January 26, 2001

Thoughts on Zimbabwe in Australia

AUSTRALIA v ZIMBABWE, Sunday 21 January

When a side has been soundly beaten, an essential question to ask is, "Did we play as well as we could have done?" No doubt the Zimbabwe players asked that question of themselves after last Sunday's match against Australia, and they could not have avoided the inevitable answer. They did not.

The batting was perhaps the least blameworthy department of their game. They achieved a respectable total - but I did get the impression that this was the sum total of their ambitions. There was a fine opening stand between Alistair Campbell and Guy Whittall, who took advantage of some erratic bowling by Brett Lee, rusty after time off through injury, and managed to avoid running each other out. Hopefully the selectors will now give them a good long run together at the top of the order, instead of chopping and changing yet again. The opening pair has been changed nine times already in one-day cricket so far this season, and that statistic speaks for itself.

After Whittall was out, though, the innings became bogged down. Campbell grew frustrated and got himself out to a soft dismissal. Andy Flower was doing well as usual, but his brother Grant at the start of his innings scored very slowly, took most of the bowling and was quite unable to rotate the strike. This may have contributed to Andy's dismissal, most unusually, to his favourite reverse sweep, in trying to improve the declining scoring rate.

Andy has now become world famous for the reverse sweep, and commentators have been naming him the best practitioner of this stroke in the world. He is actually following in the footsteps of his predecessor as Zimbabwe's leading batsman, Dave Houghton, who had similar things said about him, but did not have the same opportunity to display his skills on the world stage. Television coverage was not as widespread during Dave's career and he had little opportunity to display his skills outside Zimbabwe and Asia. My impression is that both were masters of the stroke, but Andy is even more effective than Dave in that he hits the ball harder when playing it, and gets a larger proportion of boundaries with the reverse sweep.

Grant Flower did find his touch later, in his first international since India due to his broken finger, and finished as top scorer with a fifty. I did feel that an error was made, though, when Dirk Viljoen came in to bat ahead of Heath Streak. Heath is the man in form, he is one of the team's most powerful hitters, and with just over ten overs to go the time was ripe for him to settle in and play a major innings. For my part, I hope Gus Mackay will get to bat in a one-day international. If he were to play a major innings, the opposition would be in serious trouble.

But I felt that generally Zimbabwe's batsman were playing a little too safe, trying a little too hard for a respectable total, and relying rather too much on the sweep. They still lack the self-belief that they can post a match-winning total against Australia. But, as they proved in the World Cup against South Africa, just occasionally they will do well enough to succeed, or at the very least force Australia to fight hard for victory. Respectability will never win a match. I am not advocating a major change in policy, but just a little more adventure, a little more risk-taking when there is no alternative to building a big score.

Adam Gilchrist showed the Australian approach when he took on Heath Streak and for a while succeeded. Gilchrist has a surprisingly poor record against Zimbabwe, but this did not deter him as he showed just the confident approach that wins matches. Respectability never enters Australian thinking - they will take the bull by the horns and take risks to seize the initiative every time. Zimbabwe, less talented, will have more failures if they try the same way, but they will have the odd success.

The Zimbabwean bowling for the most part failed to achieve respectability - the game plan, if there was one, was virtually doomed to failure. Instead of line and length, we had Travis Friend in particular bowling persistently short to Gilchrist, to whom such offerings are meat and drink. This enabled Australia to get off on a flier and take the initiative right from the start. If Friend was unaware of Gilchrist's preferences, there are others in the team who should have set him straight. Perhaps there was a plan to dismiss Gilchrist through his strength, but if so, based on what actually happened, Friend hasn't yet the pace or experience to make a success of it.

Apart from Streak, who tends to be more of a nagging thorn in the opposition than a blatant destroyer like Henry Olonga in form, our bowling generally lacks bite at the highest level on good pitches. Therefore the old virtues of line and length are all we have to fall back on. But our bowlers did not achieve the necessary standard of accuracy, and therefore the Australians were never under any pressure as they cantered to victory.

