Anesu Mushangwe: the rapid rise of an accidental cricketer

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Anesu Mushangwe has emerged from inadvertent participant to international player across a remarkable 12-year journey from Zimbabwe to the Big Bash

Adelaide – Having literally crawled over broken glass to pursue the sport that began as a refuge before becoming her passion, Anesu Mushangwe could be excused for feeling euphoric upon earning a historic contract with Adelaide Strikers.

But even though she’s the first Zimbabwe representative to earn a place in the Women’s Big Bash League, and despite realising her unwavering dream to forge a professional cricket career in Australia, Mushangwe isn’t allowing herself to celebrate for fear of tempting a last-minute twist of fate.

That’s because, across a remarkable 12-year journey during which the 26-year-old spinner has emerged from an inadvertent participant to an international player, she has learned from bitter experience how setbacks can intervene just as success beckons.

“I’m a bit excited – it’s still a shock at the moment,” Mushangwe told cricket.com.au prior to joining this week’s Strikers training camp in Mackay, her first trip beyond Adelaide since arriving in the South Australia capital almost three years ago.

“But I’m not letting myself get over-excited because I was used to getting disappointed in the past, especially when I’ve had visa issues that meant I couldn’t be selected for teams.”

More recently, her temporary resident status meant she could not take up an opportunity to turn out for SA Scorpions in Australia’s Women’s National Cricket League (WNCL) thereby robbing her of the chance to bowl at one of her girlhood idols, New Zealand keeper-batter Rachel Priest who was playing for Tasmania.

Mushangwe concedes that period of uncertainty at the start of last summer “broke me” before support from the SA Cricket Association and her Premier Cricket club in Adelaide saw her granted an 858 ‘Distinguished Talent’ permanent Australian visa earlier this year.

However, she also carries painful memories of her first foray into representative cricket that left physical and emotional scars and fuelled her quest to further her life outside Zimbabwe and within the game she accidentally came to love.

Mushangwe grew up in the seething township of Chitungwiza, 25km south of the capital Harare, a suburb she reveals is better known as ‘The Ghetto’ and is sometimes referred to as Zimbabwe’s Soweto, while also being home to many of the nation’s foremost musicians, writers and academics.

The fifth in a family of eight girls, she attended Seke One high school where her disdain for running led her to look for ways to avoid compulsory athletics classes.

“One day, I saw there was a group playing cricket nearby so I just went and stood with them, and the following day when I was asked in class ‘why didn’t you come to athletics?’ I said ‘I was playing cricket’, and the teacher was like ‘okay, that’s fair enough’,” Mushangwe recalls with a broad smile.

“I was 14, and from that day I kept on going to cricket just to avoid athletics and in the end, I fell in love with the sport.”

It also became quickly obvious that despite her reluctance to run, she owned an innate talent for the game.

Within a year, her “really slow” medium-pace bowling and enterprising batting had caught the attention of Zimbabwe Cricket who invited the teenager to attend selection trials for an upcoming under-19 tour to neighbouring South Africa.

Unfortunately, her ardour for sport was not shared by a family that saw study as a surer path to a prosperous future, and the uncle with whom she was living at that time actively tried to dissuade his niece from forsaking lessons to play cricket.

“The day of the trials, I didn’t want to tell him because I was scared he might say no and it was a special day for me,” Mushangwe said.

“So I woke up early in the morning, around 5 or 6am, and I jumped over the Dura (concrete sleeper) wall which was big, and there was broken glass on the top which split my skin just under my right thumb, quite deep, and I was bleeding.

“I went to the trials and whenever I was fielding and the ball hit my hand, it would split open again and blood would run down my fingers.

“I kept it hidden, and no-one knew about it.

“I made it through the trials and got selected in the team, but it didn’t make much sense to my uncle because he wanted me to focus more on my studies.”

But it was a force more potent than an aggrieved uncle that stood between Mushangwe and her first international tour.

Told by her coach to meet at the team bus on the day they were to depart for the airport to fly to South Africa, she was left in tears at the roadside when told she did not possess – because her family could not afford – a Zimbabwe passport, and was therefore dropped from the squad.

Instead of spending that summer holiday playing cricket across the border, Mushangwe instead was sent to the rural region of Murewa (a township 75km east of Harare) to undertake the sort of back-breaking manual labour that Shona agricultural workers have practiced for centuries.

It was the start of an enforced sabbatical from cricket that extended for years, as financial constraints meant she had to supplement the cost of her secondary education A-levels by working as a domestic maid.

It wasn’t until she completed school and won admission to Midlands State University at Gweru (four hours drive from Harare) where she would study history and international relations that she resumed her love affair with cricket.

