Can Zimbabwe Test cricket blossom again?
Mike O’Donnell @modonnell6
All teams have their own story. Most involve highs, poor performances and cup exits. Some include financial issues, player protests and management resignations. But few contain dictators and death penalties. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe Cricket, their rollercoaster tale encompasses all of the above.
This July will the see the 20th anniversary of a date which will be engrained in few cricket fans’ minds. But for the nation of Zimbabwe, and more specifically their cricketers, it will mark 20 years since their status as a full Test playing nation was confirmed by the International Cricket Council.
The African nation became the ninth Test member; a whole 115 years after England and Australia contested the first official Test match. But what the country’s cricketing heritage may lack in years, it more than makes up for in drama.
Since 1992, international cricketers hailing from any continent other than Africa have been able to focus purely on the process of becoming professional. Unfortunately, for South Africa and Zimbabwe, cricket has proven to be yet another example of how sport and politics are synonymous.
But where South Africa has a cricketing pedigree which now spans 124 years to fall back on, as well as a sport-mad public to support, cricket in Zimbabwe has struggled to impact at a time where there are bigger issues present. The overriding issue is, of course, the one which led to Zimbabwe Cricket’s most renowned moment; the black armband protest made by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga to mourn the death of democracy in their country.
The rule of Robert Mugabe has been a constant in a Test match cricketing history where there have been few ever-present factors. Unfortunately, it’s this one constant which has put paid to any others. Funding has fluctuated as has player availability and even Test status.
As a result of these issues, which can’t be ignored, Zimbabwe’s on-field efforts are often forgotten. This is a shame for a country that has produced a series of great players, including a batsman that was at one stage the best in the world.
Bright beginnings and false dawns
In their first outing in the Test match arena on October 18, 1992 against India, Zimbabwe managed to exceed all expectations. The batting of David Houghton had been instrumental in their push for inclusion in Test cricket, and he once again led the side with a knock of 121 to set up a first-innings total of 456.
After such a promising start, they went on to draw that match. Unfortunately, this was to be one of many false dawns in Zimbabwean cricket as the nation went on to win a solitary Test match in the next six years. At the time of their self-exclusion, they had won just eight in their first 13 years as a full ICC member.
Despite the poor record, there were some highlights. A memorable first Test series win came away from home against Pakistan. Two wins against India on home soil and numerous victories over the only Test nation less experienced than them, Bangladesh, suggested that Zimbabwe could have the talent to emerge as a major cricketing nation.
But before all of that came their first Test victory in 1995 when they defeated Pakistan by an innings and 64 runs in Harare. Not only was this match significant because of its result, but it also included the first black Zimbabwean to be capped.
That Zimbabwean was Henry Olonga. He explains that while Zimbabwe did have a great team in their first period of Test cricket, they still weren’t good enough to compete with the top teams.
He said, “I think it’s fair to say that Zimbabwe was the ninth best Test playing nation in the world and that was reflected by the results.
“The top five or six countries were in another league. We weren’t going to play against them and beat them often. We might beat them once in a while, but not often enough to say that we were a dominant side.”
Olonga went on to take 68 wickets in 30 Test appearances for Zimbabwe. But it isn’t his bowling record that made Olonga so well known throughout the cricketing world.
His 2003 World Cup black armband protest with Andy Flower against Mugabe’s rule had monumental personal consequences. It not only meant that he wasn’t able to play for his country again, but that he couldn’t even return there for fear of being charged with treason.
This incident was one of many in a turbulent post-millennium time for the African nation’s cricket. On numerous occasions players had spoken out about the influence of Mugabe’s government on the Zimbabwe Cricket Association. Heath Streak’s sacking, a players’ strike and eventually a self-imposed suspension from Test cricket all followed to see Zimbabwe cricket descend to its darkest days.
A 2005 tour to South Africa was described in the following year’s Wisden Almanack as “an embarrassment to all who saw it.”
