Conversation with a cricket nuffie

Column - The Third Man Zimbabwe

Brighton Zhawi

In this week’s edition of The Third Man Brighton Zhawi (BZ) caught up with a cricket nuffie who is brilliant with the pen. Recently Liam Brickhill (LB) wrote an emotional Zimbabwe Cricket story that got many talking.

Read on as Brighton chats with Brickhill, a kind fellow who has written for Espn Cricinfo and Wisden.

BZ: The Trevor Madondo story was a brilliant piece telling a sad tale. What inspired you to do that
feature story?

LB: I realised that many people who knew of Trevor Madondo, knew only that he had died. I felt it was important to also try to understand how he had lived. And, you know, just looking at his cricket stats wasn’t enough. The numbers didn’t tell the whole story either. Trevor lived a short but interesting and impactful life, and he also lived through some very interesting times in Zimbabwean history. There is so much to unpack in his story – issues of race, culture, sport, political change. And at the heart of it, this complex human being, this sad tale. As soon as I started to research his story and speak to people who knew him, I knew it was a story worth telling. His is also a very Zimbabwean story, and those are the sort of stories I’m interested in telling.

Picture by Anel Wessels

BZ: How do you feel about the impact that story has made, I understand it has been discussed a lot on several platforms?

LB: To be honest with you, publishing anything is always quite a nerve-wracking process for me. I always get nervous before sharing anything I’ve written – not because I expect to face criticism or anything like that, but because there’s also a little piece of me in that work, as the author, and so one can feel a little vulnerable. And I’m not the most outgoing person. I keep a fairly low profile. So, on the one hand I’m very pleased that the story has got people talking, that it has been widely shared. The feedback has been positive, the discussions around the story very interesting. But on the other hand, I struggle to have the spotlight on me as the writer. But I’m very happy that the story seems to have resonated with many people.

BZ: What made you a cricket writer?

LB: Thank you for calling me a cricket writer! To be very honest with you, I’ve always felt that I was a better writer than a journalist. There’s a certain rugged, hard-nosed, thick-skinned edge to a good journalist that I simply don’t have. But I do know how to tell a good story, and I’m a decent writer. I was fortunate to grow up with parents who ran a bookshop in town, called Grassroots Books (which later became the Book Cafe), so I grew up reading a lot, which is fundamental to becoming a writer. In a certain sense, it’s also in my blood. My mother is a writer. My father wrote, and published. My grandparents on my father’s side were journalists back in the day. Then, on the cricket side, virtually my entire family are keen followers of cricket. It’s a sport that has long fascinated me, so writing about cricket has, I guess, come quite naturally. Plus, I’m no good at anything else!

BZ: For the years you have covered cricket in Zimbabwe, how would you describe the state of the game in the country at the moment?

LB: My attitude is always: hope and optimism, in spite of the present difficulties. Zimbabwean cricket has weathered a couple of enormous crises in recent years: the ICC suspension, followed shortly afterwards by a global pandemic. So I think if we talk of the state of the game at the moment, it must be in this context. And in this context, it’s a minor miracle that any cricket is happening at all. On the flip side, we must remember that we have one of Zimbabwe’s greatest, if not the greatest ever Zimbabwean batsman, Brendan Taylor, in the men’s team. There are really exciting young players coming through, the likes of Blessing Muzarabani and Wesley Madhevere, and plenty more besides. There’s a strong mixture of youth and experience in the men’s side – something there hasn’t been in many years. Women’s cricket is continuing to make strides, even under pandemic conditions. So there are things to be optimistic about. Of course, there are also challenges. A lot of it comes down to some of the issues the country as a whole is facing. Stronger cricket will come from stronger communities, from a healthy society and country.

BZ: What advice would you give other people interested in studying sports journalism?

LB: Study accounting instead. No, I’m kidding. Being paid to write about sports is an amazing job. As
for advice, I must refer to the grand master of sports writing, CLR James, who wrote: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” In that spirit, I would say that you need to know your sport thoroughly, but that having a wide range of interests, and a broad understanding of the context of sport in society, will only help your writing. To understand sport, you need to understand people. Read a lot, as much as you can. Try to write every day, even if it’s not about sport. Studying journalism, and getting that qualification, will undoubtedly open doors, and it is important, but also remember that there are many routes to success. You can be a great sports writer without ever having set foot in a university.

