For many Zimbabwean families, cricket's in the blood: think Flowers, Strangs, Chibhabhas, Rennies, Whittalls, Masakadzas (x 3), Ervines. Or father-son duos: Streaks, Currans, Jarvises. Old man Strang was a first-class umpire.
Cricket is an integral part of my family too, and the Brickhills have a proud tradition: there is always at least one of us present at every home international played at the Harare Sports Club. We got going, as Zimbabwe did, at the inaugural Test against India in 1992, and have missed barely a game since.
I'm not around for the #ZimvSL Test, but there are two generations of Brickhills in the usual position at HSC - continuing a proud family tradition of always having at least one Brickhill present at home internationals, stretching all the way back to the inaugural Test in '92. pic.twitter.com/w74D9Iz8xx— Liam Brickhill (@Gomorezvidinha) January 19, 2020
My earliest memory of HSC's hallowed grounds is from that very first Test. It is of my father, Paul, bespectacled with a blond scruff of hair and (in)famous "Brickhill ears" tucked back underneath his ubiquitous floppy hat, exclaiming: "Ah, Tendulkar's out!" (caught and bowled third ball by John Traicos, incidentally) soon after we arrived at the ground and he got a view of the scoreboard. "Is that good?" I asked.
My parents ran a bookshop in town, not too far from the HSC, and my father was at the cricket whenever work allowed. The shop stocked a wide range of left-wing and struggle literature, but there was also the odd cricket book in their catalogue - most notably CLR James' Beyond a Boundary. It fit right in among works by Biko, Marx and Solzhenitsyn.
While he was hardly your average white Zimbabwean - a veteran of the liberation struggle, having served in ZIPRA (the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army), a communist bookseller, a saxophonist and noted dope smoker - my father also fit right in with a certain section of the HSC faithful, the residents of what was then called Muppet's Corner.
Short of pant, long of sock, seated in deck chairs next to picnic baskets, the Muppets were the elder, less rowdy bunch of cricket anoraks who were there for the actual cricket, rather than the beers. They took my father for one of their own. All of the Brickhills are cricket tragics.
No one in my family really has a head for numbers, but for some reason cricket stats seem to stick in mine. So here's one from the matches we've witnessed at the HSC: out of the 190 internationals Zimbabwe have played here since 1992, across three formats, they have lost 126, won 53, drawn 8 and tied just one: an ODI against Pakistan in February 1995. I don't remember that game, nor do I remember my father ever mentioning it, though it was a midweek game and he possibly had other things to do: namely running the bookshop alongside my mother. But my old man had been present for the famous, first Test win over Pakistan two weeks prior to that tie - both for the denouement, as Brain, Streak and Whittall cut through Pakistan to secure an innings victory on the Saturday (Friday having been a rest day), and for parts of the record-breaking 269-run stand between Andy and Grant Flower that set up the match for Zimbabwe after they had been cut down to 42 for 3. He never stopped talking about watching Andy hooking Wasim Akram all over the HSC.
Another favourite HSC anecdote of his was that of Fanie de Villiers steaming in and delivering, instead of a cricket ball, a white paper cup at Zimbabwe's No. 11. That was during the second ODI on South Africa's very first trip to their neighbours north of the Limpopo. And remember David Lloyd's "we flippin' murdered 'em" comment? Many do, though it was Zimbabwe's response to Lloyd's hubris that really sticks in my memory.
Having wrapped up the series with a New Year's Day win, Zimbabwe delivered the coup de grace via an Eddo Brandes hat-trick: he got past Nick Knight, John Crawley and Nasser Hussain with successive deliveries to send a packed HSC into beer-soaked ecstasy. It was an "I was there" moment for Zimbabwean cricket fans, and I really was there, in the usual spot at Muppet's Corner with my old man, screaming my cracking teenage voice hoarse. I've still got the limited edition "Zimbabwe Murder England" T-shirt that he bought me at the Sports Club shop after that series.
Sometimes, the cricket came to us: it was at a jazz gig, years later, that I met the then Zimbabwe coach Alan Butcher. My father had parlayed his love for jazz and blues into two iconic Harare venues: the Book Cafe (which also included a bookshop on site) and the Mannenberg. Butcher became a frequent visitor to both during his tenure as national coach. Various other members of the national squad would also sometimes come to events.
Though I thought the Book Cafe was pretty cool, Harare isn't exactly a city overflowing with options for thrill-seeking teenagers. But cricket matches in the late '90s and early noughties always offered one a chance to socialise without the sort of social pressure that a youth club or a house party might bring - and maybe even get a little naughty. I once got so drunk at an HSC international I couldn't tell my Whittalls from my Rennies, but I was sitting next to a girl I liked, smoking a doob at the top of the grandstand, and life was great. Alas, that's one game the details of which I have absolutely no recollection. My attention was elsewhere.
