Andy Flower

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In a country whose descent into anarchy has almost reached terminal velocity, it is hard to keep one's eye on the ball. In a perfect world, a profile of a cricketer would not carry the baggage of politics. But Zimbabwe is not like other Test-playing nations; there is not a man, woman or child there who has been unaffected by events unravelling in a land once called "a jewel in Africa". The bewildering machinations of politicians and their lackeys have permeated every fabric of society, and cricket has not been excluded.

So there was something especially piquant in Andy Flower's regeneration since being stripped of Zimbabwe's captaincy on his return from the tour of England in July 2000; a sacking that came as a "complete bolt from the blue". Lesser men might have quit. Instead, while around him his country and as often as not his team crumbled, Zimbabwe's 32-year-old left-handed wicket-keeper/batsman went about his cricketing business with his usual tight-lipped determination. Twelve months later, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations named him International Cricketer of the Year.

Andy Flower was born on the stroke of midnight of April 28/29, 1968 in the Cape coastal hamlet of Fish Hoek, South Africa, the third-born of three brothers and a sister. Brother Grant was born some two and a half years later. Their father, a keen sports enthusiast and an accountant, traversed southern Africa in the course of his career, family in tow, and Andy was ten before the family finally settled in what was then Rhodesia. He excelled at sport throughout his schooldays, being awarded colours for hockey, tennis and cricket, and in 1986, his last year at Vainona High School in northern Harare, he toured England with the Stragglers club. They played 16 games in three weeks, and the seeds of a life in pursuit of the cricketing sun were sown.

The following year, he commenced work at the Anglo American Corporation, but after 16 months returned to England to play for Barnt Green in the Birmingham League, where he met his future wife, Rebecca Hampson. A spell in the Lancashire leagues came next, at Heywood, and he was already playing in The Netherlands, for Voorburg in The Hague, when Zimbabwe selected him for the 1990 ICC Trophy there. Grant, playing for Winscombe in the Somerset League, was also in the squad, and the brothers' contribution to Zimbabwe's successful tournament - they beat Holland in the final - was not inconsequential. Andy scored 311 runs at an average of 77.75, and Grant 253 at just over 63.

Vital as it was to Zimbabwe's quest for Test status, this third successive ICC Trophy win also meant a place at the 1991-92 World Cup in Australasia. Against Sri Lanka at New Plymouth, Andy celebrated his senior international debut in fair style, keeping wicket and batting throughout the innings for an unbeaten 115 - only the third player to score a century on one-day debut. But while it earned him the match award, it didn't result in a Zimbabwe victory, a portent of the way things would be for the rest of the decade.

Zimbabwe's captain for two tenures, Andy Flower led them to their first Test win, a triumphant innings victory over Pakistan at Harare in February 1995. It was only their 11th Test, and saw the Flowers' stand of 269 transcend the fraternal partnership record set by Ian and Greg Chappell against New Zealand in 1973-74. Grant was not out 201, his maiden Test century, while Andy made 156, his second. Zimbabwe's inaugural Test had been against India in October 1992. From then until breaking his thumb on the last day of their Test victory over India, at Harare in June 2001 - he hit the winning boundary - Andy Flower played in every one of his country's 52 Tests and 172 one-day internationals.

He had scored 3,908 runs in the Tests at 51.42, with nine hundreds, as well as making 143 dismissals; in the one-day games, he was averaging 33.54 from 5,267 runs, with two hundreds and 44 half-centuries, and had made 124 catches and 30 stumpings. His highest score, an unbeaten 232 at Nagpur in November 2000, was the best by any wicket-keeper in Tests, and the crowning achievement in a glorious run of nine post-captaincy Tests that brought 1,066 runs at 88.83. In India alone, highlighting his aptitude against spin, his scores in the two Tests were 183 not out, 70, 55 and 232 not out. A seventh consecutive Test fifty, against Bangladesh at Bulawayo, set him alongside Everton Weekes in the record books.

In his earlier years especially, commentators noted Andy Flower's obduracy. These days the talk is more about his mental stamina. "When I started taking cricket seriously," he explained, "I never actually had a high regard for whatever talent I had. Seeing the ball, hitting it, there were plenty of other cricketers who did that far better than I did. But I thought one area where I could be better than them was to be more determined, more hungry, and not give anything away." He may not be the prettiest batsman to watch, building his game around back-foot strokes square of the wicket, but he is considered by some to be the finest exponent of the reverse sweep, having added his own subtleties to that shot.

Returning after injury to play South Africa in September 2001, he did not concede a bye in an innings that lasted ten hours. He followed that up by becoming the first keeper to make hundreds in each innings of a Test, batting for almost 15 hours. His 142 and 199 not out took him to No. 1 in the PwC rankings, the first Zimbabwean and the first wicket-keeper/batsman to top the world list. Still Zimbabwe lost. No wonder Andy Flower is thought of as "The Rock" in some circles - and the patron saint of lost causes in others.

© John Wisden & Co