January 3, 2003

Problems for Zimbabwe on and off the field

This was a miserable year for Zimbabwean cricket. Poor performances on the field were compounded by rising political tension over World Cup matches due to be played in the country. If the matches are not played, and a wider boycott of sporting relations follows, the consequences are unimaginable. It is best to leave the decisions, and their ramifications, to the administrators and concentrate on the action on the field.

The introduction of the ICC Test championship has seen Zimbabwe generally given two Test match series. In the calendar year, they played only six Tests, less than half that of most countries. This is not wholly satisfactory, with short tours never ideal, and Zimbabwe found it difficult to adjust on the subcontinent. In the one-day form of the game, their performances were frequently poor, apart from some encouraging matches with India.

The year began in Sri Lanka, where the tourists were on the wrong side of a hammering. Having lost the first Test, they came further unstuck in Kandy. Muttiah Muralitharan picked up 13 wickets in the match, including a Test-best return of 9-51 in the first innings as Zimbabwe subsided to an innings defeat. Another heavy defeat followed in Galle, despite a gutsy effort from skipper Stuart Carlisle.

Raymond Price collected his first five-wicket haul in an otherwise devastating innings defeat as the side arrived for a short series with India. Heath Streak returned to form in Delhi, and solid efforts with the bat from Andy Flower and Dion Ebrahim gave Zimbabwe a sniff, with India losing six wickets chasing just 126

The positives from Delhi were carried through to the ODI series. Doug Marriller, batting at ten, hit 56 from 24 balls to gain an amazing victory in the first game. An inspired spell from Douglas Hondo ensured another win at Kochi, keeping the rubber alive until the last game, where India turned on the style to record an easy victory at Guwahati. That was the 19th of March, and Zimbabwe would not play international cricket again for six months.

Come September, the squad found themselves landing in Sri Lanka once more, this time for the ICC Trophy. Under Streak's leadership, they pushed India hard once again. Chasing 288, Andy Flower's 145 kept hopes alive, but Zim always looked likely to fall short. England then inflicted a heavy defeat to send them home, although Hondo claimed four wickets for his third successive ODI.

Pakistan were the only team to play Test cricket in Zimbabwe in 2002, after Australia had cancelled a planned winter series due to security concerns. Alistair Campbell became the third captain of the year after Streak had a rickshaw accident in Sri Lanka. Andy Blignaut furthered his claims to be the senior all-rounder, leading the attack with five wickets as Pakistan were bundled out for 285 on the first day. He hit a lusty 50 from just 38 balls as Zimbabwe's response faltered. Tatenda Taibu chipped in with his first Test fifty, but the home side looked out of the game as they were set 430. Half centuries from Ebrahim and both the Flower brothers ensured a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful chase, which fell 119 runs short.

Spin ripped the home side apart in Bulawayo. Saqlain Mushtaq snared seven victims, with only Grant Flower passing 50 in a disappointing first innings. A big response from Pakistan all but ended the game, and despite a gutsy second innings effort, Pakistan claimed an easy ten-wicket victory. In six Test matches, Zimbabwe had lost six, with no batsman reaching a hundred in the calendar year.

In the shorter form of the game, there was little sign of improvement. Pakistan passed 300 on the four occasions they batted first in the one-day series. Campbell's men got close on two occasions, but could not avoid a whitewash.

A low key one-day series with Kenya would at least provide some encouragement. After the first game was abandoned, the players moved to Kwekwe, hosting its first ODI. Travis Friend blasted 91, and with good support from Campbell and Andy Flower, batted Kenya out of the game. Henry Olonga was the star at Bulawayo, with accuracy earning him six wickets. Blignaut and Mark Vermeulen made short work of a modest target, both hitting quick-fire fifties.

Campbell was left out of the World Cup squad. He had reached double figures just twice in the year's ten ODIs. That was the only surprise in a squad rich in all-rounders, who will - presuming the games take place at all - have to be at their very best if they are to have any chance of progressing.

Zimbabwean cricket still has a chance. Remember that it took Sri Lanka the best part of 15 years to become a real force in international cricket. It is unfortunate that a downturn in the performance of the team has coincided with the political problems in the country. Certainly cricket appears to be one area where a satisfactory multi-racialism has been achieved. These are tumultuous times, and Zimbabwe faces a rough ride on cricket and diplomatic fields.