"...I've got a hell of a lot of pride and I'm very patriotic about Zimbabwe," the shine in Ryan Burl's eyes and the tone of his voice add more depth to his words. He was still a teenager when he gave first-hand proof of the love and passion he has for his country. Enjoying a secured life with a university degree offered in Southampton and a contract to play county cricket, Ryan was all set to have a much-desired and lucrative lifestyle in England. If he had backed up the talent with performance in county cricket consistently then perhaps even a shot at playing international cricket for England would not have been far off. But the then 19-year-old cricketer born in Marondera, 72km east of Harare, was still unsure. Something didn't feel right. Something was missing.
It was during that time he got a call to play first-class cricket in Zimbabwe. That was it. Ryan found the missing piece of his jigsaw. "I was really young. I was studying at a university in Southampton at that time (in 2013-14). I wasn't totally sure where my career or my life was going. You are quite naive when you are 19 or 20. I couldn't turn down the opportunity to play for my country. That pride and passion to play for my country obviously led to my decision. I moved back to Zimbabwe. I stopped university, stopped any pursuit of county cricket and just wanted to give Zimbabwe Cricket my everything," he told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview.
The thought of risking both his financial and cricketing prospects never crossed the all-rounder's mind. The idea of wearing the Zimbabwe shirt one day at an international match was far greater than any other concern. After 3 Tests, 28 ODIs and 47 T20Is and becoming the first Zimbabwe cricketer to hit six boundaries in a T20I - five sixes and a four against Bangladesh - it's still the same. "I'm not regretting that decision at all, I'm really happy," he said with a kid in a candy shop expression.
Things, however, were not as easy as Ryan tried to make them appear. Even before his international career could kickstart against India six years ago, which also was the last time India toured Zimbabwe, Ryan suffered a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). "The last time we played against India, I had an injury. I tore my ACL the day before I was supposed to make my debut," he said. The dream to play against an MS Dhoni-led Indian outfit remained unfulfilled but the left-handed attacking middle-order batter, who also bowls handy leg-spin, will be one of Zimbabwe's main hopes in their upcoming three-match ODI series against India starting Thursday at his home ground in Harare.
The six-year gap between an India-Zimbabwe bilateral had a lot to do with the kind of condition Zimbabwe Cricket was in. Financial instability and government interference led to the suspension of the cricket board in July 2019 and although ICC revoked the suspension, restoring Zimbabwe Cricket's status three months later, it was too late for them to compete in the T20 World Cup qualifier for next year's edition in India. For someone like Ryan, it was a dagger to the heart.
"It's kind of hard to explain those emotions. At that time, there was so much uncertainty. You don't know what was going on and then obviously, after that there came Covid... There was a feeling, am I ever gonna play? In the 2019 ODI World Cup, we missed out (qualification) by a couple of runs. We were not eligible to take part in the T20 World Cup. It was very difficult. I was honestly unsure and uncertain (about the future). We shed a lot of tears and kind of somehow wanted to get past that period," the 28-year-old recalled.
The ban was lifted in October 2019 but the pandemic situation that followed soon after meant Zimbabwe lost all its sponsors. There was hardly any team ready to tour or even invite them for bilaterals when cricket resumed. The financial condition of the board was at an all-time low. It was then that Ryan came up with a tweet with photos of his torn shoes that shook the cricketing world.
"It was an insight into what kind of life we cricketers can go into, behind the scenes. I know I'm not the only one in the change room doing that tinkering with their stuff whether it be glueing your shoes, changing your grips, or fixing your studs that might be bending. It was to show what kind of goes on in the background with us cricketers," said the all-rounder when asked the reasons behind his tweet last year.
Things, however, have changed for good since then. Under new coach Dave Houghton, Zimbabwe have started winning again. Ryan, with his all-round performance, was at the forefront when Zimbabwe beat a full-member nation in a bilateral series for the first time in five years in July this year. They beat Bangladesh in both T20Is and ODIs.
"Recently we've been playing a lot of positive cricket and that has obviously resulted in a lot of wins, two back-to-back series wins, qualifying for the World Cup... In a month or two's time I get to represent my country at the World Cup, what more can you ask for?" he added.
When asked about his plans against India, the Ryan who hit 34 runs in an over against Bangladesh left-arm spinner Nasum Ahmed took centre stage overtaking the one highlighting the sorry tale of Zimbabwe cricketers a year ago.
"Just bowl our best balls (to their batters), say a few prayers. Just keep it as simple as possible, we are obviously playing at home so we obviously know the conditions better. We've got our gameplans and match-ups and on the day we've gotta get out there and perform well," he added.