I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
— Philippians 4:13, New Testament.
Chamu Chibhabha wears his belief on his sleeve. Just below his sleeve, actually. Inked on the bicep of his left arm is the name and number of the above verse. And around his neck, always hanging outside the collar, is a silver cross.
The church, he says in his own measured way, has been the source of strength to turn around a stop-start international career in 2015.
“He gives me power and makes me fearless,” Chibhabha says, voice slow and serious. Then he breaks into a smile and adds: “Okay, maybe I’m still a little scared of spinners. I don’t know man, every time they come on to bowl my mind just goes blank.”
Spinners nearly ended his career two years ago. After three rough tours of Bangladesh, Pakistan and West Indies, where Abdur Razzak, Shoaib Malik and Sunil Narine messed with his mind, Chibhabha was dropped from the national side in 2013. He returned just this year, at the World Cup. Two years in the wilderness had given him enough time to prepare. But he was still bloody weary.
“I spent that time well, I think,” he says, always cautious in choosing his words. “I was in England, playing in the lower leagues. And that helped. It’s good to shake things about in life once in a while and get out of your comfort zone. When they called me back, I returned stronger. More mentally than physically.”
Sure. 2015, the tenth of his international career, has been his watershed year. In this calendar page, Chibhabha averages a shade below 50 with the bat (49.12, to be exact), more than twice his career average of 24.35. He has also recorded his best score with the bat and his best figures with the ball while performing the role of Zimbabwe’s first-change bowler. But most importantly, he’s done alright against the tweakers.
“You bluffin’ big man. My record can’t be so good,” he says when he’s told of his numbers. But what surprises him the most is when he’s informed about the number of times spinners have dismissed him this year. “Just twice, you say?” he asks, scratching his beard.
Yes, just twice. In nine matches so far in 2015. The first time was by South Africa’s Imran Tahir at the World Cup. But Chibhabha had already gotten to 64, in what was his first international in two years. The second occasion was in Lahore in May, when Shoaib Malik had him caught behind while misjudging a sweep. Chibhabha departed on 99. His highest international score.
That’s not a bad record given that the 28-year old has played majority of his fixtures this year against teams armed with quality spinners — Pakistan (three games) and India (four).
In the three matches against India in the just concluded ODI series, Harbhajan Singh, Axar Patel and the army of part-timers couldn’t trouble him. That, he believes, was his greatest achievement of the series. Greater than being Zimbabwe’s strongest suit with the bat, as scores of 72 and 82 in the last two ODIs suggests.
“I think I’ve tasted success this year because I managed to put a lot of demons behind me,” he says. Demons, such as? “Demons such as panicking when a spinner comes on. Or worrying about if I have the technique to tackle them.
Or worrying about getting dotted up by guys like Harbhajan and Axar. Now that I’ve changed my mentality, I just back myself to execute.”
So does that mean going in without a plan, mind clean as a slate? “No, not at all. I always go in with a plan. Just this time the plan didn’t involve getting nervous,” he says. And what were those plans? “To the left-arm spinner I was just staying leg side of the ball, and stroking it down the ground. Harbhajan was bowling a bit slower, back of a length, so I’d just stay back and punch it down the ground.”
This confidence to analyse his game has come as a bit of a happy shock to Chibhabha. Because he claims he was anything but analytical as a kid growing up in rural Masvingo, a high-density township some 300 kilometres from Harare. Still, his clean, crisp and effortless strokes were evident from a young age, strokes that caught the attention of Zimbabwe Cricket’s development programme. And by 18, in 2005, he was playing his first international.
“I wasn’t ready,” he says today, laughing, trying not to remember the debut against New Zealand in Harare. He was out for a three-ball duck. “No man, I really wasn’t. You’re 18 and unaware, expecting to just show up and score big runs and get shown up instead. That’s perhaps my worst memory on a cricket field.”
The best, he says, came in his very next match, albeit a good year later. Picked to tour the Caribbean in 2006, Chibhabha cracked two back-to-back fifties at Antigua. But it was the first of those bat raises that he says helps him sleep well at night.
“Some of those West Indians, Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor, were freakin’ quick man. I’d never faced anything like it,” he says. Ostensibly, neither had the other Zimbabweans. Eight of them were dismissed for single digits. Chibhabha got 55, out of a team total of 151. “I’ve never been scared of pace. That’s why I was able to play Steyn and Morkel easy at the World Cup. But that day at St. John’s, Fidel and Jerome were making it fly. Like hurling bombs.”
Bombs. Chibhabha knows a thing or two about it. In the Lahore match in May where he was dismissed one short of what should’ve been his maiden hundred, a suicide bomber blew himself up not far from the Gaddafi Stadium.
“We heard the noise on the field, all of us did. None of us believed that that sound could come from a transformer, as the security guys later told us,” he says. So, was he scared? “Yeah man, of course I was scared. So scared that I stopped worrying about the one silly run that I’d missed in the first innings.”
Experiencing something like that has put the fear of God in plenty. But not Chibhabha. “That’s pure love man. Never fear.”