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Experiencing the pain of Zimbabwe cricket through Tatenda Taibu's eyes

In these times of turmoil, Zimbabwe cricket might benefit from the perspective Tatenda Taibu brings from all his years in the game Getty Images

It is impossible to read Keeper of Faith, the autobiography of Tatenda Taibu, and not feel regret for the mismanagement that has bedevilled cricket in Zimbabwe. In the time since Taibu's book was released, Zimbabwe have had their ICC membership suspended, and the future is as uncertain as ever for their players. A shock defeat for the men's team against Singapore last month signposted their direction of travel.

The ICC's reason for stepping in was "political interference" in the running of Zimbabwe Cricket, as if the situation had previously been different. You could ask Taibu about that. His flight from his homeland in 2005, having resigned the captaincy and retired from international duty, came about because of threats and attempted coercion from those with links to Zimbabwe's governing ZANU-PF party. While the young Taibu "did not believe that sport and politics should mix", he soon came to realise that in Zimbabwe, "you cannot separate the two, as desirable as it may be".

Taibu is 36, an age at which he could still be playing cricket at the highest level. Instead, he currently turns out for a local league side near Liverpool in England, where he lives with his family. As well as representing Zimbabwe 195 times, he has served as his country's head selector and founded his own academy. In 2012 he stepped away from the game for a second time in order to do "the Lord's work". He has a story well worth telling.

Much of it is only tangentially related to cricket - though the book does include, for instance, recollections of consulting Younis Khan on how to play Muttiah Muralitharan, and of being mercilessly sledged by Mark Boucher. But really the tale of Taibu is concerned with weightier issues: racial divisions in Zimbabwean cricket, disputes over pay and player representation, bribery and corruption higher up the ladder. In the end, cricket left Taibu as much as Taibu left cricket.

His journey from the township of Highfield to becoming Zimbabwe's first black captain, and at the time the youngest in Tests, confronted hardship from the start. Selected as part of the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union's programme to grow the game, he had to make do with poor facilities and minimal equipment - Taibu shared a bat with his future international team-mate Stuart Matsikenyeri - as well as the prospect of being hit the by the coach, Steve Mangongo, if he did something wrong.

Taibu was used to being beaten by his father too. "The way I interpreted it was that they both wanted me to do well - they would beat me because I had made a mistake. If they didn't want me to make that mistake again, they hit me. I saw it as good for me."

It was cricket that opened up his eyes to the inequality within Zimbabwe. During trips to play against private schools and on white-owned farms, he saw the privileged position of his white counterparts. Already he was learning to navigate the system, "to differentiate between decisions made politically and decisions made by human beings … I realised that many of these people I encountered were good people, no matter how different their lives were to ours."

By the age of 16, Taibu had risen to national prominence, called out to the West Indies as wicketkeeping cover for Andy Flower. Tensions between the white and black players were evident from the start: on the subsequent tour of England a few weeks later, the use of the nickname "Nugget" (a brand of shoe polish in Zimbabwe) for Mluleki Nkala by a white team-mate prompted an impassioned outburst from Henry Olonga. There follow several pages of context on Robert Mugabe's policy of seizing land from Zimbabwe's white minority.

Flower and Olonga tried to unite the factions with their landmark protest against the Mugabe government at the 2003 World Cup, though curiously Taibu maintains that they should not have donned black armbands to mark the "death of democracy" during a game against Namibia.

"African politics has its own rules, and what they did wasn't going to change that fact - with all the best intentions, I'm not sure how it would have changed the political landscape - so I think they should have just left it," he writes.

Perhaps he is right - Mugabe remained in charge for another 14 years as living conditions in Zimbabwe worsened - but Taibu was soon to confront the realities of African politics himself. Given the captaincy at 20, a little over a year later he was leading a confrontation with the board over the issue of player contracts. When his decision to quit was met first with inducements and then intimidation - an envelope filled with photos of dead bodies, government vehicles trailing his wife - Taibu went into self-imposed exile.

This is not your usual sportsman's autobiography, then. Rarely in cricket books do you find mention of the Blair toilet, "which helped revolutionise sanitation in many African countries", or Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in the same pages as discussion of life at the IPL (Taibu was a non-playing member of Kolkata Knight Riders' squad in 2008) and techniques for keeping wicket in different parts of the world. The book's qualities are only partially undermined by occasional sloppiness, such as the misspelling of team-mates' names.

"In all my years in Zimbabwean cricket, little has changed," Taibu writes in the closing chapter - prophetic words, given what has subsequently transpired. Could he be tempted back again to try and bring about some good? In these difficult times, the only option for Zimbabwe fans is to keep the faith.

Keeper of Faith
By Tatenda Taibu
deCoubertin Books
246 pages, £12.99