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WHAT ZIMBABWE’S FALL MEANS FOR TEST CRICKET

They are locked in a vicious circle where the fewer Tests they play, the less competitive they are in the format. It does not speak well of the health of the five-day game. BY TIM WIGMORE

As with many press releases, the real meaning was not easy to spot. Nestled at the bottom of the ICC’s press release of May 3 was a note that Zimbabwe had been temporarily removed from the Test rankings table, after failing to play the required eight Tests since the start of the 2013-14 season. Just like that, Zimbabwe were now a ghost Test match nation.

Zimbabwe are adamant that it won’t be this way for long. They will return to the rankings table as soon as they play two Tests against New Zealand, which is likely to be in July.

“We are working round the clock to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” says Zimbabwe Cricket managing director Wilfred Mukondiwa, pointing out that Zimbabwe would never have lost their ranking had the Tests on their recent tour of Bangladesh not been postponed. “Our commitment to Test cricket remains unquestionable and as strong as ever.”

That notion is rather undermined by Zimbabwe’s recent fixture list in Test cricket. In the last 11 years, they have only played 14 Tests. While they were in self-imposed exile for the first six years, they have not played a single Test since November 16, 2014, 540 days ago (till May 9 this year). In their first 13 years as a Full Member, they played 83 Tests: around seven a year.

Removal from the Test rankings is just the latest sign of Zimbabwe’s cricketing decline. In 1998, they defeated Pakistan and India in consecutive Test series; the following year they came fifth in the 1999 World Cup. But five years later, in 2004, the chairman of Zimbabwe Cricket needed to telephone the chairman of Sri Lanka Cricket, imploring him to make Sri Lanka declare to spare his side from further ignominy. Only when Sri Lanka had reached 713 for 3, after Marvan Atapattu and Kumar Sangakkara plundered double-centuries, did they finally oblige.

Zimbabwe cricket is in a slightly less desolate state today, but it has failed to capitalise on the promise shown on its return to regular international competition in 2011. They are now ranked 11th in ODI cricket and 12th in T20I cricket, below Associate nations who receive a small percentage of the funding Zimbabwe receive from the ICC.

“On a day-to-day basis ZC is pretty much broke – why that is, I don’t know. But it makes more sense for them to have limited-overs tours rather than play Tests”

ALAN BUTCHER

Many of the problems are self-inflicted. In The Good MurunguAlan Butcher‘s fascinating account of his three years as Zimbabwe coach from 2010 to 2013, Butcher is angered by the notion that Ireland would have made better use of ICC funding than Zimbabwe, before, on the final page, conceding that perhaps the Irish had a point.

To David Coltart, a founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change and a former minister of education, sport and culture in Zimbabwe, the temporary loss of their Test ranking “is another indication of the gradual decline in Zimbabwe Cricket”, which he attributes to the rule of Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bvute. Those two are not officially part of the ZC’s new regime, but Chingoka, a long-time ally of Robert Mugabe, remains an honorary life president, and Bvute retains influence too.

Yet the state of Zimbabwe’s derisory Test fixture list is not entirely of their own making. As Butcher stresses in an interview to ESPNcricinfo, it also reflects how the ICC has no power to force teams to play Tests, and that while many Full Members are still prepared to play Zimbabwe, they are only willing to do so on flying visits. India’s tour next month is a case in point: six internationals (three ODIs and three T20Is) crammed into 12 days. The tour was originally meant to include a Test, but it vanished without trace, replaced by the three T20Is. Aptly, the schedule was confirmed on the day Zimbabwe departed from the Test rankings.

“I don’t think it is a lack of interest in Tests, I just think they’re stumped for cash,” Butcher says. “On a day-to-day basis ZC is pretty much broke – why that is, I don’t know. But it makes more sense for them to have limited-overs tours rather than play Tests.”

And the fewer Tests they play, the more Zimbabwe are locked in a vicious cycle. As former captain Brendan Taylor put it last year, “If you are playing two Test matches a year and hardly any four-day cricket, you are always going to struggle.” And as long as Zimbabwe play so little, their chances of being competitive are so scant that few will want to play or watch them in Test cricket.