The fielding was also a great disappointment. Zimbabwe have a reputation as a superb fielding side, but they quite failed to live up to it. The Australians will have been completely unimpressed as one fumble followed another in the field. Against West Indies, acclimatization might have been put forward as a fairly valid excuse; this time there was none. On this showing, Zimbabwe did themselves no favours at all in their desire to play Test cricket in Australia in the future.

It was pleasant to see Darren Lehmann have a good match for Australia and win the Man of the Match award. He is not Australia's greatest fielder, but he took a superb catch to dismiss Andy Flower and played a fine innings, as well as batting usefully. He is one of the less abrasive Australians on the field, a fine team man, and spoken of very highly in Yorkshire, where he has been the county's overseas professional for the last few seasons, and they are very demanding. He is good enough to walk into probably any Test team in the world except his own, but such is the current strength of Australia that he has not received the chances he deserves. The Zimbabweans will be glad also that the award did not go to Ricky Ponting, after that controversial catch.

The bottom line for the match was: Australia were just too good, Zimbabwe were short of their best, and such a situation is always likely to result in a massacre. If Zimbabwe do play their best, their chances of beating Australia will always be very small, but still within the realms of an occasional possibility. But they do have the ability to make Australia fight much harder than they did this time.

WEST INDIES v ZIMBABWE, Tuesday 23 January

It was a remarkable victory for Zimbabwe. Rolled for a miserable 138, they bowled as well as they had batted badly, and the West Indies cracked, splintered and crumbled under the pressure.

The West Indian total of 91 was the lowest ever recorded against Zimbabwe by any country in any official international, beating the 92 by Bangladesh in Nairobi three years ago. The lowest by a Test-playing country had been 107 by England in Cape Town last season, when Henry Olonga took his devastating six for 19. Zimbabwe's lowest in one-day internationals is 94 against Pakistan in Sharjah in 1996/97. And 60 of the West Indian 91 were scored in a desperate ninth-wicket partnership. The other nine wickets made only 31 runs between them, so West Indies might have been so much worse off, and certainly would have been had not captain Jimmy Adams been dropped early in his innings.

So often Heath Streak has to carry the burden of the attack alone. This time, he was given superb support by Bryan Strang, who on this extended tour has sometimes bowled magnificently and sometimes like a drain. This was one of his magnificent days, and the wicket of Brian Lara, lbw without scoring, will be a lifetime memory. Mluleki Nkala also bowled well when he came on after Streak, and he now appears to be finding his feet in international cricket.

The Zimbabwean catching was generally superb, but again the ground fielding was disappointing. The batting was very poor, so they actually won this game after getting only one and a half departments right out of three. The batsmen quite failed to adapt to the faster, bouncier pitch, and after two weeks in Australia they should have done much better. It was the recalled West Indian pace bowler Cameron Cuffy who did the most damage by shattering the top order, as one batsman after another was caught groping forward instead of playing back. This will surely receive attention, and perhaps it is a good thing that they don't play in Perth until the end of the tournament, as that pitch is generally the fastest and bounciest of all.

Had Zimbabwe been playing Australia, they would have come out to defend their total of 138 trying every bit as hard, but without that extra ingredient of self-belief that is so important. But Zimbabwe know they can beat West Indies, and they bowled like it, with the superb skill and accuracy that had been missing in Sunday's match. Heath Streak, whose bowling until now seemed to have declined since he took over the captaincy as his batting flourished, led the assault. They knew they could do it, and they did. They only seemed to lose their grip a little during that ninth-wicket partnership between Adams and Nixon McLean; they have a history of letting the lower order off the hook at times, and it still happens occasionally. But they broke through again just in time to set a new record for the lowest total scored against them.