Picture by Anel Wessels

BZ: What challenges come with writing for big organizations like ESPNcricinfo?

LB: I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to write for the likes of ESPNCricinfo and Wisden. There are certainly challenges that come with that: there is huge competition for writing gigs like that, so one has to be at the top of one’s game, so to speak. You are very aware that there are thousands of people who want your job. There is a certain weight of expectation too. Added to that, you know that a lot of people will be reading your work, so if you make a mistake, there’s nowhere to hide. I helped to cover the 2011 World Cup in India for ESPNcricinfo, and during one match we had well over a million people tuning in to the ball-by-ball commentary I was writing. Things like that come with some pressure. But I’ve also met and worked with so many wonderful people at those organisations. The Cricinfo team in particular are thoroughly professional, and great at what they do. You feel like part of a team in that environment. So, the rewards certainly outweigh the challenges.

BZ: As a cricket writer, I am sure you are friends with some international players. How do you deal with situations where perhaps you need to critic your friend(s) maybe on poor performance?

LB: This can be a tricky one to negotiate at times, and I think it’s important to strike a balance, and to be able to compartmentalise those sorts of friendships, you know, separate work and play. Sometimes easier said than done. But I think most people can recognise the difference between a critique of a performance, and a personal attack. So I try not to cross that line. I certainly hope I never have crossed it. Look, at the end of the day, we are all human, and people just want to be treated with respect (even if one is being criticized). But cricket is also just a game, no lives are at stake.

BZ: Are there any cricket laws you think need some adjustments or complete change?

LB: There is a feeling that the modern game favours batsmen over bowlers, and I do think this is perhaps an area that is worth looking at. I like to see an even battle between bat and ball, and even bowlers dominating occasionally. The cut and thrust of a low-scoring match is as exciting to me as a run fest, and possibly even more so. So whether it’s the bouncer rule, field restrictions, types of pitches, or the type of ball, if there are some minor tweaks that can give bowlers more of an equal footing with batsmen, I’d be in favour of that. No drastic changes though. Cricket is the perfect sport, and has found its perfect form in the Test match, so why mess with it too much? But the fundamental changes I would like to see in cricket are at the level of administration and organisation of the game as a whole. I don’t want this to sound like an attack on the ICC, because it isn’t, but it’s no secret that money and power are concentrated in the hands of a few cricket-playing nations. I am a huge supporter of Associate cricket and developing cricketing nations, and I would like to see a global system with a little more fairness and equality in it.

BZ: You love cricket so much that it had to feature on your short film ‘Petrichor”. How is that?

LB: Indeed! There are a few scenes filmed at cricket matches in my short film, ‘Petrichor’. They were poignant moments of celebration, of human connection, that fitted in very well with the overall themes and motivations of the short film, which is in a way a kind of glimpse into my family and roots in Zimbabwe. So, 100%, cricket had to be in there somewhere!

BZ: How has been the adjustment to the new normal as a cricket writer?

LB: There have been some difficult times, to be sure, but I try not to dwell on hardships because I’m well aware that there are many, many people who have it far worse than me. I’m trying to maintain productivity of some sort or another, and even go so far as to try to see the silver lining, or the opportunity, that has come with the pandemic and this huge change. For me, that means taking the time to pursue my passions and side hustles. You mentioned the short film I made. In addition to that, I wrote a short story (fiction) that is being published as part of an anthology of writing from Africa later this year. I’m writing all sorts of short stories, while trying to work on a novel and even a screenplay. As well as that, I’m very fortunate to be part of the inaugural intake of the Africa is a Country writing fellowship – they were the publishers of my Trevor Madondo piece. So, I’m trying to take the adjustment in my stride and expand my skills. Apparently, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest works during a plague situation – King Lear and Macbeth were both written under ‘lockdown’ conditions while a plague was ravaging London. I’m trying to continue writing and working in the same spirit. Of course, my heart will also always be with Zimbabwean cricket too, come what may.