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Cricket news - Living the World Cup dream: The Masakadza Story

Zimbabwe's spirited run in the 1999 World Cup sowed the seeds of the World Cup dream for Masakadza.

What does the World Cup mean to you?

Even at a time when ODI cricket is facing a recurring battle with context, the World Cup enjoys a pedestal position. It remains a wonderful placeholder of time, a reference point to hark back and remember where you were and what you did when a moment played itself into folklore.

Two decades ago, in the summer of 1999, Zimbabwe captain Hamilton Masakadza was studying at Churchill High School in Harare on a cricket scholarship. A good portion of his morning classes were spent plotting an escape from post-lunch "crafts and arts" subjects with future national teammates Tatenda Taibu and Stuart Matsikenyeri to get to the nearest television set.

Away in the United Kingdom, all-rounder Neil Johnson had created quite an impression on these 16-year-olds with his three Man of the Match-winning performances at the World Cup. "He was opening the batting and bowling for Zimbabwe!" Masakadza tells Cricbuzz. "That is my earliest World Cup memory. We beat South Africa and India that year. I would attend classes at school in the morning and then sneak away from afternoon activities to go and watch these great players, Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Guy Whittal, Henry Olonga, Alistair Campbell..." he tails off.

Zimbabwe's spirited run to the Super Six stage of the 1999 World Cup sowed the seeds of the World Cup dream for Masakadza. By July 2001, he was an international cricketer and had become the youngest player to score a century on Test debut (a feat eclipsed by Mohammad Ashraful). Yet, when the 2003 World Cup came closer home, to Africa, Masakadza made a ballsy move to hit pause on a lifelong dream. He, who would have been in contention for selection, chose instead to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce (B-Com) degree in Marketing.

The dream, according to him, had failed a practicality test. "No not really. I didn't feel too bad," Masakadza says of the self-imposed cricketing exile. "I wanted to really focus on my studies. I didn't really mind missing out on the World Cup because I'd always wanted to get all my studies out of the way before I got into international cricket seriously.

"Sports being sports, you never know how you are going to do, what's going to happen. Where you're going to end up or if you are going to get injured. I always knew I had to make sure I had a strong studying background so that I could be more comfortable in sports."

Despite his decision to stay away, Masakadza found himself closer than ever to the World Cup. At Bloemfontein in South Africa, where he was in the second year of his course at the Free State College, Zimbabwe played two World Cup games - against New Zealand and Kenya. Taibu, Masakadza's close friend from Churchill High, had made it to the national team and was now "living his dream".

"I took a day out to watch that first game," Masakadza remembers. "It was so cool, a World Cup game! I actually went to be with the guys at the team hotel. I could catch up with people (Taibu) who had grown up with me. It was quite special for me to watch them play in a World Cup.

"But I was still comfortable [with my decision to skip] because I knew I was too young, I knew that even if I stepped out for three years for my school, I will still have a whole cricketing career ahead of me. Which is exactly what I've had. Despite missing those years, I've now played 14-15 years of international cricket."

Destiny has a funny way of playing out. Little did Masakadza know then that he would see the next two World Cups come and go as an active cricketer and not feature in either of them. Friday Kastenfrii, a teenager with a solitary ODI under his belt, replaced Masakadza for the 2007 edition after the latter went 10 ODIs before the squad selection without a half-century. Masakadza bounced back with 1087 runs in 2009 but only managed an average of 19 from 17 games in the year leading into the 2011 World Cup squad.

"Timing!," he says with a laugh, reflecting on those two squad announcements. "This was my one big dream. It was very disappointing to be missing out in those crucial moments. I just played really badly just before those two World Cups. Even the selectors didn't have too much of a choice but to leave me out. Somehow I knew that I was not going to be picked.

"Thankfully, the support system was incredible. Grant Flower was always around. The first thing he did after coming back from the World Cup with the boys was that he started preparing personally with me to help me get back in the team, which I managed to do pretty soon after."

The breakthrough finally came in Australia and New Zealand in 2015. This time Masakadza worked himself worthy of soaking in all the sights and smells of a World Cup campaign. Having lived on relayed information, it was time to live the World Cup.

Like in 1999, Zimbabwe played their best cricket against South Africa and India, but failed to cross the line on both occasions here. Masakadza's memories of his first World Cup, though, go beyond his stunning lofted six off Dale Steyn or his dismissal by Imran Tahir at a wrong time.

"It is an incredible feeling to be at a World Cup that can be hard to describe," he says. "When we landed in Christchurch, the Zimbabwean community was out there to receive us at the airport with flags, drums playing traditional music, sadza (a maize-based porridge) and everything. Every stop we made, in Australia and New Zealand, the community was around, to be with us and show us a little bit of the country and the culture. It was so incredible.

"At the opening ceremony, we met Richie McCaw [All Blacks]. That was beautiful. Of course I got pictures clicked. This was the captain of the best rugby team in the world. In Zimbabwe, we follow a lot of Rugby especially with my background in Churchill school. We used to do the Haka [The traditional Maori dance] as well like they did. That was so special to meet him at an event like this."

"Hamilton had the funniest story," Masakadza adds. "We had a party for Zimbabweans. One gentleman came up to me with a whole lot of goodies just because my name is Hamilton, the same as the city. Just black bags, hats, shirts with just the name Hamilton printed. I've kept all of them," he adds with a laugh.

It was in this backdrop, midway through the 2015 event, that the ICC decided to reduce the number of participating teams for the 2019 World Cup to 10. It was a crushing blow for the likes of Zimbabwe, Scotland, Ireland, Afghanistan and the UAE - who'd all contributed to the success of the 2015 edition. Potentially only one of them would play in 2019 with ninth-ranked ODI team at the cut-off (West Indies) also going into the qualification tournament.

"The World Cup was shortened. What can we do? We had to simply focus on the qualifiers. But even then, if you had given me the option that all we had to do was to beat UAE in our last game to qualify for another World Cup, I would have taken it with both hands."

Alas. The spirit of Masakadza and Co. was not enough. That quality took them to within touching distance of his second World Cup appearance in 18 years, but no further. Zimbabwe were ousted by UAE in a dramatic rain-affected game by the DLS method, plunging a packed Harare Sports Club and the home dressing room into despair.

"Every single person in that room was absolutely devastated. When I went back to the change room after the game, for half an hour I couldn't say anything. Even after the fans went off. Even three weeks later, there was the pain of missing the World Cup. It won't be easy to get over. But in life, we have to find a way to move on. We can't stay disappointed for too long. But we will not be too far. We'll be playing Netherlands and Ireland while the World Cup is on. That'll be some distraction. Of course I can also watch it on TV, like in 1999."

Masakadza, now approaching 36, is confident of seeing Zimbabwe return to the World Cup in 2023, but doesn't see himself in that mental visual. He knows he could have played as many as five World Cups - behind only Javed Miandad and Sachin Tendulkar, who played six each - but remains very grateful for the one he did manage to play.

"The World Cup is huge. When you start playing a sport, you aim to play for a country. The next thing you aim is to play for your country in a World Cup. For me, the World Cup is epic. It is the highest point of any sportsman's career there is so much around. There is so much at stake. I would have liked to play a few more than I did but hey, at least I got to play one. Many great players didn't."

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