Paul Horton chose an unorthodox route this winter to put his career back on track, but the Sydney-born, Liverpool-raised Lancashire opener is convinced that a five-month stint in Bulawayo with the Matabeland Tuskers has done him the world of good.
Horton linked up with the former Zimbabwe captain Dave Houghton in the Castle Logan Cup, a five-franchise competition that offered him regular first-class cricket – and he returned to Manchester in late February having topped the national averages with 773 runs at 70.27 in his nine appearances, including a career-best 209 against Southern Rocks in Masvingo.
“I’m in the best place mentally and physically that I’ve ever been as a cricketer for Lancashire,” said the 28-year-old opener. “I went with a lot of ambition and drive, because I wanted to rediscover the form I had in 2007 and 2008. It was a great time for me.
“I’ve played a lot of cricket away in previous winters and I was just ready to play first-class cricket somewhere. There aren’t that many opportunities for an out and out batter, and there was the added impetus on me being an overseas pro, which means you feel a bit more responsibility.
“The standard of cricket wasn’t as good as in England, and it was never going to be. But irrespective of that, I know that I played some of the best cricket out there that I’ve ever played. I don’t need to tell anybody that, knowing it inside is what counts. The 200 was one of my goals, batting for a full day, because I’d never scored one in first-class cricket before.
“Just being in a different scenario and environment tests you, not only as a player but as a person. Don’t get me wrong, I was cocooned. But just by living in a country for five months you get a feel for it.
“Africa is something completely different. Seeing some of the other players over there, how they’d come from nothing, and some of the kit they used and shoes they wore, it’s made me realise how lucky I am with the lifestyle I have at home. I won’t be taking anything for granted.”
Horton’s positive outlook extends to the young squad with which Lancashire will start the season. “For me, it’s an exciting time for the club,” he added. “When you look around our side a lot of us were playing in the second team together five or six years ago, and that was a great time – we played really positive cricket, without fear of losing, and you only do that when you’re a close group of friends.
“We always wanted to have the chance to come through together into the first team and now, partly because of the club’s circumstances and the way the world’s moved on, we’ve got that chance.
“It’s time we step up now. I’m not a young player any more, I’m a senior player. I’ll be honest, I was poor last year in first-class cricket, although in my defence there weren’t too many opening batters who really enjoyed themselves – no heavy rollers made a big difference.”
If Horton’s African adventure does help him to recapture the confidence and consistency he showed in 2007 and 2008, when he totalled a round 2,000 in first-class cricket at an average in the mid-40s, it would make a huge difference to Lancashire.