In the first match of 2012, for Mashonaland Eagles against Mountaineers, Zimbabwe’s senior bowler Raymond Price set a new Zimbabwean record. His three wickets in the first innings took him past Heath Streak’s total of 342 wickets in all first-class cricket for Zimbabwean teams.
Ray had been notified before the match that he was on the verge of breaking the record, but he did not remember until he came off the field during the interval and was congratulated by the writer. He had bowled one of his best spells, flighting the ball, teasing the batsmen and luring three of them to destruction, turning the match in favour of his team after Mountaineers had made a good start to their first innings.
“At the start [the pitch] had quite a bit of moisture underneath,” Ray said of his performance of the day. “It definitely helped me; it spun quite a lot. Then it dried out a bit and it’s got into a much better wicket. I think tomorrow we can capitalize. It’s definitely turned a bit flatter and didn’t spin half as much in the afternoon.
Tino Mawoyo, he of the 163 not out against Pakistan, was Ray’s first victim. “He started to move across the crease, so I went past him a couple of times and then bowled him a straight one to trap him lbw, which was perfect. Hamilton was quite nice, because I just put the ball a bit further, a bit fuller just outside off, to get him to try and drive it, and I pushed mid-off back; he got caught at gully, which was nice.”
And then the wicket that brought him the record. “The third one I bowled a little bit further outside leg and the guy [Benjy Katsande] tried to sweep and got caught; first slip managed to run round and catch it, so that was nice. And then I didn’t get any joy after that! But I’m happy with the way I’m bowling, [the ball is] coming out really well. I’m not trying to do anything too fancy, just do the simple things that I know and try to enjoy myself.”
He tended to give the ball a bit more flight this time than he often does, especially in one-day cricket. “I think the wicket suited that kind of bowling today. If you ran in and bowled a little bit too flat it was easy to block the ball and place it in the gaps. But if you gave it a little bit more flight it definitely helped you a bit at the start [of the day]. Later on there was still a bit of bounce.
“That’s the nice thing about [Harare] Sports Club, often even if it’s flat, if it’s going through for the seamers and there’s a bit of bounce, it makes a big difference. The last couple of games we’ve played on here it’s been very low and slow, and it’s very difficult to bowl on, because you can’t bowl with much loop; you need to bowl flat so it’s quite difficult. It’s nice to get a few overs under my belt before New Zealand, which is perfect.”
Ray is Zimbabwe’s senior first-class cricketer, although 36 is certainly no great age for a spin bowler; it speaks rather of the lack of experience in Zimbabwe cricket at present, with all Ray’s early contemporaries having departed the playing arena. He made his Test debut against Sri Lanka back in December 1999 and has taken 69 Test wickets – a long way behind Heath Streak’s 212, but he has suffered from the five-year gap in Zimbabwe’s Test cricket.
What would he name as the highlight of his playing career, as far as personal performances go? “Those six wickets against Australia when they had that world eleven with Steve Waugh’s team was one of my biggest highlights,” he replied. “And also just beating Bangladesh in our first Test back – that was fantastic. We were under a lot of pressure as well, with a lot of people watching Zimbabwe and seeing if we were good enough to come back. There was a lot of pressure on us in the changing room from all the people around as well, especially playing at home. But to turn it around and do so well against them was fantastic.
“It took a lot of pressure off us when we played against New Zealand and Pakistan as well, because we believed we were now good enough to play and to get back in. Brendon [Taylor] is playing so well at the moment! And hopefully Graeme Cremer will get fit and it will make a big difference to our Test side as well. Heath [Streak] is doing so well [coaching] our seamers, and that’s made a big difference. The nice thing is we can probably change our wickets to suit who we’re playing, which makes such a difference. We played on a really good wicket against New Zealand [in Bulawayo], and then when we played against Bangladesh here we played on a greenish wicket that seamed around and made a big difference for us. It’s great to be able to do that and not just rely on the spinners, and now it’s getting to the time when we can rely on both the seamers and the spinners, and it’s fantastic for Zim cricket.”
Given continued fitness, Ray could still play for several seasons yet. What are his ambitions for the future? One might expect the reaching of 100 Test wickets would figure highly, but he doesn’t mention this.
“I’m not trying to look too far ahead, just do the simple things I’ve been doing for the past 18 or 19 years. And to keep enjoying my cricket more than anything else. That’s what so important. There are a lot of troubles we may have off the field, but if you let all that get to you – well, you’ve still got to try and enjoy yourself on the field and be as competitive as you can. I still love getting batters out – it’s my favourite thing in the world!
Nothing specific? “There are quite a lot of things I’ve done – being number one in the world ICC one-day rankings, getting 400 first-class wickets [Note: this includes his wickets in county cricket in England] and things like this. I would love to get five wickets against every country in Test matches, but your time runs out and you can’t keep playing for ever, as much as you’d like to!”
Enjoying cricket is important to Ray, and it is sad that he has been given rather an unfair reputation by some commentators, who see him speaking to opposing players on the field with a straight face and, not able to hear his words, assume he is sledging them; some of them mistakenly referred to this during the World Cup and the recent Test matches. Ray denies this totally and says he likes to have fun in the game, even with opponents, and this is what he is doing; his tendency to keep a straight face can give the wrong impression, and perhaps opponents do not respond with a smile as they are unused to humour in the deathly serious atmosphere of modern international cricket.
“I’m looking forward to the day when we get back to playing 12 Tests in a year,” he says. “It makes such a difference, and the only way we’re going to learn is to keep playing. Whether we have to play the lower nations, those at the bottom, that’s fine – but just for us to get back into Test cricket is important. No, no real personal goals for me – I’m just happy with the way things are going and my body’s doing well. I just keep enjoying myself!”
Ray is no pushover as a batsman and has a first-class century to his credit. “I enjoy my batting as well and Grant [Flower] has been pushing us quite hard, making us do a lot of work in the nets. It’s been nice having him around as well, because he’s just the kind of person who likes to push you a lot and try to get the best out of you.”
All being well, Ray will be at the centre of Zimbabwe cricket for a few years yet, enjoying the game and hopefully not deceiving the commentators as much as he does the opposing batsmen. His record, though, will not last long after he retires, as there are a number of younger bowlers, headed by Graeme Cremer, who are taking stacks of wickets each season as they use to good advantage the extra first-class matches available to Zimbabwe’s players today. But it is to be hoped that he will always be given the honour and respect he deserves as one of Zimbabwe’s finest modern players.