A dearth of fixtures, form and finances have caused them to flounder since their return from Test exile. And a bunch of premature retirements haven’t helped.
Five years ago there was hope for Zimbabwean cricket. They made a comeback to Test cricket after a six-year self-imposed exile with a win. In purely cricket terms, it was a fairy tale. By Firdose Moonda
Zimbabwe’s XI was a mix of fresh faces and players who had seemed out of their depth in the format a few years before but had become experienced. Among them was Hamilton Masakadza, who had scored a century on debut and repeated the feat in this landmark 2011 fixture; Brendan Taylor, reformed from his days as a rebel and relishing leadership; and Tatenda Taibu, whose talent overflowed. They had an exciting new-ball pair, Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis, who brought swing and pace to complement the veteran Chris Mpofu. The individuals provided all the ingredients, the backroom staff turned them into a team.
On reputation alone, Grant Flower and Heath Streak inspired. When they rolled their sleeves up to work with the team, they translated that into action. Flower threw endless balls, Streak massaged bowling skills into shape, and then there was Alan Butcher, who took man-management seriously, created a safe environment and taught the players to believe in themselves.
Of course the set was not perfect; few ever are. There were run-ins between the coaches and the board, there was Taibu’s bombshell on the eve of the match, that players did not have certainty over their contracts or their pay; and there was the reality that one Test was just one Test. But there was hope.
“Even though we had not played any international cricket, we had played a lot against South Africa A and we played Australia A. The guys had played a lot of cricket, as well as domestic cricket,” Streak, who was Zimbabwe’s bowling coach at the time, said. “We played a lot of international A teams at a high level, which I think helped the guys prepare.”
In the three months that followed, Zimbabwe had the same number of home tours. They lost more than they won but they showed the kind of fight that could lead to improvement. But now, five years later, they’re still waiting for the curve to turn properly. “We were competitive. It was exciting times. Grant Flower and I were pretty hopeful that if we continued to work hard on the guys, you could see progression happening,” Streak says.
So far, though, all there has been is fluctuation, with periods of promise lost in deserts of uncertainty. At Test level, Zimbabwe are all but marooned, with a dearth of fixtures, form and finances causing them to flounder.
In the five-year period since their comeback in 2011, Zimbabwe have played just 16 matches, the fewest of any team. Bangladesh are the only other Test team to have played fewer than 40 matches in the same period, with Australia and England playing the most – 60 and 62 respectively.
Of the matches Zimbabwe have played, more than a third have been against the same opposition – Bangladesh – who they have played six times. They have played New Zealand four times, Pakistan three, West Indies twice and South Africa once, leaving no matches against England, Australia, India and Sri Lanka.
In the small world of elite-level cricket, Zimbabwe have only been exposed to an even smaller circle of competition. While England have political reasons for not competing against Zimbabwe, the other three have just not organised any fixtures against them, although there is a Sri Lanka series scheduled for the end of the year. But that is not where Zimbabwe’s limitations stop.
In 16 Tests, Zimbabwe have played at eight different venues. Two of them are at home: Harare and Bulawayo, where they have played six and four of those Tests. They have had just six away matches, one in New Zealand, two in the West Indies and three in Bangladesh, who also don’t get to travel that much. Over the same period, Bangladesh have played at nine venues, but the other eight teams have played at a minimum of 18, with England and Australia getting to 33 and 32 respectively.
It’s not just change of scenery that Zimbabwe are after but different conditions, which will allow them to adapt better. As things stand, the surfaces Zimbabwe are most used to playing on are their own, which are slow and low year round. Both Harare Sports Club and Queens Club in Bulawayo do not offer much assistance for either seam or spin, and force batsmen to settle into slower than usual scoring rates. Test cricket in Zimbabwe is a throwback to the 1990s or earlier. Test cricket everywhere else operates in the 2000s. Surfaces are primed to suit home advantage: green mambas in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand for the quicks, raging turners in the subcontinent for the spinners. Zimbabwe would not know how to approach either because they simply never see those types of wickets.
Even if a small selection of Zimbabwean players does get to experience varying conditions through club stints in other countries, the chances of those players being able to bring that experience to bear when they play for the national team are slim. Player rotation in Zimbabwean cricket is high and those that go tend to stay gone, or at least stay away long enough to deny the system any continuity.
