Saturday, October 2, 2010
Cricket in Zimbabwe
Now, we all know that cricket is primarily played by a few commonwealth countries. Yes, ICC do keep boasting about expanding the game to newer countries, but for someone like me, who is deeply in love with the game, it is a matter of grave concern that even among the few cricket playing countries, the administrators seem to be hell bent on ruining our beautiful game of cricket. Just think of the way cricket is being run particularly in countries like Zimbabwe, Pakistan, or the West Indies. Over the years, I especially followed the progress of Zimbabwe's cricket with a keen interest, so it was sad to see the calamitous disintegration of Zimbabwe's cricket in recent times.
So in this article, I would look at cricket in Zimbabwe
History of Zimbabwe's cricket
I am not a cricket historian to know everything about cricket in Zimbabwe, but from whatever little bit I know of Zimbabwe's cricket history, I can confidently say that the first forays of cricket in Zimbabwe can be traced back to 1890's, when a few first-class matches were played between Bulawayo and Salisbury in Rhodesia( old name of Zimbabwe) In 1904/ 05, they entered the Currie cup competition of South Africa and leaving a few years between the two world wars, Zimbabwe was a regular member of the Currie cup. A tournament called Logan cup was also introduced which consisted of teams like Harare, Bulawayo and co. Rhodesia also produced a few test cricketers, who went onto play for South Africa like Tomlinson and the last one being John Traicos. In 79/80, they played as Zimbabwe- Rhodesia in the Currie cup, but once they attained independence, Zimbabwe left the competition.
Zimbabwe as an associate member of ICC
With Zimbabwe gaining independence, they also became an associate member of the ICC in 1981. In 1983, Zimbabwe for the first time played in the World cup and oh god! didn't they jolt the cricketing world by defeating the formidable Aussies? Zimbabwe's clever captain Fletcher was said to be the brainchild behind that victory. Of course, in the years to come as the coach of England, he would mastermind an Ashes victory against Australia. Zimbabwe didn't just beat the team from down under, but also reduced the eventual champions India to 17 for 5 before Kapil dev came to India's rescue. If Kapil hadn't played that knock, Zimb's seamers Rawson and Curran could have been the heroes of the match. In the 87 world cup too Zimbabwe showed that they weren't there to just make up the numbers as they gave Kiwis a run for their money before losing by just one run. Houghton is said to have played an magnificent knock of 142, though his effort went in vain.
Zimbabwe gain test status
Consistent performances in the ICC trophies as well as the fighting spirit they showed in the few world cups they played helped Zimbabwe to finally gain test status in 92. Straightway, they made an impression as their opponents India were in a spot of bother in the very first test Zimbabwe played, though in the end, the Indian team was able to escape from what seemed like would be an embarrassing defeat for India. Zimbabwe's captain Houghton again showed his class by getting a hundred. In that match a certain player, who would one-day become the mainstay of Zimbabwe's batting called Andy Flower also made an impression by getting a half century.
Arnott and Grant Flower walking onto bat in the very first test Zimbabwe played
Anyway, coming back to Zimbabwe's cricket, it was in the early 90's that I got interested in their cricket. Here was a team, who didn't have a huge base to choose players from, but always came across as a bunch of battle hardened cricketers. Actually, I don't think anyone described the Zimbabwe team of the 90's better than Steve Waugh as after playing them in 99, he showered praises about their fighting spirit and said that they deserve to play test cricket. In the 90's, I would always keep an close eye on the progress of the Zimbabwe team. Those were the days, when the internet hadn't yet taken the world by storm still my interest in their cricket forced me to search for every bit of information that I could get about Zimb's cricket.
The rise of Zimbabwe
With Zimbabwe getting the chance to play top flight cricket they got better. The African nation made use of the exposure they got and as the years went by gave all the teams a run for their money. In 1995, they registered their first test victory thanks to Flower power as both made huge scores. It was also the time when they finally unearthed a top class seamer called Streak. Streak seemed to have the stamina of a bull as he could bowl long spells and get prodigious swing. Streak also played a major part in their first test victory by getting a nine wicket haul! Yes, the chicken farmer Brandes was a useful swing bowler for the Zimbabwe team in the 90's, but he was injury prone and missed lots of matches, so it was refreshing to see Streak bowling with decent pace and troubling most of the batsmen in the 90's.
In 96/97, Zimbabwe caused ripples in the cricketing world by thrashing England 3-0 in a one-day series and gave England a scare in the test series too. The test series would be famous for Lloyd's comment "we murdered them and they know it". The first test ended in a draw with England not being able to score the one extra run which would have helped England to win that match. Lloyd was no doubt exasperated by Zimbabwe's defensive fields and made that infamous comment. Zimbabwe's players didn't seem to take it lightly and thrashed England 3-0 in the one-day series. The chicken farmer Brandes again became England's bogeyman as he got a hat-trick in one of the matches to help Zimbabwe humiliate England. Ted Corbett in his column talked about how even the black majority, who weren't really interested in cricket, suddenly taking up interest into the sport and even when he and few others visited a petrol bunk, the workers were said to be discussing about Lloyd's comment!
