By John Ward
They call him the Master of Spin in Bulawayo, and cannot understand why he has never been selected for any of the national teams.
John Nyumbu, off-spinner, is now 28, but he has been in the Matabeleland Tuskers team for very nearly 10 years, often as the only specialist spin bowler, although Keith Dabengwa has sometimes turned his left arm over.
John’s figures have not always done him justice, and his home pitches at Queens Sports Club, Bulawayo, have often been responsible for this, as they have so often been either quite flat or else have been prepared to suit the powerful – until this season – Matabeleland Tuskers seam bowling attack. In the current match at Kwekwe Sports Club, however, John has had a fine match, taking nine wickets, just missing what would have been his first all-10, and passing 100 wickets in first-class matches.
John actually comes from a soccer-playing family, his father having played a great deal of the sport. He only started playing cricket part-time when he was at Cecil John Rhodes Primary School in Gweru because he had nothing else to do. His family then moved to Bulawayo, where he spent a year at Petra High School and then transferred to Milton.
He says, “I was the guy who would go to a net session and, instead of bowling or doing any cricketing skills, would keep juggling the cricket ball with my feet. So that was how I started my cricket – just for fun!”
But he says everything just happened for him at Milton, because even though he kept clowning around at nets, he was picked for a team just to make up the numbers.
“Funnily enough, our coach thought I had good hands, so I started fielding in the slips. In my first game I took a really good catch in the slips, so that was my major role in the team. Then in a game I played for Milton High School under-16s versus Midlands Christian School in Gweru, the game was done and dusted, and they needed five runs to win with four wickets to go. So the captain just said to me, ‘You’ve been with us for quite a bit and I’ve seen you turn your arm over in the nets so just enjoy it.’ Funnily enough, I won the game for the team.”
John took the last four wickets to win that match unexpectedly, and says, “That was where my bowling started, because I started to believe that I have got a bit of a skill in spin bowling. I used to bowl spin part-time, how I did it I don’t know, but some of my friends helped me in the aftermath of that, showing me the skills and how to spin the ball properly.”
John now progressed so quickly that not only did he reach the Matabeleland Under-19 team, but also captained it.
“By then I had learned the art for quite a bit longer, so I was able actually to play in that team, captain the side and go for inter-provincial trials. Sadly I didn’t make it for the Under-19 World Cup squad that went to Bangladesh, captained by Tino (Mawoyo), but I wasn’t deterred and kept plugging on.”
After that, he played club cricket for Bulawayo Athletics Club, before moving to Queens Sports Club, playing for the Matabeleland B side while he was still at school, and then played his first Logan Cup match in April 2004.
“I didn’t do much but it was still an honour to have played in that team.”
John considers he was fortunate in being able to grow up and play with many of the players who are now the backbone of the Matabeleland Tuskers bowling, such as Tawanda Mupariwa, Thabo Mboyi and others.
“The benefit of that was that they would take the pressure and then when it came on to bowl, the batsmen would think, ‘Who is this guy?’ and just try and take me on. The best team performance I had was when we beat Falcon College in their own back yard, and that hasn’t been done by a Milton side for a long time.
“My best performance was playing against PE (Prince Edward) at the cricket festival, on the Jubilee Field, and managing to take four wickets and win the game for the team. Back then PE had Graeme Cremer who had just come back from Bangladesh from playing for the national team in a Test and ODI series, so to play against the calibre of players that they had then, it was quite an honour for me to be part of that.”
John’s best bowling figures in any match to date was when he took seven wickets against a development side in Bulawayo. He had been hoping to take 10 in the current match for Matabeleland Tuskers against MidWest Rhinos at Kwekwe, but just fell one wicket short.
It has not always been plain sailing for John. A couple of years back, he had problems with his bowling action, and also found himself left out of the Matabeleland Tuskers team at times due to the coach Dave Houghton’s policy of preparing Bulawayo pitches to suit the superb pace attack the team had: Glenn Querl, Keegan Meth, Njabulo Ncube, Christopher Mpofu and Tawanda Mupariwa.
“I think I actually became stronger as a bowler,” he says, “because I had been doing well in league, but not playing first-class for Tuskers was quite a bitter pill to swallow. In life you have to use opportunities like that to build you up, and it was nice that the guys around me (in the Tuskers team) didn’t treat me like someone who wasn’t playing. I was in the squad, I kept on bowling to guys and believing that when my time and my chance come, I will have to utilise them to the fullest.”
What does John consider to be his main strengths as a bowler?