“At Midlands State University there was no girls’ cricket, so I was the one who introduced it for the women and we started training there, and training for boys as well,” she recalled.

“Then it went well, and the first year we played our team came number one in the competition.”

By that stage, Mushangwe had abandoned her barely medium-pacers and embraced her own interpretation of spin bowling, which she describes with a laugh as leg spin while conceding it differs significantly from the craft executed by most wrist spinners.

Due to her diminutive stature and accordingly small hands and fingers, she finds it difficult to grip the full-size leather ball so instead of flicking her wrist and spinning the ball off her third finger, she imparts spin out the front of her hand using the second knuckle of her index finger.

And while she has devoted hours to analysing YouTube videos of her two favourite contemporary male leggies – Sri Lanka’s Wanindu Hasaranga, and Sandeep Lamichhane from Nepal – she acknowledges the delivery she’s learned to land with unerring accuracy is her own creation.

Anesu Mushangwe is bringing her leg-spin to the WBBL // Getty

“It was a self-taught thing, and because I was in a hurry as well, after missing a few years of cricket, and had to do it using this (index) finger and it started working for me,” she explained.

“I started calling it leg spin, but it wasn’t actually leg spin.

“In Zimbabwe, nobody tried to change my bowling because I was mainly quite a consistent bowler and they didn’t want to lose that.

“That was my strength, so they just let me be.

“It’s been the same here (in Australia), but I’m also learning more about variations – changing my pace, changing my grip and that’s the things I’ve started developing.”

While at university, Mushangwe also became involved with national team trials at a time when Zimbabwe Cricket was introducing women’s contracts and, having gained one of those (as well as a passport that enabled her to take part in international tours), she won her first T20I cap in 2019.

The money she earned from her national contract also helped cover the cost of her tertiary education and convinced her it was time to explore options to ply her cricket trade abroad.

When not immersed in study or engaged in cricket training or matches, she sought out cricket clubs in England and Australia that might be interested in the services of a self-styled leg spin bowler with international experience and contacted them via Facebook Messenger.

“I don’t know how many clubs I sent messages to – I sent everywhere in England, everywhere in Australia and then I got a reply from a few,” she said.

“I’m the one who sent them messages, asking if they need any player to play for them.

“That’s how I got to England – by annoying all the clubs that I saw on the internet.”

Her first overseas posting was with Hursley Cricket Club near Southampton on England’s south coast in 2019 where she was named Most Valuable Player in a premiership outfit, but events at home also ensured she would step up her endeavours to find further offshore opportunities.

Despite being the leading wicket-taker in the Africa qualifiers for the 2019 T20 Women’s World Cup, as well as starring with the ball during preceding series against Namibia, Kenya and Uganda, Mushangwe’s ambition to play in the global showpiece tournament was dashed when the ICC suspended Zimbabwe from all international competition for internal governance breaches.

She was also one of four Zimbabwe players chosen to be part of a Women’s Global Development Squad to play against Super League teams in the UK in 2019, but was barred from taking part due to Zimbabwe’s ban.

Her focus then shifted to Australia, where she had been corresponding with numerous clubs even though she knew nothing of the country and held even less clarity on why she was so determined to get there.

“I don’t know why I always said I wanted to go to Australia,” she said.

“I didn’t have a proper reason because I didn’t know what playing in Australia would be like but it’s a dream come true, just to be in Australia.

“And now to be playing professional cricket in the Big Bash, I never saw it coming but that’s a dream come true as well.”

Her path to the WBBL began with an unsolicited inquiry to the Glenelg District Cricket Club in Adelaide, which at that stage (in late 2019) did not have a team in the top-tier of the state’s women’s Premier Cricket competition.

Told she would be playing at B-grade level with the prospect of the team’s promotion to A-grade the following summer if all went well, Mushangwe arrived on a temporary six-month visa and topped the Seahorse’s batting and bowling averages as well as winning the Lyn Fullston Trophy as the competition’s outstanding player.

She was then due to return to Zimbabwe but the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic meant she became effectively marooned in Australia, with Glenelg and their women’s coach Graham Sedunary providing financial and employment assistance.

In conjunction with the SACA, an extension was also secured to Mushangwe’s temporary visa but when Glenelg were duly promoted to A-grade level and her performances saw her added to the Scorpions WNCL squad, the issue of travel documents once again intervened.

“I can remember it clearly, the news came on a Wednesday that I’m going to play and would be bowling to Rachel Priest on the Friday, but then on Thursday I received a message from SACA saying I couldn’t play because of my visa conditions, which was fair,” she said.

“I wasn’t allowed to be paid by any other sponsor except for Glenelg, so I couldn’t be involved with other organisations.

“They (SACA) also didn’t want me to be in a position whereby if I breached my visa conditions, I wouldn’t be able to get the permanent visa that I have now.

