The greatest Zimbabweans?
The recent Test defeats by an innings and 65 runs and nine wickets against West Indies, both inside three days, were Zimbabwe's fourth and fifth consecutive losses in the six matches since they were re-admitted to the longer form of the game in August 2011. If we include matches prior to their temporary cessation between 2005 and 2011, Zimbabwe have now lost 14 of their past 16 Tests and, if we extend it back to late 2001, 26 of their past 31. During just over a decade, they have won two Tests, both against Bangladesh. These types of figures make damning reading and it is sometimes hard to remember that Zimbabwe have previously produced both genuine world-class players and highly competitive teams on the international stage.
Nominating the best-ever team from a given country is a game that is often played amongst cricket enthusiasts when the rain is tumbling down. To do so with countries with long and rich histories such as Australia or England makes this process a fun discussion, if ultimately an impossible one to ever definitively agree upon. However, if the consideration falls instead on to a nation such as Zimbabwe, it would appear an easier exercise. They have only played a total of 87 Tests since their admittance as a Full Member in 1992. Selecting their best-ever team would therefore appear somewhat simpler due to the limited sample size. Furthermore, if we exclude matches against fellow international newcomers Bangladesh, Zimbabwe have only ever beaten one Test playing nation, Pakistan, in a full Test series (ie. with more than one scheduled Test), back in 1998. Therefore, it would appear obvious to pick that team as being the best ever to represent Zimbabwe. Indeed, this side did feature many very good players, including the Flower brothers, Murray Goodwin and Heath Streak. However, if we put aside the semantics of the name 'Zimbabwe' and instead look at the best team from that geographic area of Africa, other worthy options appear.
The history of cricket in what is now known as Zimbabwe extends back well prior to 1992, with international tours first occurring around a century earlier. This area of land was then known as 'Rhodesia' rather than Zimbabwe. Rhodesia had a long and complicated political history. The name was first officially coined in the mid 1890s to reflect the area that is now known as the separate nations of Zimbabwe and Zambia. By 1911, the land to the north of the Zambezi river was recognized as 'Northern Rhodesia', with the other half being, naturally enough, 'Southern Rhodesia'. Southern Rhodesia was granted the right to self-government in 1923, while Northern Rhodesia remained under British administration. When Northern Rhodesia gained independence in 1964 and changed its name to Zambia, Southern Rhodesia started to refer to itself as just Rhodesia. It used this name until formally becoming the independent nation of Zimbabwe in 1980, following a long and bitter civil war.
Lord Hawke, who undertook and promoted cricketing tours all around the world, including to then non-Test playing nations including India, West Indies, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), North America and Argentina, coordinated a tour of South Africa in 1898-99. They also played a match against Rhodesia at Bulawayo from 4-7 March 1899. Rhodesia were overwhelmed by an innings and 65 runs, a result that was hardly surprising as Lord Hawke's XI were all Test cricketers and included such legends as Plum Warner, John Tyldesley and the man who still holds the record for the highest Test batting average for Australia, Albert Trott*.
During the following decades of political turmoil, cricket continued to be played in the country. Only infrequent first-class matches were played from the time of Lord Hawke's tour until the 1930s, however Rhodesia then started playing on a semi-regular basis in the South African Currie Cup competition. Success did not come immediately but the exposure to consistent higher-class opposition after World War II greatly assisted the development of the game. The legendary Colin Bland began his career with Rhodesia and played a total of 55 first-class matches for them between 1956 and 1969. However, it was not until the early 1970s that Rhodesia first developed a truly world class side.
After winning Section B of the Currie Cup in the 1970-71 season, Rhodesia were promoted to the top tier for 1971-72. At that point in time, South Africa were arguably the best Test team in the world, having demolished Australia 4-0 in 1970. However, as the result of their political situation, South Africa were an infrequent Test-playing nation. They only played matches against Australia, England and New Zealand and, from 1966 to 1970 they played just two Test series, both of which were against Australia. This lack of international cricket meant that the Currie Cup was fiercely competitive, with many South African players having few other opportunities to show their ability. The standard of the matches was underlined by the numerous great players turning out, including Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock, Eddie Barlow, Vince van der Bijl, Peter Pollock, Dennis Lindsay, Garth le Roux, Clive Rice and many others.
Rhodesia then remained in Section A of the Currie Cup until the formation of Zimbabwe in 1980 but never quite managed to win the competition. Their peak was in the first half of the decade, and in the 1971-72 season Rhodesia actually had more wins and fewer losses than any of the other teams. However, as a consequence of the scoring system which awarded bonus batting and bowling points, they actually finished a close second behind Transvaal.