West Indies for their part must have had everybody's sympathy as they plumb the lowest depths in their history. This once-great team has been reduced almost to the bottom of the pile, even with the presence of the great Brian Lara. They could still be a much stronger force at home, though, and it will be interesting to see if they can give South Africa a sterner test when the latter tour there next month. Jimmy Adams began his reign as captain a year ago with Test victories over Zimbabwe and Pakistan, the latter by one wicket only thanks to a crucial umpiring error with the last pair together. His team was then held together by the superb pace-bowling pair of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh; now he is without either, although Walsh will probably have a last fling at the South Africans in order to extend his world record to 500 Test wickets.

He is very well liked and respected by the Zimbabweans as a fair, pleasant opponent, a man of integrity. But he has been criticized heavily for his inability to inspire his team and his negative, unimaginative approach. If he does lose his job after this tour, as many think very possible, he will have the sympathy of many. He may also lose his place in the team, as his batting has been adhesive but little else. Perhaps if he is relieved of the captaincy, he may regain his strokes and become once again the dominant batsman he was on his last visit to Zimbabwe, with the West Indies B team of 1989/90. Let us wish him the best; he is a fine sportsman who deserves better.

WEST INDIES v ZIMBABWE, Thursday 25 January

If you drop Brian Lara, you deserve to suffer. Zimbabwe dropped Brian Lara twice, on 10 and 22, and a neutral observer might well comment, "They deserved all they got."

Once again Zimbabwe's much-vaunted fielding let them down. Marlon Samuels, the other fifty-maker, was also dropped when on 47. Had either of those chances offered by Lara been taken, Zimbabwe would probably have won the match. The openers had gone cheaply and Zimbabwe looked to have the game by the throat. But not the ball. Lara and Samuels ensured a decent total, and the Duckworth-Lewis method, after the last three overs of their innings had been lost to rain, made a difficult target harder for Zimbabwe. As Sir Winston Churchill might have commented, the Duckworth-Lewis is the worst possible method for deciding a cricket match, except for all the other methods that have been tried.

When Zimbabwe batted, they squandered a good start, with both Alistair Campbell and Guy Whittall doing all the hard work and then giving their wickets away. The Flower brothers as usual did their best, although it reached a point where perhaps they should have taken a risk or two to try and hit boundaries over the top. The West Indians accomplished a rare feat by tying Andy Flower down somewhat, cutting off his favourite strokes square with the wicket, and he may have to revise his game plan in the future and aim to score more of his runs straight.

I feel Heath Streak may have made a major error when the Flowers were parted. With more than eight runs an over required, there was only one batsman capable of doing that, with Gus Mackay not in the side, and that was Heath himself. Instead, he sent in Gavin Rennie. Rennie is a greatly underestimated one-day player, but he cannot hit the ball with consistent power, the only solution at that stage. A big partnership between Grant Flower and Rennie would only have put Zimbabwe further behind the required rate.

In the end it didn't make any difference. Flower was soon out, and Streak quickly followed. At least he did come in ahead of Dirk Viljoen, but when the situation demands I believe he must be prepared to come in earlier, always at a point where it is still possible to build an innings. And so the innings folded quickly with Zimbabwe covering themselves with . . . well, it certainly wasn't glory. Drop Lara and you suffer.

Zimbabwe are now under intense pressure to make the finals. Let us assume that neither Zimbabwe nor West Indies will beat Australia at all. That possibility is so remote as things stand at present, not least because neither side has the mental strength to believe they can do it, that not even the world-famous Mumbai bookmakers could make any difference there. With one match left between West Indies and Zimbabwe (on 2 February), Zimbabwe have to win it to finish level on points with West Indies. Then in all their matches they have to maintain a better run rate than West Indies - which probably isn't too difficult.

The problem is in the past that Zimbabwe haven't played their best under that sort of pressure. Perhaps the best thing they can do is to tell themselves that they are out of it, and they might as well forget about the finals and enjoy whatever cricket they have left in Australia. They might just then do it. After all, it worked against South Africa in the last World Cup.

Best of all would be to see Zimbabwe face the pressure and overcome it. A few players, notably Andy Flower and Heath Streak, could handle that, but I think they have too few players with that sort of mental strength to do it at present. May they prove me wrong!