June 26, 2003

Never patronise a Zimbabwean

England v Zimbabwe, NatWest Series, Match 1, Trent Bridge

Grant Flower pulls for four during his matchwinning 96 not out

England have a horrible habit of underestimating Zimbabwe. It caused them embarrassment in the 1992 World Cup, humiliation on the one-day leg of their 1996-97 tour, and a bloody nose at this same venue in 2000, when Murray Goodwin scored his third and final Test century to give his side the edge in a rain-affected match. But, given the politics and personnel problems that have dogged Zimbabwe's 2003 tour, this defeat tops the lot.

It is no coincidence that England lost six of their first eight ODIs against Zimbabwe. England are never more of a liability than when they are expected to win, and win well; Zimbabwe, especially in the shortened form of the game, are rarely more dangerous than when they can sense they are being patronised. Everyone knew this, but still the chucking under the chin continued. This result is quite an eye-opener. It makes one wonder what sort of a meal England will make of their trip to Bangladesh later in the year.

If, more than any other, there is one man in the Zimbabwean side who knows what it is like to be talked down to, it is Grant Flower. He has forever lived in the shadow of his elder brother Andy, and it is easy to forget what a fine player he is in his own right. Grant scored a double-century in Zimbabwe's maiden Test victory way back in 1994-95, and has six ODI centuries to his name, twice as many as Steve Waugh - and at a better average as well.

But Flower had buckled under the strain of leading the Zimbabwean line during the Test series, and seemed destined to fade from international cricket ... much like his team. Instead, he built on the sterling efforts of Heath Streak and the spinner Ray Price, to lead them to a famous victory, in the process drawing a fabulous performance from Stuart Matsikenyeri. For vast tracts of the match, England were comprehensively outplayed, as first they threw away a riotous start with the bat, and then relaxed their Vulcan grip with Zimbabwe reeling at a wearyingly familiar 15 for 4. But a two-and-a-half week rest-cure has done the trick - Zimbabwe are more resilient that anyone gave them credit for.

Despite their success in two highly charged encounters against Pakistan, this young England team have not exactly learned to run before they can walk; today they attempted to stroll when they ought to have been hot-footing. It was another characteristically complacent performance from a team that ought to be too young to be cynical. South Africa, it was assumed, would pose the threat in this series, so England chose to rest their man of the moment, James Anderson, and replaced the promising Jim Troughton with the pugilistic Robert Key.

England have spent the last week haring around in the fast lane, toying with 95mph juggernauts and quaffing champagne in Mayfair clubs with cricket's favourite scouse pop-starlettes. But, like city slickers let loose for a weekend in the country, they came screeching round the corner and bundled straight into the back of a tractor. England's hubris has been reduced to debris, but it is at worst a timely lesson.

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