Rhodesia established an exceptionally strong bowling line-up based around the pace of Mike Procter, with support from medium-pacers including future England representative Robin Jackman, Vince Hogg, Paddy Clift and Duncan Fletcher, the current India coach. There was also very useful spin options, with leggie Jackie du Preez, left-arm orthodox Richard Kaschula and the Egyptian-born offspinner John Traicos, who first played Test cricket for South Africa in 1970 before then representing Zimbabwe in their inaugural Test 22 years and 222 days later.
Their batting was perhaps the weakest part of their game, but was still very solid. The side featured a good mix of attacking batsmen and accumulators: aggressive players such as Jimmy Mitchell and Brian Davison were well supported by Peter Carlstein and the graceful left-hander Stuart Robertson. There is an understandable focus on Procter's bowling prowess but he was also one of Rhodesia's key batsmen. It is perhaps easy to forget that he scored 48 first-class centuries, a figure that is only just behind pure batting contemporaries such as Bill Lawry (50). Possibly his best season with the bat was in 1970-71, when he scored six centuries in eight first-class innings while making 956 runs at an average of 119.50. His bowling was not unduly affected by this run blitz, taking 27 wickets at 16.11.
One of the key features of the team was their numerous allrounders. Procter was obviously the main one but almost the entire side were capable of chipping in with either runs or wickets when needed. Fletcher was a good example of this flexibility, a first-class batting average in the mid-20s disguised his ability to perform anywhere in the order from opener to the tail depending upon the state of the game.
In 1972-73, Rhodesia finished fourth in the Currie Cup, but the points table was very close, with just a handful of bonus points separating them from first place. However, the points difference alone fails to underline just how close Rhodesia came to winning the overall title. Rhodesia were the unfortunate participants that season in what has become known as the "Wilmot walk-off". A closely fought match between Rhodesia and Eastern Province in November 1972 came down the last over on the third and final day. Needing just six runs to win the match, with Procter 66 not out and four wickets still in hand, the Eastern Province captain Lorrie Wilmot took his team from the ground and refused to continue to play. The sticking point was allegedly the number of overs that had to be bowled in the final hour, with Wilmot maintaining that they had bowled the requisite 20. The umpires disagreed and insisted one over was still left to bowl, and after allowing Eastern Province three opportunities to resume the match, they awarded the outright win to Rhodesia. However, Eastern Province appealed the umpires' decision to the South African Cricket Association who over-ruled the umpires and declared the game a draw. While that may have been a politically expedient decision by the Association, the loss of the outright victory points was enough to eventually cost Rhodesia the cup.
In 1972 Rhodesia also played two first-class matches against an International Wanderers side. Although the Wanderers side featured current and future Test players of the ilk of John Edrich, Basil D'Oliveira, Graham McKenzie, Tony Grieg, Brian Close and others, Rhodesia were clearly the superior team. The first match ended in a draw, but Rhodesia dominated the game. They declared in both innings and the Wanderers were eight wickets down when stumps were called on the final day. Rhodesia then won the second match by the small matter of 411 runs, with Procter showing his all-round brilliance by scoring a hundred in each innings as well as taking 4 for 20 with the ball.
Sadly, Rhodesia were never destined to win the Currie Cup and their efforts in the early 1970s were as close as they would get. Circumstances dictated that they wouldn't be crowned as champions but, in an era of exceptionally strong domestic cricket in South Africa, they were recognised as one of the strongest teams. Whether the Rhodesia team of this period would beat the Zimbabwe team of 1998 is a question that naturally remains unanswerable (and some might note that Rhodesia's best player, Procter, was South African). However, it is always interesting to consider such match-ups. On paper, you could argue that the Zimbabwe team was possibly stronger in batting, but the Rhodesian side had by far the better bowling attack. Regardless, it is worth occasionally remembering the long history of cricket in Zimbabwe while hoping that, in time, they will rise again to be competitive on the international stage.
*For those that are not familiar with Albert Trott, he played three Test matches for Australia in 1895. He scored a total of 205 runs, was only dismissed twice, and therefore finished his Australian career with a batting average of 102.50. Trott then moved to England, and played two Test matches in 1899 for his new country rather less successfully. He scored just 16 runs at an average of 5.75, which plummeted his overall Test batting average from over 100 down to 38.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow