July 18, 2001

West Indies start series against Zimbabwe as favourites

Zimbabwe's longest season nears its end as the two-match series against West Indies begins tomorrow in the depths of winter at Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo.

Zimbabwe go into the series having won three out of their last four Test matches, while West Indies have a horrific record away from home in recent years. Yet several factors must make West Indies favourites to win this series.

Form in the recently concluded triangular tournament can act as a guide. Zimbabwe, rocked by controversy and politics off the field, lost all four of their matches, while West Indies, despite losing twice to India in the preliminaries, turned in a superb display to win the final. This will give them great confidence going into the Tests.

Morale always plays a major part in the quality of cricket played by Zimbabwe, and recent signs have not been good. It would be naïve to believe that the political struggles affecting cricket off the field have been permanently resolved since Heath Streak's resignation and reappointment, especially as they were so evident at the recent Mashonaland Cricket Association annual general meeting. That has been portrayed as white against black, but many feel it is primarily a struggle between those who believe in selection on merit against those who want to impose their political agenda on cricket in the country.

Many of the players have been unsettled by the situation and in the past have been unable to put it behind them when they take the field, from past experience. The absence of the injured Andy Flower is also an overwhelming blow. Like Allan Border did for Australia in the eighties, Andy Flower has carried the Zimbabwean batting for most of his career. He averages almost twice as much as the next best player. He is well substituted for behind the stumps by Tatenda Taibu, but no one player can replace his batting.

It remains to be seen whether the other batsmen can collectively fill the gap. Ability wise, the most obvious pair of shoulders for the mantle to fall upon is Alistair Campbell. Campbell it is generally agreed actually has more natural ability than Andy Flower, but an average almost exactly half the size gives graphic evidence that it is what goes on between the ears that counts in Test cricket. Campbell has shown the ability to rise to responsibility before today, and his confidence should be high after his 140 against the tourists in Kwekwe. He needs to shoulder that responsibility now as never before.

Grant Flower and Guy Whittall are the other two vastly experienced batsmen in the team, and they have both batted superbly at times in the past when their side has most needed them. There could be no better time for one of the youngsters in the side to show his mettle than now, when the bulwark of Andy Flower is not there.

The squad has not been announced at the time of writing, but pace bowler Brighton Watambwa will not be included as he still has not recovered from the hamstring injury he suffered during the Second Test against India. Zimbabwe's other world-class player, Heath Streak, will again carry a heavy burden in the attack, but he will be assisted if Bryan Strang is selected. No bowler in the side can match Streak for striking power, but similarly no bowler can match Strang for accuracy, for his ability to keep the pressure on at the other end while Streak strikes.

For West Indies, Carl Hooper and Shivnarine Chanderpaul will provide the experience and be key figures in the batting. Probably eyes will mostly be on Chris Gayle, though, after scoring over 500 runs in his last three innings. Streak will no doubt be keen to test him, and it will be a fascinating contest when he comes out to open the West Indies innings. The West Indian batting has a wealth of potential but only two players of real experience, and the tourists will be hoping that Gayle will be the first of the youngsters to nail down a permanent place as a major international batsman.

West Indies have suffered a serious setback in injuries to their two best bowlers of the tour to date, Cameron Cuffy and Mervyn Dillon, both of whom have had to return home. In addition Reon King, it is reported, is also struggling with injury. Colin Stuart and Marlon Black both enjoyed excellent spells in Kwekwe, but were inconsistent.

Basically this Test series is being played between two struggling sides further weakened by injuries. West Indies may well be on their way up, while Zimbabwe have been promising more than they have delivered for several years - until their three recent Test victories. Two of them, against Bangladesh, were expected, but they still taught the Zimbabwe players valuable lessons about how to force home victory, which no doubt helped when they squared the series against India.

Despite the weaknesses of the teams, it should be a very good, interesting series. Recent Tests have finished well inside the distance, so results are likely, and morale is the key factor, to some extent for West Indies and overwhelmingly so for Zimbabwe.