant Shankar previously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)