To be frank, in the mid 90's England weren't much better than Zimbabwe and if anything, Zimbabwe's players seemed to be mentally tougher. During that time at least in one-day cricket, Zimbabwe held the upper-hand which could be seen by their shock victory in the 92 world cup, the 3-0 whitewash of England by Zimbabwe at home and the odd victory against England like in the quadrangular series in Australia in 94/95. I think the then captain of Zimbabwe, Alistair Campbell made a valid point, when he said that Zimbabwe's players got mentally tougher by consistently touring the subcontinent and playing in tough conditions and England too should tour the subcontinent more. In the years to come, Campbell was proved right as I think England became a tougher unit by going on tours to Pakistan, Lanka and India in 2000 and 2001.
I surely think Zimbabwe's cricket was at its peak between the 96 and the 99 world cup. Zimbabwe didn't just drub England at home 3-0, but under their astute captain Campbell, Zimbabwe for the first time won a test series and that too away from home against the enigmatic Pakistan side in 98/99. Zimbabwe also won a one off test against the Indian team in 98 and reached the final of a tournament in Sarjah and en-route to that final they were able to defeat the formidable Lankan team. At that time, Zimbabwe no doubt had a good side as they didn't just have Flower brothers in their ranks, but the likes of Olonga, Streak, G.Whittall, P.Strang and even Campbell made Zimbabwe a force to reckon with in cricket. I can't forget the contributions of both Johnson, or Goodwin either. Yes, both learnt their cricket outside Zimbabwe, but with both being included in the Zimbabwe side, they looked capable of beating any team in world cricket.
Dave Houghton, who had retired by that time and had taken up the role of coaching the side, in a few interviews even said that Zimbabwe didn't fear anyone and have a great chance of progressing beyond the group stage in the 99 world cup. At that time, a few may have dismissed it as someone making tall claims, but his prophetic words came true as Zimbabwe indeed did well in the 99 world cup.
The 99 world cup was no doubt a dream run for the Zimbabwe team as they reached the super six stage and en-route to the super six stage they defeated formidable opponents like South Africa and India. Even now, I vividly remember the match against India. The Indian side minus Tendulkar for that match were in doldrums as they lost a few early wickets, but if I am not mistaken Robin Singh and Jadeja seemed to be taking India to a famous victory, but the one and only Olonga took three wickets in a single over to send India crashing to a shocking defeat. Olonga born in Kenya was like a breath of fresh air for the Zimbabwe team as every-time he bowled, he gave his all. I just loved his athletic run up as well as even those agricultural hoicks he would play with a bat in hand. Here was a cricketer, who always had a smile on his face and enjoyed his cricket. Olonga wasn't just a joy to watch on the field, but a slew of young cricketers got inspired by his exploits and followed in his footsteps. Let it be Hondo, Muperiwa and few others seem to have copied the hairstyle, or the action of either Olonga and the other prominent black cricketer of that time Pommie Mbangwa.
I haven't forgotten their victory against the Saffers in that 99 world cup either. Saffers were in great form and were tipped as the favourites to win the tournament, but Zimbabwe were able to upset the apple-cart and defeat them. Most experts expected India and England to go through, but Zimbabwe's shock victory meant that hosts England were dumped out of the tournament as India won their match against England. To be frank, England didn't deserve any better as the selectors went for bits and pieces players instead of specialists. There was also no logic behind the batsmen not looking to accelerate against Zimbabwe, though England were behind in the NRR, or for the matter electing to field first against India, though rain and overcast conditions were expected later on in the match. Zimbabwe didn't progress beyond the super six stage, but by reaching the super six stage, they showed to the rest of the cricketing world that Zimbabwe can't be taken lightly.
So, as the world entered the new millennium, Zimbabwe's cricket seemed to be in a healthy state as under the guidance of their visionary coach Houghton, they had a team that could beat anyone. Houghton wasn't just the coach of the team, but helped them to set up an academy which at that time was said to be as good as any other academy. It surely helped Zimbabwe to produce some fine cricketers among the black majority. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe though, trouble was brewing underneath as the political situation in Zimbabwe was getting worse which forced more than a few players to think about their future.