Reflection and rebuilding
Now living in England, Olonga is able to speak candidly about his experiences but admits that his exile means he no longer has his finger on the pulse of Zimbabwean cricket. Even so, Olonga is still able to emphasise how important Zimbabwe’s return to Test match cricket last August has been for to the country.
He explained, “It’s a huge boost calling yourself a Test match nation as it has connotations of prestige and means that you’re one of ten countries good enough to compete at this level.
“Test cricket has preserved the sport for a little longer in Zimbabwe. I’m not saying it was dying, but it certainly would have if Zimbabwe had lost Test status, which it didn’t – it was just suspended.”
It now appears that along with this new era of Zimbabwe Cricket has come a new mentality. Relationships between the country’s board and players, while still strained at times, are far better than before while the domestic franchise system remains promising.
Symbolic of their renewed commitment to compete at the highest level is the decision to appoint a team of national coaches rather than the previous system of just one. This team is being headed up by Alan Butcher, who took on the role of head coach in January 2010.
Having previously spent time in Zimbabwe, Butcher was well aware of the real state of Zimbabwe’s cricket before he arrived and was not put off by perceptions of the country.
He revealed, “I knew that I would have to be careful about airing any political opinions, but I am not here as a politician. I also spoke to people I respect to put any fears I had to rest.”
As an outsider with his own Test experience, Butcher echoes the sentiments of Olonga by stressing just how important Zimbabwe’s return to Test cricket was.
“It is still the supreme test of all cricketing skills and for us to claim a place at the top table, we must play Test cricket and be competitive. The same goes for the players, they will want to be able to measure themselves against the best in the world in all formats.”
Now that Zimbabwe once again have the chance to compete against most of the world’s best (England will still not play against them), the onus is very much on the Zimbabwe Cricket Board to enable their players to be competitive. As an Englishman, Butcher had the benefit of an impartial view and came to Zimbabwe with a clear idea about what was needed.
He added, “As far as the team was concerned, it was about making them more competitive as quickly as possible. I thought it would take the best part of a year to work out the best group of players in terms of ability and temperament.
“I think now we have established our best 15 to 18 players, and have proved ourselves to be competitive in the Test matches that we’ve played, we can look forward to making progress.”
After comprehensibly beating Bangladesh in their comeback Test, Butcher’s side has been competitive at times in their other three matches. A seven-wicket loss to Pakistan was followed by a tight 34-run defeat to New Zealand before a reverse to the same opposition in Napier by an innings and 301 runs.
Zimbabwe’s cricketing future
Off the pitch, the political problems that plagued the game at board level appear to have subsided. Butcher, although unlikely to bad mouth his employers, alludes to no indication of unsavoury relationships between the coaching/playing staff and the country’s cricketing admin.
He claimed, “It is difficult to assess where we can go as a cricketing nation, but I firmly believe that with the black Zimbabwean population taking to the game that there are huge grounds for optimism.
“There is tremendous talent in the country and with a bigger playing base than was ever available when cricket was pretty much a white-only sport. I’m certain the future is bright as cricket becomes more and more a part of the tradition of black sporting culture.”
A new effort to get along with players was certainly on show when Tatenda Taibu compared the country’s current cricket setup to a “newly-painted house with rotten foundations” on the eve of their return to Test cricket. Rather than the disciplinary sanctions that we might once have seen, then chairman of selectors Alistair Campbell was seen speaking to Taibu on the outfield before the game and publicly admitted that Taibu’s concerns needed to be investigated.
In Zimbabwe, the behaviour of board members and their treatment of players are every bit as important as what goes on the pitch. It’s thanks to the new understanding approach employed by the board and the enthusiasm of an Englishman and his team that Zimbabwe can put behind them the events that led to two men not being able to return to their own country.
One of those men, Olonga, remains optimistic about Zimbabwe’s cricketing future and, although he won’t be part of it, looks forward to their endeavours.
He declared, “There was a lot of loss to the game, but it’s hopefully on the mend now and will survive all of the challenges in the coming years. Zimbabwe can be a strong cricketing nation; they just need to be given the platform to prosper.”