“I cuss guys out of the game,” he jokes, and then shakes his head. “I think my ability to read the game – that’s what I’m told by people, like captains I’ve worked with over the years, like Gavin Ewing. I can spin the ball, and that’s the greatest arsenal in my bowling.”
John is a different kind of off-spinner from Prosper Utseya, whose is a container, especially useful in one-day cricket, but John is a more an attacking bowler, who is prepared to buy his wickets. He had fascinating duels with Peter Moor from MidWest Rhinos in the current match; in both innings Moor took on John’s bowling, attacking him, hitting him for sixes in the first innings, but both times John won the battle in the end, taking his wicket both times, and quite quickly second time round.
“It’s been paying off because last week I got a five-fer, and I was chuckling with one of my friends that this was the first time this season that the team has bowled in the second innings. For the first game at Rocks the wicket was turning on days one and two, but it rained and we didn’t bowl in the second innings. Last week we lost by an innings, but I had taken five wickets in the first innings, so I tried to use this opportunity as the way to bowl on a third-day wicket that’s spinning and bouncing, and I actually enjoyed the challenge.
“I am mainly an attacking bowler. I strive to take wickets and I believe that if I’m getting hit for six, I will toss the ball up because the guy might get a top edge and I’ll get a wicket. If I get hit for six and then take the wicket, I will have won the battle, like yesterday when PJ (Moor) clubbed me for two sixes, and then the next one he missed it, so I won that battle.”
John feels he benefited a great deal by going on spin-bowling courses with the two Australians, the late Terry Jenner, former leg-spinner, and Bruce Yardley, who was an off-spinner. “I got to learn a lot about driving off my front foot and getting my head in the right direction,” he says of Jenner.
Of Yardley, “He’s actually the one who brought out the best in me, also confidence-wise, because he bowled the way I do, for not only do I get wickets with my bowling, I also have a little bit of banter with the batsman, so don’t be shy to do that in the game.”
John also feels gratitude to others like Dave Houghton and Heath Streak for their input into his game.
John is also a more than useful batsman and he is getting better, too. In the past he used to bat often at 11 for Matabeleland Tuskers, but that changed when he went in last at Mutare against Mountaineers last season, when they were in a losing position, and he hammered a fifty that quite turned the game around and saved it for his team.
“It was quite hard for me to learn the art of batting, but the more games I played, my batting has actually improved. Even in league in Bulawayo, when I’m playing, I got a couple of fifties and a hundred, because of playing so many games and playing with so many experienced players.”
Perhaps soon he will be thought of as an all-rounder.
John naturally is keen to play for Zimbabwe, saying he would like to represent his country against the best in the world.
“I would achieve what I chose cricket over soccer for. I had an opportunity to play professional football, but I chose the cricketing route, because it was more of a challenge and I enjoyed the game. So I aspire to play Test cricket and I think T20 cricket as well. Perhaps not the one-day side; I would love to play one-day cricket for my nation, but I feel that my strength and my type of bowling suit the Test side.”
Prosper Utseya is a vital part of Zimbabwe’s one-day team, but has been less successful in Test cricket because he is more of a containing bowler. If the selectors are looking for an attacking spinner who is prepared to buy wickets, then John may well be their man. If he continues to enjoy success this season, then he will certainly deserve a chance to prove his worth at a higher level.
“I’m pretty thankful that I’ve managed to play all the games and perform the way I have,” he says. “I’m still learning as a human being and still learning as a cricketer, and I’m happy that in this game I managed to achieve a milestone in getting to a 100 wickets. That has been my aim from the beginning of the season. So hopefully all this will continue and I’ll get recognised by all the important people, and also to be able to help out the other guys who are coming up below me, and help them up in the same way I was helped up by the likes of Pommie Mbangwa, Keith Dabengwa, Gavin Ewing, ‘Syke’ Nkala and others.
“It should be a cycle where I shouldn’t be able to say, ‘No, these guys helped me but there’s nothing I can do for the others,’ because at the end of the day it’s not for John Nyumbu, it’s not for Keith Dabengwa, but for Zimbabwe cricket as a whole. So many people are looking to play this cricket as a way of making money, doing what you like, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity I’ve got.”
John is currently coaching at the Heath Streak Academy and is also employed as an agent for Karbonn Mobile Phones, the company for which Alistair Campbell works. He plays soccer part-time and enjoys his life.
He will enjoy it even more if his dream comes true and he starts taking his wickets for the Zimbabwe national team as well.