Zimbabwe's cricket in crisis
As the whole world celebrated the new millennium, Zimbabwe's cricket too had something to celebrate and feel proud of as at last they could proudly say that even Zimbabwe have a great cricketer in their ranks called Andy Flower. Let it be against England in 97, Lanka in 97 and 99, the enigmatic Pakistanis in 98/99, West Indies in 2000, Kiwis in 2000, India in 2000 and 2001 as well as against the Saffers in 2001, he was in phenomenal touch. He once scored centuries in both innings against South Africa, but only to see his team still lose by an innings. It happened to Zimbabwe so many times during that time as Flower would play exceptionally well, but rarely would get the support from the other end. Finally, in India in 2000/01, he decided enough is enough and played for two days to help Zimbabwe escape from a certain defeat. Flower was a phenomenal player as he averaged over 50 in test cricket, had the stamina to keep wickets for more than a day or two as opposition teams would usually get more than 500 runs against Zimbabwe and even captained the side for a while. No wonder, as soon as Zimbabwe found a decent keeper like Taibu, Flower left the job of being the wicketkeeper as he had too much on his plate. I have no doubt that Flower was an all time great player and doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
Actually, one can also remember Flower in an interview talking about how hurt he was after getting out stumped in a test match against India in 92/93 ,which led to Zimbabwe's collapse and in the end India won. It just shows his level of commitment as even after so many years, he was thinking about that one bad shot.
Now, I have no doubt about Flower being a great player, but any team can't depend on just one player and sadly for Zimbabwe that is what exactly happened as both Goodwin and Johnson decided to quit international cricket and looked at playing in county cricket in England. I don't blame either of them as the situation in Zimbabwe wasn't getting any better, though I do feel that Goodwin still wanted to play cricket for Zimbabwe, but with him having a family, it was perhaps too much of a risk to take. In a way, I do agree that Zimbabwe's cricket board can't be blamed entirely for the mess as the sad state of affairs of Zimbabwe's cricket can be attributed to Mugabe's bad policies. The country no doubt plunged into darkness with US and the European union leading the way by imposing sanctions against Zimbabwe and as far as I know, the inflation rate rose to 231 million % in July 2008! Now, the economic crisis in Zimbabwe can always be an interesting subject to talk about, but this is a cricket blog, so I would leave it there. The simple fact is, just like any other field, cricket was affected by Mugabe's policies.
Yes, Mugabe should take a lot of blame for the sad state of affairs, but even the cricket board should take some blame for the disintegration of Zimbabwe's cricket. I felt really sad seeing the seeming veracity of Chingoka and co. indulging in rampant corruption. In 2004, because of mass exodus of players, the ICC took the step of taking away the test status from Zimbabwe. Yes, the standard of Zimbabwe's cricket wasn't good enough to compete at the test level, but instead of dissolving the board and taking full control of cricket in Zimbabwe, ICC tried to sweep everything under the carpet. Numerous committees were set up, but in the end, they were just a waste of space.When it comes to taking decisions, ICC have always been good at procrastinating it. Malcolm Speed had his critics as a CEO of the ICC, but he was the only one who looked serious about taking action on the cricket board in Zimbabwe. There has also been a feeling that Asian bloc supported Zimbabwe to get their vote.
On expected lines, a lot of players left Zimbabwe. Andy Flower and Olonga showed their displeasure by wearing black arm bands in the 2003 world cup, Heath Streak and co. decided to not play for Zimbabwe and a few more players followed in their footsteps. So, in no time Zimbabwe weren't just devoid of seniors like Streak, Flower brothers, Goodwin, Price and co. but even Blignaut, Ervine, Rinke, Friend, Williams, Rogers, Mariller, Ebrahim, Ireland and Zimbabwe's bright young star Taibu decided not to play for Zimbabwe. I don't know how Houghton must have been feeling when he saw the academy in a very sorry state of affairs on cricinfo.
The future of cricket in Zimbabwe
I don't think much has changed with regards to the political situation in Zimbabwe, but when it comes to cricket in Zimbabwe, there seems to be a ray of hope as players like Taibu, Williams, Price, Blignaut and co. have returned back to play cricket for Zimbabwe, Mazakadza has finished his studies, Sibanda seems to be finally maturing, Rainsford has comeback from a threatening back injury and is taking wickets, S.Ervine's younger brother seems to bat like his elder brother and Zimbabwe suddenly have a decent spin attack as they have bowlers like Utseya, Price, Cremer and Maruma in their ranks. I don't see either S.Ervine, or Ireland leaving lucrative contracts in county cricket and playing for Zimbabwe, though Ireland is said to have played fc cricket in Zimbabwe this year. Anyway, it is also good to see that Houghton has returned as the consultant of the team, Streak is now the bowling coach, Campbell is the selector and chairman of cricket committee, Alan Butcher has been appointed as the coach of Zimbabwe's cricket team and I even see that Grant Flower has announced he would return back to play for Zimbabwe! It would be even better if one-day Andy Flower comes back to help Zimbabwe's cricket. I have also heard that to ameliorate the standard of Zimbabwe's domestic cricket, they have reduced the number of teams playing in first-class cricket.
Yes, it is great that a lot of former players have returned back to Zimbabwe to help Zimbabwe's cricket, but their chances of playing test cricket still seems to be a pipe dream as just recently, Scotland refused to play cricket in Zimbabwe and even last year Zimbabwe was not allowed to play the t/20 WC as it was played in England. I just hope that one-day Zimbabwe can again play test cricket as it was always a pleasure to watch the battle hardened cricketers from Southern Africa fight it out in test cricket