December 25, 2012

A drought situation

Zimbabwe played eight international matches this year, one of which included their heaviest Test defeat

After the hope and promise of 2011, Zimbabwe's 2012 began with their heaviest-ever defeat in Test match cricket and barely picked up thereafter. Not a single international match was played on Zimbabwean soil this year, and cricket in the country began to stagnate.

The triumph in the unofficial tri-series against South Africa in June offered a brief and happy respite, but by the end of a year in which little rain fell and drought threatened the livelihood of millions, Zimbabwean cricket looked as thirsty as the country's soil.

Matabeleland has been particularly hard hit by the spell of bone-dry weather, and international competition too has abandoned the parched outfield of the Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo.

The situation has drawn the ire of Zimbabwe's minister of sport, David Coltart, and the facts lay bare the cause of his grumbling. This year Zimbabwe played just one Test match - the debacle against New Zealand at McLean Park. A handful of limited-overs games, including a World Twenty20 jaunt that came to a crashing halt before some teams at the tournament had even opened their accounts, took their international match tally in 2012 to eight.

The year before, during which time they were by no means over-subscribed, they played 24 games - and that included a World Cup. Zimbabwe are in serious danger of regressing, and a lack of top-level cricket is at the root of many of their current problems.

The Zimbabwean establishment has often called for more A side and representative tours in order to test their mettle against a variety of opposition, but these are only useful when they are supplementary to visits from full international sides. Zimbabwe are stuck in a Catch-22 situation. More matches against lesser opposition would keep the team busy, but they wouldn't bring in any revenue, and the cost of hosting such tours could well significantly worsen ZC's precarious financial state. If they aim to play only the Test elite, then they leave themselves at the mercy of an increasingly fickle - and full - international calendar.

Zimbabwe's chances for match time and exposure dwindled with each cricket-less month; they operated without any sort of international context. At the Zimbabwe Cricket awards ceremony in November one senior player was overheard questioning the point of holding the event at all when there were barely any matches from which to judge the winners. Zimbabwe need matches that matter.

A more inclusive, fuller touring programme that includes the major associates would greatly enhance Zimbabwe's opportunities for competitive cricket but a bigger international cricket club would also decrease their ICC stipend. Something's got to give.

Zimbabwe's domestic programme, revamped with much fanfare in 2009, has in the past helped to paper over the cracks in their international calendar. The local scene did provide some distraction in 2012 as well, though not necessarily for the right reasons, as over-helpful pitches contributed to a string of startling results. A fast-bowling feeding frenzy culminated in Tinashe Panyangara and Tawanda Mupariwa's scuttling of Mountaineers for just 26 at Masvingo Sports Club.

Elsewhere there was a reshuffling of the administrative pack, but no new hand was really dealt. Ozias Bvute, who has held the strings behind the changing face of Zimbabwe cricket for well over a decade, made way for Wilfred Mukondiwa in the managing director's role. Bvute is certainly not out of the picture, though, and will apparently maintain a consultancy role in ZC's commercial dealings.

Zimbabwe cricket also lost two of its most influential figures, and arguably both to God. Tatenda Taibu walked away from the game in July to devote himself full time to his church and his work as a preacher, and the death of Kevin Curran in October capped a sombre year.

Curran, 53, collapsed while jogging in the hilly eastern city of Mutare, where he had been preparing the Mashonaland Eagles for a T20 match against Mountaineers. Curran was a passionate servant of Zimbabwean cricket and it is telling that since his passing a deflated Mashonaland Eagles team has stumbled through the domestic season without a win in the Logan Cup, falling even to the unfancied Southern Rocks - a side that had previously failed to win a single first-class game since the franchise system was introduced.

High point
Zimbabwe's crushing nine-wicket win over South Africa in the unofficial T20 tri-series in June sparked scenes of jubilation at Harare Sports Club. The team's victory lap was interrupted after the spectators packed into the overflowing Castle Corner Stand flooded into a chaotic pitch invasion. Though the opposition were weakened, there was no questioning the joy Zimbabwe's triumph brought both the team and its fans. It is tragic that the goodwill and positivity generated by that result was diffused by the shambolic World Twenty20 campaign and the total lack of matches thereafter.

Low point
When the team returned to Test cricket, it had been hoped that Zimbabwe had improved beyond recognition from the amateurish side that was ejected from the Test elite half a decade ago. It is rather difficult to sink lower than an innings-and-301-run defeat, however, and when Zimbabwe were bowled out twice in a day by New Zealand in January, they reached a new nadir. They were not granted a chance to redeem themselves this year, and one can only hope that they will acquit themselves better in 2013.

New kid on the block
Since Zimbabwe's scatterling cricketers began to return to the local game in 2009, there have been periodic calls for some player or the other to be fast-tracked into the national side. Sean Ervine was very nearly wooed back, while Gary Ballance's domestic record means he could walk into the national team if he so wished. This season, Glen Querl's feats on the field have been the ones to catch the eye. Querl, an allrounder who played for the Unicorns in the United Kingdom but failed to land a contracted county gig, has stormed his way to the top of the bowling charts and has played a leading role in Matabeleland Tuskers' strong Logan Cup form. Averaging in the teens with the ball and having registered a career-best 188 against Southern Rocks, Querl should be pushing for selection in Zimbabwe's allrounder slot.

Fading star
The full effect of 29-year-old Taibu's departure has yet to be felt. He had long been a devout man - there is no television in his house and his family spends its time studying the Bible together - and it was clear as early as 2010 that his future lay with the church. "If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have told you cricket was the centre of my life," he said two years ago. "Now, I'd say it's God, with cricket a distant second." Taibu eventually had no room left for cricket in his life, and Zimbabwean cricket is poorer for the loss.

What 2013 holds
Mercifully next year's schedule will at least bring much more cricket with it. Zimbabwe have six Tests lined up, against West Indies, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. India are meant to be playing three ODIs in the country, and Afghanistan are rumoured to be planning a mid-year trip to southern Africa. Zimbabwe won't be part of the Champions Trophy in England in June, however, and A side tours must be sought to keep the country's senior players - many of whom should now be nearing the peaks of their careers - match fit. The next end-of-year ZC awards ceremony will hopefully have a better selection of worthy performances to honour.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town