Zimbabwe’s finest moments as a Test team were in 1998 when they beat India and Pakistan in consecutive series © Associated Press

Zimbabwe’s lack of Tests also contributes to their best players leaving. “Had Zimbabwe been able to regularly pay players their salaries, match fees and bonuses – which they couldn’t – and provide enough cricket, I think a lot of the players would have stayed,” Butcher reflects. Indeed, Taylor has long complained about the country’s lack of cricket, which he said was a big factor in his move to Nottinghamshire last year.

Few will mourn that Zimbabwe have become the invisible Test nation. Yet their slow departure from the Test arena bodes ill for the vitality of the longest format. A team of the standard of Zimbabwe in the late 1990s – and with fixtures and good administration, a side including Taylor, Kyle Jarvis, and even Gary Ballance and the Curran brothers, other products of Zimbabwe who have been lost, could surely have been just that – would be a boost to Test cricket. A game that only allows ten nations to play cannot be blasé about one of those teams disappearing, even as sports around the world expand with haste.

The fear is that Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from Tests, even if not official, is just the latest sign of interest in Test cricket being eroded. While Zimbabwean cricket has been beset by specific problems, the underlying reason for their lack of Test matches is merely an accelerated version of the force at work in the majority of Test nations: economics are more favourable to ODIs and T20Is than to Tests. Where Zimbabwe have led, Bangladesh, who have played only five Tests since the start of 2015, could soon follow; indeed, they recently postponed a three-Test series at home to Zimbabwe. Financial necessity also threatens to drive West Indies and then Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and even Pakistan and South Africa, to a future of fewer Tests and more limited-overs cricket.

The real significance of Zimbabwe’s descent is as a harbinger of what could happen if platitudes about protecting the primacy of Test cricket are not backed up by meaningful action

Such worries were meant to have been ended two years ago. Then the Test Cricket Fund, amounting to US$1.25 million per country per year, for all but the Big Three, was announced, to “allow those countries which find Test cricket difficult to sustain economically the opportunity to continue to stage Test matches”, as Giles Clarke put it. The fund, it was envisaged, would pay for each country to play 12 home Tests every four years.

Exactly what the cash has been spent on in Zimbabwe’s case is not clear, but the situation is a case study of why, as the MCC World Cricket Committee stressed last November, there needs to be “a monitoring system to ensure the money provided through the Test Match Fund is well utilised”. It is understood there will be no review of how the fund is spent until 2019.

Zimbabwe’s fate also provides a compelling argument for the ICC’s ongoing review into the structure of cricket. The mooted two-division Test structure would answer the question of what Zimbabwe have to gain playing Tests: they would have promotion to Division One to aspire to. At the moment the point of Zimbabwe playing Tests, especially when no one other than Bangladesh is willing to play them in anything longer than a two-match series, is not clear. What is the most they can achieve in Tests with so few matches?

“The bigger teams don’t really want to play the smaller teams because there’s no financial incentive for them to do so,” Butcher reflects. “The only way would be to have a Test championship or two divisions – something that compels teams to play. Maybe the ICC should organise the fixtures.”

Mukondiwa is supportive of the notion, saying “we welcome any initiatives designed to ensure we play more Test cricket, as that will provide us with a platform to not only improve but also prove our place among the world’s best is well and truly deserved”.

Unless that happens, making good on David Richardson’s decade-long quest to imbue Test cricket with structure, the risk is that an 11th Test nation – possible by the end of 2018 under the current rules of the Test Challenge – would suffer from a schedule of Tests as barren as Zimbabwe’s today. In effect, their prize of Test cricket would be worthless.

The real significance of Zimbabwe’s descent from the Test rankings is as a harbinger of what could happen if platitudes about protecting the primacy of Test cricket are not backed up by meaningful action. It is a sign that the format must adapt, and gain context and relevance, if it is to survive beyond a narrow coterie of countries. Inertia might lead inexorably to a future in which Test cricket all but dies beyond the Big Three and South Africa. This fate is far from inevitable, and could easily be averted by enlightened leadership from the ICC and Full Member boards. In Zimbabwe and beyond, it has too often been lacking.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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