That’s why, in just 16 Tests, Zimbabwe have capped 25 new players, the joint-highest number with Australia. In those matches, there were only three occasions when Zimbabwe took the field without debutants. In total, Zimbabwe have used 36 players in this time.
Streak identified the retirements of Taibu, Jarvis and Taylor as the biggest losses. “Even though it was only three players, it had a massive impact on Zimbabwe. We don’t have a lot of players, like Australia or India, who have players lined up, and especially those of that calibre – they are difficult to replace overnight. They were match-winners,” he said.
The trio aside, scanning some of the names asks many questions about how well Zimbabwe’s personnel are managed. Of those 25 new caps, nine have been retained from before the current series against New Zealand, while four others made their debuts in this series. What about the other half? Here’s the low-down.
Tendai Chatara was ruled out with an injury. Vitori, who has also struggled with injuries, has more recently been sidelined for six months, correcting an illegal action. Greg Lamb, who is 35 and was playing until last season, has presumably moved on. Keegan Meth has relocated to Canada. Malcolm Waller hoped to be in the squad for this series but was overlooked. Shingi Masakadza finished as the leading wicket-taker in the Logan Cup and played in the A matches against South Africa but was not picked. Timycen Maruma and Natsai M’shangwe played for the A side, and Richmond Mutumbami and Tafadwa Kamungozi have been used in limited-overs teams, Forster Mutizwa is playing domestically, and Jarvis has retired to play county cricket.
All but Lamb and Meth are still playing cricket but Zimbabwe’s dilemma is that they don’t seem to know how to make best use of them. “The talent is there but you’ve got to support and nurture that talent,” Streak said. “Guys have to be allowed to play enough cricket to continue to evolve.”
Finances are one reason some have left but mostly it’s the unpredictability of the system that frustrates them. There are stories of players being notified of call-ups at midnight the day before a game, and of players being given to believe they will be picked and then told they are not in contention at the last minute.
Because the domestic structure, which has moved away from a franchise competition to a provincial one, has so few fixtures, it cannot be used as a guideline for picking the national squad. “The franchise system was initially very strong because it was supported by two or three very strong overseas professionals, and that has also fallen away,” Streak says. “The level of domestic cricket has just come down a bit because those sorts of guys would raise the bar.”
Heath Streak: “It’s expensive for us to host Test cricket here. We are very reliant on Indian fixtures” © Zimbabwe Cricket
It’s on a whim sometimes that players are called up – Mpofu to the current Test squad training, for example – and dropped. Vusi Sibanda played in the A matches leading up to this Test series, only to be given no explanation for why he was not part of the final squad.
Some of these are down to the fac that Zimbabwe’s administration is in a constant state of flux, which cannot aid stability. In the five years since their Test comeback, Zimbabwe have had five coaches, moving from Butcher, to Andy Waller to Stephen Mangongo, Dav Whatmore, and now Makhaya Ntini. They have also had several different consultants, changes in the selection panel, convener, a change of chairman and managing director. Every new person who comes in brings his own plan, and often those plans do not match each other. Sometimes it is simply the cost of implementing plans that Zimbabwe cannot meet.
The financial malaise of Zimbabwe Cricket has been written about at length, with investigations into the organisation’s debt and the alleged mismanagement of an ICC loan, but the larger context is that Zimbabwe the country is in economic meltdown. Even dollarisation has not been able to spark growth, and the result is that industry is at a standstill and small businesses are struggling to survive. In that climate, sponsors are hard to come by and funding sport is almost impossible even with the ICC grant.
The biggest sufferer of the monetary squeeze is the five-day game. “It’s expensive for us to host Test cricket here,” Streak says. “We are very reliant on Indian fixtures because of the amount of revenue that brings in. If the ICC can look at ways on how we could play more cricket without impacting on us financially, that would be good.”
A two-tier Test structure has been mooted as one way to do that, and even though it would see Zimbabwe relegated to a second division, it may help Test cricket remain alive in the country, albeit only just. That it still is, is in itself remarkable. The players still talk about the pride in the format, and the crowds are bigger than at some higher-profile venues around the world. There’s a hunger to do more and to do better, and so, five years after their Test comeback, it’s the hope that hurts.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.