April 5, 2003

Zimbabwe v Kenya: An assessment

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Heath Streak and Doug Marillier obviously enjoyed being interviewed after the match as winners rather than losers, and their relaxed, humourous, slightly self-depreciating comments will have won them some friends.

After a tense match, it was clear that at last Zimbabwe have found somebody with whom we can enjoy a good match again. In years gone by, there were times when we could eagerly look forward to series against England, New Zealand, India (at home) and Sri Lanka (also at home only), knowing we would have a good close contest and had a pretty good chance of winning.

But since the beginning of the present internal troubles in Zimbabwe and the steady exodus of top players, Zimbabwe cricket has virtually gone into freefall. No longer can we match any of the eight senior Test-playing countries, and now we have been caught up, in the one-day game at least, by the best of the rest, Kenya.

No longer do Zimbabwe have the easy ride that they had against Kenya even as recently as last December. The East Africans have improved out of all recognition, thanks to a little luck and a lot of enthusiasm at the World Cup. They at the moment have the confidence that Zimbabwe do not, and they are not likely to have it broken by their narrow defeat today. International cricket for them is still the thrilling adventure it was to Zimbabwe ten years ago, and they are currently playing above their ability, as Zimbabwe did then.

Zimbabwe made one change to the team that lost to Pakistan two days earlier, bringing in left-arm spinner Raymond Price for Travis Friend, who did not really come off at number three and mysteriously did not bowl. Price did a fine job with the ball and has the virtue of accuracy that Friend still has to develop. That said, Friend is a fine prospect with both bat and ball but, as Guy Whittall observed, he still has to grow up mentally in the game.

Zimbabwe lost the toss and were sent into the field, which probably left them with mixed feelings. They would have to bat under lights on a pitch that soon showed signs of crumbling, but at least they would not have to grapple with the dew factor that so handicapped Sri Lanka the previous evening.

Andy Blignaut was all over the place with the new ball, and was quickly replaced by Douglas Hondo. 12 off his second over relaxed the pressure that Streak had been building up at the other end. Blignaut needs more discipline, and today he was clearly trying too hard to produce a different, unplayable delivery every ball instead of making sure he put it in the right place most of the time.

In contrast, Streak and Hondo bowled with 90 per cent accuracy and real purpose, making Kenya fight for runs. They were not particularly dangerous, especially on that pitch, but they were accurate enough to make run-scoring difficult, and that is worth a great deal in one-day cricket in particular.

Zimbabwe's fielding was rather a mixture, with some brilliance and some good catches taken, but some unnecessary blunders. The catches came in very useful as Kenya were never able to score as quickly as they wanted, despite having wickets in hand. They must have been rather disappointed with 225 for six, only 56 runs coming in the last ten overs.

Zimbabwe's bowlers deserve credit for sticking to their task, and also bowling their overs at a good rate. Amazingly, there were 15 minutes to spare at the end of the innings. Old-timers who remember the game when 20 overs were bowled in the hour won't be too impressed, but it's not bad for an era where four bowlers per team dawdle back to the end of their long run-ups, there are endless conferences by the fielding side and twelfth men run on and off with drinks, equipment, racing results and who knows what else.

Kenya's opening bowlers were also accurate, and Zimbabwe openers Craig Wishart and Doug Marillier struggled to get going. Fortunately they kept their heads until Wishart, having once again reached double figures and done the hard work, gave his wicket away too easily with an unwise stroke. He always seems to see off the new ball, which is valuable, but owes his side some big scores. The foundations are great, but why settle for a shack instead of a skyscraper?

It is fascinating to watch Collins Obuya bowl his leg-spinners, and he could well be one of the Kenyan players to join the CFX Academy this year. Despite lack of international opportunity, he has developed into a really dangerous spinner such as Zimbabwe would love to possess. Such a short time ago we had Paul Strang and Adam Huckle bowling at opposite ends, but Huckle walked out on the team after the World Cup and Strang's long-term arm injury has seemingly ended his international career.

Marillier played a fine innings, and it is a wonderful thing to see a young Zimbabwean batsman scoring his first one-day century. He is only the tenth Zimbabwean to do so in our 23-year history in that form of the game. This time he was hitting the ball over the bowler's head instead of the wicket-keeper's in a completely different kind of innings. He should continue to open for a long time now, especially in the absence of other suitable candidates. The only downside is that we will no longer see him scooping the ball over the keeper's head as he chases impossible victories.

It looks a bit as if Marillier is programmed to function well only if he has a clearly defined role. Opening the innings obviously gives him that role, and so does the situation where victory is almost impossible and he can go wild with the stroke that made him famous. Anything else, as in the World Cup, and he fails.

It was just a pity that he threw his wicket away just after reaching three figures instead of seeing Zimbabwe through to victory. That left a few tremors, but this time Streak came in at the right time. He has been there before, he knows how to keep his nerve, and he finished the match with a straight six, with six balls to spare when a few minutes earlier it had looked likely to go down to the last ball.

Zimbabwe did have some help from the fielders, as two difficult chances were missed and a bad misfield gave Zimbabwe a vital four at a crucial time. Some of the Kenyans too lost their nerve, and they have not had as much experience as Zimbabwe. But they fought a good fight, and gave us our tightest game for a long time. We will have many more close tussles with them in the future, the way things are going.

In the meantime, congratulations to both teams for this excellent match. Zimbabwe will be encouraged, although they are used to beating Kenya by comfortable margins. They now know that will not happen too often in the future. They face Sri Lanka tomorrow, and victory would give them a place in the final.

Once again our players face a pressure match. To be honest, chances of victory are small. So let's just concentrate on enjoying the game, playing an over at a time, fighting hard and making Sri Lanka fight hard. We have a huge learning curve ahead of us, so let's not expect too much of ourselves at the moment, and one day we'll be pleasantly surprised.