Andy Flower looked forward to his return to Zimbabwe, though even he admits he was a little unsure how he would view the state of cricket in the country.
Few opportunities have presented for Flower to visit, though somewhat serendipitously, the man with over 10,000 runs for Zimbabwe had the chance to look over pastures much greener, returning to commentate for the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup Qualifier.
With crowds heaving and a world-class standard of cricket on display, the game has reached a level of love few had ever seen before in Zimbabwe, let alone anywhere else. Children learning the game from their mothers and fathers, songs and dance throughout the day.
Andy need not have worried.
“Before I arrived in Zimbabwe, I would have had a lukewarm response to a question about the future of Zimbabwean cricket,” Flower said having looked in from the outside.
“Now that I'm just about to leave, I feel much more positive.”
The Cricket World Cup Qualifier provided a vibrant backdrop, as sold-out crowds led to an overflow of people turned away at the gate, watching on through makeshift live sites put on by organisers next door.
“They threw love out towards everyone in the ground, even the little bit of barracking with the opposition was done in good spirit, and that I think I'll remember for years,” Flower gushed having watched on across both cities.
“The energy in the crowd. The love for the game, the feeling of support and love for the players while they were playing and while the crowd was singing and dancing and loving their day, but also taking note of every single ball.
“It was really interesting for me to see the change in the demographic in the crowd.
“When we were playing, it was mostly a white crowd, and the change that I've seen after being away for so long is such a great change for the country of Zimbabwe.”
The fans’ energy was felt across all four grounds, one of which held its first international matches, passing every test with flying colours.
The Takashinga Cricket Club in the Highfield suburb of Harare welcomed West Indies and the USA on the opening day of the tournament, fittingly 20 years after it was opened by West Indies legend Brian Lara, on his team’s tour of the country in late 2003.
Takashinga has Flower and his family partly to thank for its vibrance, with seeds planted literally and figuratively in the 1990s. Flower’s father Bill provided a haven for the game for a generation of young cricketers who may never have seen an opportunity to play otherwise, and Andy made what was a bold move, turning out for the Takashinga team, at that stage an unknown outfit to provide his expertise.
The club’s players grew and prepared the turf wicket and outfield, and maintained its amenities. Dozens of Takashinga alumni have since represented the country, from Hamilton Masakadza (now Zimbabwe’s Director of Cricket), to Elton Chigumbura, Tatenda Taibu and Vusi Sibanda. Of the 2023 team, no less than five players have roots to the club.
Three decades on Flower was able to see Takashinga again for himself.
“It was great seeing Takashinga as an international venue," Flower added.
“When my father was involved in the initiating of the building of that ground, to see it now being an international venue, is a really special moment.
“I'll take some of those photos back for my father to see. I know that he will be very proud to see them.”
On the field, the Zimbabwe national team continues to move in an upward arc in spite of failing to qualify for the Cricket World Cup later in the year.
Making the Super 12 phase and beating the likes of Pakistan on their run at the T20 World Cup last year, the side also turned over Australia and a number of strong sides in the Cricket World Cup Super League cycle. They made a strong start to their home Cricket World Cup Qualifier campaign, only to fall to Sri Lanka and in heart-breaking fashion to Scotland to miss out on India 2023 dreams.
Looking at their dramatic win over the West Indies among other results, Flower feels the team play a brand of cricket he has rarely seen from a Zimbabwe unit, off the back of a packed international schedule.
“One thing that stands out for me is the confidence with which Zimbabwe are playing their cricket, and I think partly that comes from exposure to international matches, to international tournaments and series," he said.
“I see a certainly strong spirit in them. They've got some experienced players, they've got a few youngsters and it'll be an interesting transition when they move on from some of their experienced players in the next few years.
“But I do see a fighting spirit. You see that in the way that they field. I think a great example of that spirit would have been in the game against the West Indies when Zimbabwe had posted, I think 267 (268) and on a very flat deck, and the West Indies were in line to chase that down in the afternoon at Harare Sports Club.
“But the way that the Zimbabweans went about defending that total in the field, both of their bowling and their fielding, indicated a certain spirit and a determination that they weren't going to allow West Indies to get over the line.”
That spirit was certainly buoyed by the support, which all-rounder Sikandar Raza called the 11th man. “I think they made it onto the park with us in their spirits to field with us. They lifted us,” Raza acknowledged in their victory over the West Indies.
Flower continued: “The feelings that you get when you play in front of a noisy crowd, they are feelings to be cherished and they are special moments.
“Not everyone's privileged enough to be in the stadium and certainly not privileged enough to be on the field.”
As for the future, Flower feels the game is in good hands. The 55-year-old looks to his former student and former international batter Stuart Matsikinyeri, now passing on the expertise to the national playing group.
“There are guys here that I coached when they were tiny little boys. In fact, Stuart Matsikenyeri for instance, he's now the batting coach for Zimbabwe. I used to coach him when he was about two-and-a half-feet-tall," Flower said.
“It's been a wonderful feeling for me personally. I've been really proud watching the Zimbabwean team operate as well and amazed by the crowd reactions and the crowd atmosphere.
“It bodes really well for Zimbabwe's cricketing future that there's so much passion and excitement around the Zimbabwe team. That's been really special to experience.”