Eleven months on from India’s last visit, Zimbabwe are set to play their fourth captain and all of them are vital to lift a side that has been talented but inconsistent
Eleven months ago, almost to the day, India began another ODI series in Zimbabwe. Then, just as now, they toured with a second-string side. Two members of that side, Kedar Jadhav and Dhawal Kulkarni, will quite likely revive their international careers at the same place where they were cryogenically frozen in July 2015, the Harare Sports Club.
They will wake up and confront a Zimbabwe side that looks much like the one they last played against, but is at the same time entirely different. It is a Zimbabwe side that has gone up, down, and mostly sideways in those 11 months.
There were some sparks of life: a T20 win over India, ODI wins over New Zealand and Pakistan, and an ODI series win for the first time in more than two years, against Ireland.
But it is the defeats that have shown where Zimbabwe now sit in international cricket’s hierarchy. They went to Bangladesh twice, and both tours only confirmed that the two teams, for so long the subjects of cricket’s most frequently used asterisk, were going in opposite directions. Zimbabwe weren’t the ones going up.
And then there was Afghanistan – home, away (sort of), and in neutral territory, and at the end of it all, the Associates kept winning and the Full Members became the plucky underdogs. When Zimbabwe lost the fifth of five T20 meetings with Afghanistan, they went out of the World T20, victims of an unforgiving format for teams outside the top eight.
That spelled the end for Dav Whatmore’s year-and-a-half-long reign as coach, and for Hamilton Masakadza’s three-match reign as captain. It completed a bizarre few months for Masakadza: dropped in October 2015, he had come back and scored 47, 83, 26, 110, 33, 63, 79, 30, 20 and 93* in four ODIs and six T20Is against Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Then, after Elton Chigumbura’s resignation, he became captain in all three formats. Then, after one tournament, the sack.
Graeme Cremer missed that tournament, the World T20, with a fractured forearm. When he leads Zimbabwe out in the first ODI against India, he will be their fourth captain in the 11 months since India’s previous tour. All four captains will most likely be part of Zimbabwe’s first XI. All four are at critical junctures in their careers.
Since May 2015, when he returned from a two-year international hiatus, Cremer has been Zimbabwe’s most consistent performer with the ball, taking 21 wickets in 18 ODIs at 34.14, while conceding less than five an over, and 24 wickets in 15 T20Is at 15.62, while giving away less than seven an over. But Zimbabwe have only appointed Cremer on an interim basis, and he will need to maintain that level of performance to keep himself in the frame for the full-time job.
Among Cremer’s competitors is Sikandar Raza, who captained Zimbabwe for one match, in Chigumbura’s absence, and led them to a T20I win over India. Not a lot can be read into a solitary performance, but he has been an important figure in the side, full of energy, and a move down the order seems to have transformed him from a maker of attractive cameos to a middle-order firefighter, as he showed with hundreds against Pakistan and New Zealand last year.
Masakadza, meanwhile, will have to quickly put behind him the abrupt end of his latest captaincy stint. His form doesn’t seem to have abated since the World T20, and comes into the India series after scoring two hundreds and a 61 from seven 50-over games for Kalabagan Krira Chakra in the Dhaka Premier League. But at 32, he remains an unfulfilled top-order talent: strong technique, imposing strokeplay, no major weaknesses, but still averaging below 30 in ODIs.
Of the four captains, Chigumbura goes into this series at the lowest ebb. At the same time 11 months ago, he was in the form of his life. Having just made his maiden ODI hundred, against Pakistan, he followed it up with another in the first ODI against India.
Since then, he has passed 50 only once in 38 ODI and T20I innings, and at one point had been out for seven single-digit scores in ten innings. Having occupied the No. 4 slot while making those two hundreds, he has slipped down the order again, to Nos. 6 and 7.
All this has coincided with his medium-pace going into steady disuse; he has only bowled four times in his last 43 international matches. Chigumbura might therefore be at a point where he needs to define, with his performances, what exactly he is: a specialist batsman or an all rounder.
Eleven months on from India’s last visit, Zimbabwe have undergone multiple upheavals but remain more or less the same side: talented, inconsistent, frustrating. They retain the same core, with altered hierarchies. They have four captains, current or former. All four have rarely performed at the same time; perhaps that is what Zimbabwe will need if they are to become the best side they can be.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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