Usually, though, my eyes were firmly on the cricket, even at the expense of my studies. On several occasions (sorry, Mom) I skipped class to go to the cricket during Tests and midweek games. Eventually, what had started as a teenage love affair blossomed into a career. My very first day as a full-fledged cricket journalist was also at the HSC, and it too was a noteworthy one, being the opening match of Zimbabwe's 2003 World Cup campaign.
When I realised what Flower and Henry Olonga were up to that day, it made my head spin, and it was a hard day to be a rookie cricket journalist. I'm glad I was there, and my mother still has the black armband I brought back with me from the next Zimbabwe game, but I'm not sure I'd describe the memory as a happy one.
Indeed, not all of them are. The Brickhills have also borne witness to many a whomping on the home front, looking on aghast at the indignation of Waugh's nine slips, and feeling the vertigo of the record low 35 all out against Sri Lanka a couple of years later.
My worst memory at this ground isn't of something that happened on the field. During an ODI against Sri Lanka in late 1999, I was sitting in the stands near Castle Corner when a man seated a couple of rows down was violently arrested after shouting something at passing policemen. It was a tense time in Zimbabwe: the farm invasions were in full swing, an opposition party threatened Zanu-PF's hegemony, the currency was crashing, and on the field, our team was losing.
No one did anything as the police descended en masse and dragged the man away. Some watched, others looked away. Some pretended not to see, and kept their eyes on the cricket. I was horrified but did nothing. The man's friend, who had been sitting next to him, turned to the whole stand after the cops had dragged his mate away, and told us we should all be ashamed of ourselves. I still am.
But the good memories certainly outnumber the bad, and there are a couple more that a Brickhill or two have watched: Neville Madziva's nerveless last over heroics to deny the paterfamilias himself, MS Dhoni, and secure a T20I win over India; Prosper Utseya smiting Mitchell Starc over midwicket and into a glowing sunset to defeat Australia in an ODI for the first time in 32 years. HSC in full voice. The first three balls of Olonga's career, that went wide, four, wicket. A pair of Test wins over India, first in 1998, when Olonga picked up 5 for 70 and Neil Johnson's high-pitched scream when Srinath was run out to end the game echoed around the ground. The second, in 2001, which featured another five-for, this time by Andy Blignaut, whose Test hat-trick against Bangladesh three years later I also saw. The electric buzz of the atmosphere when Sikandar Raza inspired Zimbabwe to storm past Ireland at the Qualifiers in 2018. The unbridled joy of Brendan Taylor's last-ball six to win the match, and the series, against Bangladesh in 2006.
Eddo isn't the only Zimbabwean to have taken an ODI hat-trick at HSC, and I was also there to see the second: by Utseya, against South Africa, in August 2014. My dad didn't make it to that game. He was taken unexpectedly ill, and what was thought to be a bad case of the flu turned out to be something far worse. Two months later he was gone.
Muppet's Corner, too, is long gone now - concreted over during refurbishments to the ground ahead of the 2003 World Cup. And so the Brickhills needed a new place to sit. My uncle Jeremy (or JJ) is, like my father, a creature of habit, and now the family are always to be found in the vicinity of the wooden outdoor tables of the Centurion pub under the old pavilion.
Uncle JJ is also a veteran of the liberation struggle, having served under Dumiso Dabengwa in ZIPRA, and a general badass. In his leather jacket, smoking Madison Reds (the strongest cigarette in Zimbabwe, and perhaps the world), drinking cappuccino, he's a fixture at every international in Harare.
It was Uncle JJ, sitting in that very position, who first introduced me to Mary-Anne Musonda, the current women's captain, during a Zimbabwe v Canada ODI before the 2015 World Cup. Not long before, Utseya had been suspended from bowling due to a kinky elbow, and we looked on and chatted as he attempted to reinvent himself bowling "rollers" - fingerspun legcutters. But that's not what stands out in my memory from that game.
JJ also pointed out a scrawny 14-year-old sitting on the low brick wall in front of us, a young prodigy from Churchill High School - a hotbed of black cricketing talent that has nurtured the likes of Hamilton Masakadza, Tatenda Taibu, Elton Chigumbura and others - who was already in the 1st XI. His name? Wesley Madhevere. And if you're at all interested in the future of Zimbabwean cricket, his name is one to remember.
Though he's only 19, I'd wager he'll be making his senior international debut this year. Perhaps at home, at the HSC. And here's another good bet: there'll be a Brickhill or two watching from the sidelines, urging him on.