December 30, 2011

The return of the pariah

A disappointing World Cup and end-of-the-year defeats couldn't dampen the joy of their victorious Test comeback

On a bright crisp August morning, Shafiul Islam sprinted in to deliver an angled length delivery on off stump that debutant Tino Mawoyo turned defensively towards midwicket. The goal upon which Zimbabwe's cricketers had been entirely focused had become a tangible reality: Zimbabwe were a Test nation once more.

After six years of slugging through international cricket's backwaters as pariahs, Zimbabwe in 2011 were always going to be measured by their return to the elite format. The records will show that they won just seven international matches in 2011, out of 24 games played, but how they fared in their three Tests - against Bangladesh, Pakistan and New Zealand - was what really mattered.

The lead-up to their match against Bangladesh in August was a triumph of planning and preparation, and showed it was possible for cricket in Zimbabwe to blossom once again, provided there is a collective will to do so.

Zimbabwe began the strategic assembly of their Test side as early as June, with the announcement of a 32-man training squad ahead of the engagements against South African and Australian A sides. Those matches helped harden a couple of the side's greenhorns, and the bubble of hope was barely pricked even by Tamim Iqbal's ill-timed outbursts when Bangladesh arrived, about "ordinary" bowlers, or by Tatenda Taibu's ominous statements about player payments. There was a palpable sense of destiny being fulfilled when Kyle Jarvis' offcutter rapped Robiul Islam's pads to spark joyous celebrations for the 130-run win at the Harare Sports Club.

The date of Zimbabwe's return to the Test fold will surely come to be seen as a day as significant as any in the country's cricketing history. Yet the images of Zimbabwe's Test newbies, alcohol-drenched and draped in their country's flag, performing a lap of honour after that victory, had barely faded from the mind when, a month later, Pakistan arrived and quickly showed that Zimbabwe's passage back into Test cricket would not be all peaches and cream. They put the hosts back in their place with a performance that bristled with the casual cruelty of the elder brother cuffing an uppity sibling across the ear. Still, Zimbabwe could take heart from Mawoyo's obdurate unbeaten ton in the first innings, and that they pushed their second Test in half a decade into the fifth day before eventually conceding a seven-wicket defeat.

Inevitably, after the series whitewash at the hands of Pakistan, some cynically wondered whether Zimbabwe's honeymoon had ended. Those doubts were answered with clear intent, if not a positive result, in the Bulawayo Test against New Zealand in November. Faced with a record chase on a tired pitch on the fifth afternoon, Zimbabwe went on the attack, led by captain Brendan Taylor's 118-ball century. Though they fell 34 runs short, Zimbabwe's approach had delivered a bold statement about the attacking instincts they were now confident enough to follow.

While Zimbabwe's cricketing year ended on that positive note, such had not quite been the case nine months earlier. The team had flattered to deceive in the World Cup, with bullish wins over Canada and Kenya and bruising defeats against everyone else. More often than not, timid batting was to blame for their woes, and the team clearly lacked self-belief against quality opposition. At that point it appeared Zimbabwe had reached a familiar plateau - treading water, in limbo, better than the Associates, but nowhere close to the big boys. Midway through their home series against New Zealand, when defeats began to pile up, that again appeared to be the case.

There is a bellicose, fighting spirit beginning to brew within this team, however, and tied to positive developments on the domestic front - the Stanbic T20 competition just about broke even this year and attracted 20 overseas players, including the likes of Chris Gayle and Shaun Tait - for the first time in the best part of a decade, there is real cause for optimism about the future. Zimbabwe have entered a period of possibility, if not yet prosperity, and the emergence of Taylor as an adventurous and positive leader could well be their talisman in the new year.

New kid on the block
At the beginning of the year, Brian Vitori was a practically unknown domestic bowler. Plying his trade for the somewhat unfashionable Southern Rocks franchise - and often only for their second XI - Vitori was only noticed when the new coach, Monte Lynch, arrived and took a special interest. A word in the ear of national coach Alan Butcher and Vitori was included in Zimbabwe's training squad. He went on to burst into international cricket with 16 wickets in four games against Bangladesh. Though sidelined by injury towards the end of the year, he returned with a splash to domestic cricket, removing Chris Gayle first ball with a swerving lifter outside off during the Stanbic T20 tournament, and ending the year with a first-class five-for against the Mashonaland Eagles.

Fading star
He was Zimbabwe's leading bowler at the World Cup with nine wickets at 18.77, but Ray Price ended the year with just four wickets - across three formats - during New Zealand's visit, and struggled to be incisive. Now 35, Price is beginning to creak a little in the field too, and though he continues to perform an invaluable role as the team's elder statesman, mentor, and most forthright sledger, Zimbabwe will have to start preparing for life after Price. There are several young spinners nipping at his heels, and though it's unlikely 2012 will be his last year of international cricket, the pressure will be on to continue proving his worth to the team.

High point
The jubilation and relief of the win over Bangladesh was just the tonic Zimbabwe needed to begin to feel at home as a full international side. That success vindicated the steps taken by those running cricket in the country over the last 18 months, and it will be cherished in years to come.

Low point
While Zimbabwe held their own for their first 50 overs of the World Cup, they barely raised a challenge to the top teams in the tournament thereafter. The capitulation at the hands of the Australian pace attack made for uncomfortable viewing, and the decision to bat first against Pakistan, on a greentop under leaden skies, was the face-palm moment of the tournament. Worse than either of those, however, was the slump against Sri Lanka in Pallekele, when Tillakaratne Dilshan's straight-breaks scythed through a petrified middle order and Zimbabwe crashed to a 139-run defeat.

What 2012 holds
Zimbabwe start the year with a trip to New Zealand in January, where they will be part of the historic staging of the first floodlit Test match, and are then scheduled to host Bangladesh again in August for two Tests, three ODIs and two T20s, before Pakistan arrive in December. While that means Zimbabwe have the opportunity to play themselves in against teams that are becoming familiar opposition at the highest level, that's not an awful lot of cricket for a calendar year, and in order to continue the current development a handful of A tours, similar to the ones undertaken by South Africa and Australia this year, will be vital.

Many challenges remain. Rumblings over pay emerged on the eve of their Test return, and there have also been worrying reports about similar problems in domestic cricket. Perennial political distractions were, thankfully, kept to a minimum this year, but many of these issues aren't going to go away anytime soon, and as with every facet of life in Zimbabwe, much depends on the political situation.

Liam Brickhill is a former assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo