Meet the cricket captain of…eeh…Belgium!

HARARE - If you were to introduce Aussie rules football or trampoline in Zimbabwe, you will almost certainly find a good number of local folk trying a hand.

I mean, didn’t we recently have someone at the Winter Olympics, when snow (albeit just a smidgen of it) was last seen in the country more than 50 years ago!

In most countries, if it’s not their thing, they will simply not be interested a little bit.

This is what former Zimbabwe Test bowler Brighton Watambwa found out when he arrived in Belgium five years ago from the United States.   

Harare-born Watambwa, who showed great promise when he played six Test matches for his native Zimbabwe in 2001-02 as a fast bowler, is now the national team captain of cricket novices Belgium, who currently play in division three of the European Cricket Championship.

None of the players in the current national team is Belgian, although a few are locally-born children of expatriates.

Such names as Mahesh Krishnamoorthy, Waqas Shafiq and Sheraz Sheikh Muhammad dominate the team list. 

“Very few Belgians actually play, simply expats from the UK, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh,” Watambwa, who lives in the capital Brussels, tells the Daily News.

“We do have a growing children's development programme targeted towards getting more Belgian nationals to play. The level here is obviously not as you'd expect in the Test-playing countries but is not too bad at all.  Though amateur, there are some very good players.”

Now 36, the short-lived Zimbabwe speed merchant now plays cricket as a hobby, 12 years after quitting international cricket following a contractual dispute with Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC).

He settled in the US in 2002, enrolling at the University of Miami for a degree which is in line with his fulltime job with Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices & Diagnostics in the Belgian capital.

“I moved here for a Belgian girl with whom we have a daughter, but we are not together anymore,” he says.

“Our daughter is just under five and her name is Thandi-Morgane Watambwa.”

Once settled in Belgium, Watambwa joined the Royal Brussels Cricket Club, the best local club side in the country.

“So far we are working on growing interest in the Belgians for cricket,” he says.  “It's not a very well-known sport here and we just do what we can. We don't have a provincial system but we have three leagues which host the 19 cricket clubs we have in Belgium.”

Belgium are scheduled to play in an ICC European tournament next month.

Watambwa is the only squad member who has played the game at the highest level.

Brighton Tonderai Watambwa had a privileged background growing up in Harare, attending Lilfordia Primary School, where he learnt his cricket under the guidance of headmaster Iain Campbell, father of former Zimbabwe captain Alistair.

He blossomed as a cricketer at Falcon College in Matabeleland, later returning to Harare to finish off his high school at St John’s College.

Having starred for provincial age-group teams and later Harare Sports Club and Zimbabwe A, Watambwa would make his Test debut against Bangladesh at home in 2001, impressing with his raw pace in a Zimbabwe pace attack that also included Heath Streak, Andy Blignaut and Mluleki Nkala.

He would only last five more Test matches before going to America after the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union refused to offer him an improved contract.

The dispute between Watambwa and the board was only an early instalment of more running battles between the association and players, clashes which have stalked the game to this day, with a player strike over outstanding payments recently threatening to prevent Zimbabwe’s participation at the ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh.

“I don't necessarily blame the players, the system was rotten 12 years ago and the real issues were never fixed,” Watambwa says.

“I cannot help but follow Zim cricket. I know one or two of the players but to be honest it's really very disappointing. And like I said, guys are not to blame.”

Now approaching the age of 37, Watambwa is now very much part and parcel of Belgian culture. On the cricket side, he bats up the order these days, and regularly score crucial runs for his club as an opening batsman.

Reminded about his awkwardness while batting at number 11 for Zimbabwe back in the days, he says:

“Yeah, I am batting higher up the order for the most part. As you so elegantly put, I was a bit of a slouch when batting for Zim but mainly because I was really much more focused on my bowling and fielding. At school I was an all-rounder and now again in my older age I've rediscovered my love of batting and actually have worked on it quite a bit.

The pace is still there if I reach for it, but honestly I don't spend enough time trying to bowl too fast as I know I would break down. It makes me angry though as I know I can still generate enough pace to do some damage.”

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