Tawanda Muyeye is one of those cricketers you tend to hear stories about. From the thousand runs in a season at Eastbourne college that ended with the title of Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year, to the dreamy third ball six over long-on in his first short-form game for Kent 2nd XI this week, a clip that has been doing the rounds on social media.
Then there’s the story Rob Ferley, his coach at Eastbourne, tells about training in the indoor school and cranking the bowling machine up steadily until it reached 99mph as Muyeye calmly ran though his drills, hitting the ball to all areas, oblivious to the fact he was facing the robot version of Shoaib Akhtar. This was a schoolboy. Ferley went to fetch another teacher just to confirm what he was seeing.
Ferley, who played for Kent and England Under-19s, describes himself as “another jaded ex-pro”, and knows full well his fellow coaches might roll their eyes. But he is unequivocal in his assessment: “I genuinely think he could be the best player in the world”.
It is a deliberate hyperbole, based on talent, possibilities and the basic arc of what a 20-year-old can hope to achieve. And Muyeye has already come quite a long way.
On a freezing Monday morning in the empty stands at the St Lawrence Ground he sounds reassuringly even-keeled after a fraught couple of months. Since the start of March, Muyeye has turned 20, signed a contract at Kent, made his first-class debut and – oh yes – had his right to remain in the UK approved by the Home Office after a long and anxious wait.
“I’m an asylum seeker,” he says. “My family are refugees, my mum is a refugee, I am a refugee. This is due to the human rights violations in Zimbabwe. For as long as it goes on I will speak up about it. I think it’s very wrong.
“My mum was political, she supported the opposition party [the Movement for Democratic Change]. We had to leave home and come and seek asylum as she felt very threatened and unsafe.
“Luckily England has been really good to us and she has been able to settle down here. To have the freedom and live in a place where you don’t feel threatened, to raise a family here. I’m just so glad she’s safe and we’re all safe.”
Muyeye has been granted the right to remain indefinitely (“It means I’m basically treated as an English citizen”) and this is home now. “I want to play for England. Obviously there is a huge amount to learn before it’s a possibility. But that’s my ambition. I want to play Test cricket for England.”
Muyeye is well aware he is the greenest of newbie pros, learning from observing the likes of Zak Crawley (“Times it so well it’s unreal”); Joe Denly (“Something to watch in the nets”) and, of course, Darren Stevens (“Phenomenal. He knows so much about cricket”).
It will be six years before Muyeye can qualify for England. Before then he will face the usual uneasy intersection of obvious talent and the step into professional sport, with its intangibles, its difficulty levels, its grind. Three weeks ago, he made his first-class debut against Sussex, with little cricket of any kind behind him. He lasted eight balls in the first innings, pinned by Ollie Robinson in the middle of a high-class spell.
“I was feeling fresh and really excited. It’s a massive moment that I’ve been thinking about for so long. Ever since I was young in Zim, I’ve wanted to play cricket in England. The game started and Jofra [Archer] was on a roll, Ollie Robinson was on a roll, it was pretty cool, you know, the chance to face two guys who are going to play Test cricket for England.”
Muyeye spent the winter training at Sussex with Robinson, who he rates as “maybe the best bowler in England right now”. “I do think he turned it up a notch when I was out there. It was pretty good, he gave me a bit of a send-off, but it was all in the spirit of the game, and I spoke to him afterwards. Hopefully I’ll get to play him again.”
As the game meandered to a draw three days later there was a first small glimpse of that easy style, the flashing hands, and one vicious pull over midwicket. As Ferley says: “He’s box office. Whenever he bats people will want to watch him.”
Muyeye mentions his cricketing heroes – Viv Richards, Kevin Pietersen – and talks with mild awe of watching Joe Root bat at Yorkshire this season. “It’s like he’s playing in slow motion, he’s got so much time.”
“I’m pretty good with short stuff, I like facing quick bowling, I like getting into a battle with a fast bowler,” he says. “I am looking forward to the white-ball stuff. But I’ve been a pro for six weeks, and the biggest challenge for me is trying to adapt my game to the longer format. I’ve been working with Mike Yardy on what to leave, he is phenomenal on the mindset of batting.”
It is a style first glimpsed in tape ball games with his brother at the family home in Harare. In a fresh twist on the homespun origin story the young Muyeyes would break open roll-on deodorant dispensers and take the plastic ball out so they could play inside. Muyeye was nine and playing in his primary school team when he realised he was pretty good at this game. “I scored maybe eight hundreds.”
He also played rugby union, specialising in diving across the line like his hero Bryan Habana, and was good enough to represent Zimbabwe in both sports at under‑16 level. The move to Eastbourne was a life-changing break. He wrote to schools across England looking for a chance to move in his A-level years. Eventually an email reached Ferley. “It was unusual,” he says. “It went: ‘Dear Sir. I’ve played in these matches where I scored 0, 0, 100, 24, 0, 0, 100.’ I thought, that’s interesting. Nobody puts their zeros in.” Some video footage followed. “I watched three balls and thought, yeah.”
There were bleak times in the past year. The uncertainty of his situation meant not being able to work, play cricket or do much beyond relying on the kindness of friends during lockdown. “That was one of my lowest points in life, it was really tough. I just didn’t know what I was going to do.”
He is hugely grateful to Kent, and Paul Downton in particular, for their help in that time. Ferley and James Tredwell, another strong influence, were a lifeline, and his agent, James, at Insignia gets a heartfelt name check. “It was ridiculous what he did helping me.”
The initial advice was the Home Office would make a decision on 1 March. Four days later, Muyeye was coming back from Nottingham, on the one hand weighing up an offer to play county cricket at Trent Bridge, on the other his future still completely up in the air.
“I was on the train when I got the phone call. I couldn’t even cry, I was just really excited and very, very relieved. My mum cried. She got my favourite cake from Waitrose.” It doesn’t get much more English than that. Now for the cricket.