“So that was a good call from them, but at the time – and it wasn’t blame for anyone, it was just about the visa – it broke me because I couldn’t plan for anything, and it was so stressful.

“Even if I did well, maybe I couldn’t be selected anyway so I just felt stuck in one position.

“But I just kept on and worked harder than every year I’ve trained before, and I think that time is still carrying me now.”

It’s not only her cricket skills Mushangwe’s been working assiduously to develop.

Realising her history-international studies degree wasn’t going to grant her access to law as she had initially imagined, she has switched focus and begun a psychology degree with UniSA with a view to eventually practising in a clinical role.

She also doesn’t have to devote as much time to studying world-class leg-spinners on the internet because she spends every Strikers training session bowling in the same net as teammate and Australia women’s ODI leggie Amanda-Jade Wellington, watching how she goes about it.

Despite acknowledging she and “Wello” are vastly different in technique and style, Mushangwe believes the duo can forge a productive alliance as the Strikers look to improve on their runners-up result from last summer.

Anesu Mushangwe in Zimbabwe colours

Assistant coach Jude Coleman shares that assessment and believes the club’s Zimbabwe signing – who brings the added benefit of being a local player given her new visa status – will figure in selection discussions for most matches of WBBL|08.

“She’s that real T20-style leg spinner in that she’s quicker through the air, challenges the stumps a lot more and can beat both sides of the bat,” Coleman told cricket.com.au as the Strikers prepared for their campaign opener against Sydney Sixers on Saturday.

“She’s a leg spinner who doesn’t necessarily turn it a lot, but slides it on a bit because it comes out the front of her hand.

“We’ve spoken about how effective that’s going to be in the T20 game when she might need some different options like slowing it up and turning it away from the bat, and spoken with her about experimenting with different grips and different things.

“She’s a hard worker, that’s for sure, so she’s gone away and developed about three different deliveries now.

“The big challenge for her will be the fact she’s playing against a lot of the best batters in the world, and how and when to use all those deliveries now against quality players.”

Mushangwe laughs when asked about her batting and suggestions she can be considered an allrounder, noting she’s always enjoyed the supplementary skill even though she’s “never been successful with it at all” and her current job description very clearly stipulates ‘bowler’.

But in the lead-up to the Strikers’ trial game against Melbourne Stars in Mackay on Thursday, she unveiled an aggressive approach with the bat in the practice nets that caught some of her teammates and coaching staff by surprise.

“If you’d asked me earlier in the week, I probably would have agreed with her and said the allrounder role was probably a bit of a stretch,” Coleman said with a smile.

“But she was smacking them in the nets on Wednesday.

“A big thing with Anesu is probably understanding a bit more about the T20 game and taking some risks.

“She’s probably been a bit risk averse the times we’ve seen her bat in Premier Cricket and lacked a little bit of firepower in terms of hitting the over the top and finding boundaries through the field.

“But again, she’s worked pretty hard on that and we’ve certainly seen growth when she goes out with the mindset of attacking and looking to score runs.”

With the effort she’s applying to broadening her cricket skills, to mastering her tertiary studies and to embracing her new life, it’s scarcely surprising Mushangwe’s preferred recreations are sleeping, meditating and “listening to my thoughts”.

But she also finds time here and there to reflect on the remarkable journey she’s undertaken to this point, and those who have helped her get there.

In particular, she’s thankful for the support of her coaches at Glenelg and the Strikers, to the SACA for paving the way for her permanent visa, and to Cricket Australia for “allowing me to be part of their system – it means a lot to me considering where I came from”.

She’s also deeply appreciative of the opportunities afforded her by Zimbabwe Cricket who provided a pathway to professional sport and have shown understanding now that she’s unlikely to turn out for the Lady Chevrons, or return to her homeland, any time soon.

“They respected my choice, and they were very supportive when I explained to them why I did it,” she said.

“I just made the decision to focus more on being in one place, and to see where that takes me.”

For now, it’s taken her to Mackay in north Queensland for her first visit to any Australian city outside SA since arriving almost three years ago – apart from a fleeting glimpse of Melbourne when she was in transit and couldn’t venture beyond the airport.

However, after so many hours spent trawling the internet in search of cricket clubs around the world that might take a punt on a self-taught leg spinner who stumbled into cricket through misadventure, Anesu Mushangwe is happy to finally feel settled both professionally and personally.

“I don’t go out very much because I don’t drink – I’ve never tried,” she said.

“I’m either training, or coaching, or studying and if I’m not doing any of those, then I’m sleeping.

“But everything has changed now. I even like running.

“And I’m not sending off message to cricket clubs around the world any more.

“Who knows, one day they might start messaging me.”

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