When Brendan Taylor left Zimbabwe two and a half years ago, it was a matter of when, not if he would return. Like so many of his countrymen, he was only aiming to be a temporary economic refugee of sorts, escaping a crumbling economy to find financial stability abroad.
Taylor signed a Kolpak deal at the end of the 2015 World Cup, when Zimbabwe Cricket was hurtling through yet another overhaul, player strikes were rife, and payments were frequently delayed. Taylor wanted to play more cricket, more regularly, and be properly reimbursed for it. So he sacrificed the laid-back lifestyle he had become used to for a rigorous stint in the county trenches.
It began with him being tasked with opening the batting. In an unfamiliar position against the seaming ball, Taylor, whose lack of footwork is notorious, discovered that he would have to adjust quickly. "I worked on my backlift," he said. "I used to tap my bat on the ground a lot and now I stand upright, nice and still. It took a bit of getting used to, but after a while it came naturally."
Away from the game, he settled in fairly easily, though it was tough being away from his wife and two young sons, who had remained in Harare. Nottinghamshire helped him with a place to stay in the city, and he negotiated trips back home. "The facilities were outstanding," he said of Trent Bridge, "and I felt the club couldn't do enough for us. I felt very spoilt," he said.
It showed. Taylor scored 959 runs in his first county season, at an average of a shade under 40. But his participation in red-ball cricket waned as his time went on and he found himself steered towards the shorter formats. Naturally, that meant he had more time on his hands. He spent a lot of it watching the Zimbabwe team. "I followed them religiously," he said.
At first, there was not much to see. In the 15 months starting April 2015, Zimbabwe played nine ODI series and won only one, against Ireland. Though defeats to Pakistan, India, New Zealand and Bangladesh in Bangladesh might have been expected, their twin losses to Afghanistan were not. Cricket in the country was stagnating, maybe even deteriorating, and Taylor's decision to leave seemed justified.
Ahead of a two-Test home series against New Zealand, coach Dav Whatmore was sacked, Graeme Cremer was named captain, and change seemed to be coming to the game again. This was not new to Taylor, who had been through several regime changes with Zimbabwe, only to find things stayed exactly the same. He remained little more than an interested observer but also provided an outside ear. He spoke to Cremer every week, and in their conversations heard talk of several former players being interested in returning. Among those was Heath Streak, who was appointed head coach in October 2016.
Perhaps more significantly to Taylor was that Tatenda Taibu, alongside whom Taylor had played for much of his career, took on a mult-faceted role which included that of convener of selectors and a high-performance/development officer. High on Taibu's agenda was convincing those who had left to return, but he found he could not do that alone.
Taylor and Kyle Jarvis had become used to a professional structure and needed to see that attempts were being made to replicate that in Zimbabwe before they would consider leaving their stable jobs behind. That could only happen when the administration at the top changed.
In April this year, former ICC CFO Faisal Hasnain took over as MD of Zimbabwe Cricket. A new financial officer was put in place and it began to seem as though as the house was beginning to be swept clean. Taibu began more serious talks with Taylor; Jarvis, who left Zimbabwe for Lancashire in 2013; and Solomon Mire, who is based in Australia.
Mire came to an agreement that he would remain eligible for national selection without having to relocate to Zimbabwe, while Taylor and Jarvis were convinced to return by the newly promised financial security. "England can provide a very stable environment to play cricket. Zimbabwe Cricket has made great strides in trying to do the same," Taylor said. "I chatted to Kyle Jarvis at great length and I encouraged him to come home. I think he left Zimbabwe too soon."
Ultimately, they were also encouraged by the performances of the national team, specifically their spirited showing in Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe became the first team to successfully chase a total over 300 in an ODI on the island, and won the ODI series. They also came close to an upset victory in the only Test. That they lost to Afghanistan for a third time, in February, has faded from memory.
"I think this can be the best period of Zimbabwe cricket since I have been playing in 2004," Taylor said. "The group of players is exceptional. Everyone's game has been lifted 20%. We are a totally different side to the one that lost to Afghanistan earlier in the year."
Overall, Taylor has a point about improvement. Zimbabwe's dependence on the old guard, especially the old batting guard, has lessened. Between 2011 and 2015, they played 14 Tests and scored nine hundreds. Four of those came from Taylor and three from Hamilton Masakadza. Since Taylor's departure Zimbabwe have played five Tests and registered five hundreds from four different players, all of whom had never reached three figures before.
What's missing is a pace spearhead but Taylor hopes the return of Jarvis will change that. "For a while now, the team has lacked a high-quality bowler. Kyle has put in the work and come on in leaps and bounds, and now I think Zimbabwe will get the best out of him," he said.
"There has been no chat whatsoever about me taking over. I hope Graeme [Cremer] will get a long stint as captain. He is proactive and his heart is in the right place" Brendan Taylor
Then there is also the small matter of qualification for the 2019 World Cup. Taylor, Jarvis and Mire are all part of Zimbabwe's plans to ensure they get to the showpiece event, and with the qualifier being held in Zimbabwe, Taylor is confident they can qualify. "We are most consistent at home," he said. "We've seen Afghanistan really coming up, Ireland is always there and thereabouts, and West Indies will also be a challenge, so it's a huge period for all of us but the timing is perfect. With us back and some of the guys finding form, we are positive."
For Taylor and his ilk, there is no other option. The 2019 World Cup could well be their last chance to play in a major tournament.
Taylor has signed a four-year deal with Zimbabwe, which will keep him playing international cricket until he is at least 35. He knows his main challenge will be to stay fit and healthy as he enters an age range where many professional athletes start to wane. "I just need to look after my body," he said.
Cremer is the same age and likely sees a similar timeline for himself, except he has the added pressures of leadership. Having taken charge of the team before, Taylor will be an obvious sidekick. He has no designs on taking the reins again, though. "There has been no chat whatsoever about me taking over. I hope Graeme will get a long stint as captain. He is proactive and his heart is in the right place. He has good people around him and he will get good advice," Taylor said.
So, it would seem its all too easy for Taylor now. He was given a national contract mere hours after he was released from his Notts deal. That same day, Taibu told ESPNcricinfo he expected Taylor would walk back into the starting XI.
Taylor was exempt from the T20 matches against Netherlands but played in the opening round of the first-class season and scored a hundred for Rhinos against the new kids on the block, Rising Stars. Could it really get any easier?
"It might not look like it but I had to work my butt off to get runs," Taylor said. "The Rising Stars side have some excellent bowlers. They have been given first-class status and their bowling definitely warrants it. Tatenda has been doing some great work."
Left-arm seamer Richard Ngarava, Zimbabwe Under-19 player Blessing Muzarabani and legspinner Brandon Mavuta are part of the attack that Taibu took to the UK as part of an academy tour this winter. It's an exercise that they hope to repeat over the next four years as Zimbabwe seek to mine the talent pool and unearth the depths that keep the game going in the country. From what Taylor can tell, there has been a major shift in mindset, from a Zimbabwean outlook of being also-rans to one of having the ability to compete.
"I felt in the past, we didn't get the best out of our players and they didn't have that belief, but now that has changed," Taylor said. "Players feel backed and I think that will show in the results."
And like him, other players want to come back, which may make all the difference.