Tatenda Taibu packed guts and grit in his short frame © Getty Images
Tatenda Taibu packed guts and grit in his short frame © Getty Images

Tatenda Taibu, born May 14, 1983, was Zimbabwe’s first black captain and the youngest in the history of the game. His 11-year-long career was nothing short of a melodramatic script with a lot of twists and turns. Prakash Govindasreenivasan has more.

When one looks back at Tatenda Taibu’s tumultuous career, it’s hard not to consider him unfortunate for being a part of such a volatile system in Zimbabwe. In the wake of political turmoil under president Robert Mugabe, Taibu was thrown into the fray too early and had too much on his plate in the nascent stages of his career. A 17-year-old Taibu was handed an ODI debut even before he played a single First-Class match.

With a slight frame and sound technique, Taibu was your traditional wicketkeeper-batsman with a penchant for good cricketing strokes. Some of Taibu’s best efforts in ODIs came in lost causes. In 150 ODIs, Taibu scored just two centuries — both against South Africa. On both occasions, he came agonisingly close to inspiring his side to an unexpected victory. The first one came in 2007 at Harare. Zimbabwe would have lost hopes at the halfway stage after a blazing century from AB de Villiers helped the visitors post 323 on the board. However, a 103-ball knock of 107 from Taibu took Zimbabwe as close as 28 runs to the target.

Following his 109-run stand with Brendon Taylor for the third wicket, he ran out of partners to give him the support to push for a win. Zimbabwe lost by 23 runs, but Taibu’s valiant knock enthralled the crowd at Harare.

Two years later, he pulled off a similar stunt at the Willowmoore Park, Benoni.  This time he was unbeaten on 103 as Zimbabwe fell short of South Africa’s 295 by 45 runs.  His knock was laced with 6 fours and 3 sixes and kept the Proteas on their toes. A 188-run stand with Stuart Matsikenyeri for the sixth wicket almost took them through with an upset over South Africa but his dismissal in the 48th over meant the home side would sneak home.

In 2011, Taibu finally got an opportunity to play a match-winning knock when Zimbabwe thrashed Canada in ICC World Cup 2011. Playing at Nagpur, Taibu slammed 98 off 99 deliveries to help his side post 298. He came back to effect two stumpings in his side’s 175-run victory.

The highest point in Taibu’s career came when he played in white flannels. Playing against Bangladesh at Dhaka in 2005, Taibu’s brilliant effort in both the innings helped the visitors eke out a draw. Taibu displayed the resilience of a monk when he lasted for just under five hours for his first innings knock of 85 as Zimbabwe posted 298. After taking an 87-run lead in the first innings, Zimbabwe’s batting was on the verge of imploding as Mashrafe Mortaza ran riot on the top-order. He walked out at 37 for 4 and went onto score 153, an effort that kept him at the crease for close to six hours. It also ensured Zimbabwe would go on to draw the game on the final day.

While there was no doubt regarding his ability on either side of the wicket, it was unfortunate how different events had an impact on his 11-year-long international career.

Taibu hardly got time to settle down in his career. He was only 18 when he made his ODI debut against the West Indies in 2001, batting at No. 10. A month later, he was summoned to make his Test debut against the same opponents, this time promoted to bat at number three. He was just 20 when he was a helpless spectator to political interference into the game.

Controversy and Captaincy

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s regime saw the worst for cricket in that country. Political interference in various processes was being alleged since 2001 with suggestions that Mugabe was trying to impose a quota system to ensure a minimum number of black players in the side. Government’s funding into the game was also starting to reduce and the crisis reached its tipping point during the 2003 World Cup. England refused to travel to Zimbabwe for their group stage matches owing to the political tumult.

A year later in 2004, all hell broke loose. Heath Streak, who had confronted the board with a number of issues were sacked. Following the sacking, there were a few players who even received death threats to not side with the ousted captain. Taibu was named the skipper of the side, thus becoming the youngest captain in the history of the game.

In 2005, he saw the worst. He led a depleted side to the tour of South Africa where they were badly battered and bruised.  So much that, Wisden 2006 labeled the tour as ‘gruesome’ and ‘embarrassing to all who saw it.’ In a press conference in November, he and some of his teammates had voiced their concern about the poor state of affairs in Zimbabwe cricket and lambasted the board to improve or face the wrath of a player strike. Following this, Taibu and his wife received death threats from an unknown individual who apparently had close ties with the Board and Mugabe’s political party. This prompted Taibu to take a hard decision and announce his retirement from international cricket.”I am doing this, 80% because of the current situation in Zimbabwe Cricket and 20% because I do not like the terms of my offered contract,” he said.

TatendaTaibu pulls in the second ODI against South Africa at Sahara Stadium, Kingsmead on February 27, 2005 in Durban © Getty Images
TatendaTaibu pulls in the second ODI against South Africa at Sahara Stadium, Kingsmead on February 27, 2005 in Durban © Getty Images

After a two-year exile, during which he tried to ply his trade in South Africa, Taibu decided to overturn his retirement and returned to Zimbabwe’s national side. However, even this return did not mark the end of drama in his topsy-turvy career. In 2008, he chose to miss international duty to play for Kolkata Knight Riders in the inaugural season of IPL. He then had to serve a 10-match ban in 2009 after the board found him guilty of a public row with the General Manager (Finance) of Zimbabwe Cricket.

In 2011, when sun was shining bright on Zimbabwe cricket as they were on the verge of featuring in the longest form of the game after a six-year exile, Taibu came out and blasted the board for not doing enough for the side. He was only 29 when he decided to quit the game for one last time in order to work for the church. “I just feel that my true calling now lies in doing the Lord’s work,” Taibu said, “and although I am fortunate and proud to have played for my country, the time has come for me to put my entire focus on that part of my life,” he said as he brought an end to an eventful journey as a Zimbabwe cricketer.

Tatenda Taibu in action during the first day of the first npower Test match between England and Zimbabwe on May 22, 2003 at Lord's © Getty Images
Tatenda Taibu in action during the first day of the first npower Test match between England and Zimbabwe on May 22, 2003 at Lord’s © Getty Images

Despite a career marred with controversies and premature vesting of responsibilities, Taibu showed great promise. He managed 1546 runs in 28 Tests and was Zimbabwe’s fourth-highest run scorer in ODIs, with 3393 runs in 150 matches. He is also only behind Andy Flower, in the number of dismissals as a wicketkeeper. Taibu’s rise in international cricket was prodigious but his career graph didn’t quite reflect that due to the incompetence of the board in troubled times.

(Prakash Govindasreenivasan is an Editorial consultant at CricketCountry and a sports fanatic, with a soft corner for cricket. After studying journalism for two years, came the first big high in his professional life – the opportunity to interview his hero Adam Gilchrist and talking about his magnificent 149 in the 2007 World Cup final. While not following cricket, he is busy rooting for Chelsea FC)