Zimbabwe cricket plumbed new depths
Zimbabwe cricket plumbed new depths today as the national side curled up and died against a vibrant Kenyan team, who beat them overwhelmingly for the first time by seven wickets.
Both teams got exactly what they deserved - and Zimbabwe know it. Kenya, the associate member, were vibrant and enthusiastic, inspired by their appearances in the Super Sixes. Zimbabwe, the full member, far more experienced, demonstrated once again their genius for choking when the pressure is on. They could scarcely have done more to prove to the cricket world that they only reached the Super Sixes thanks to politics and the help of the weather.
I wrote before the match that Zimbabwe were likely to find Kenya tougher opponents in this match than ever before, especially in view of their own temperamental inadequacies when under pressure. But their incompetence on the day proved far greater than I, or anybody else except the Kenyans, imagined. They should have forgotten their task of having to beat both Kenya and Sri Lanka to reach the semi-finals, forgotten that they were favourites to beat Kenya (a label they also find pressurizing) and followed the Kenyan approach as stated by their captain Steve Tikolo: just to 'go out there and enjoy it'.
Enjoying the game did not seem to come into Zimbabwe's game plan in the slightest. Coach Geoff Marsh will have to get used to the idea that the average Zimbabwean cricketer is a very different animal from the Australian. We may hate to admit it, refuse to admit it, but he suffers from low self-confidence and an inferiority complex against more renowned opposition and is therefore liable to crack under pressure. This has been the sad story of this country's cricket from the beginning to the present time. Kenya is not a more renowned country, but the match was played in a pressure situation. And Kenya handled it infinitely better than Zimbabwe did.
Geoff Marsh has paid tribute to the work ethic of the Zimbabwean players, and their commitment to hard work is admirable and never in question. If the English players showed similar commitment they would not be humiliated by the Australians time and again. But it is inside the head that things are wrong. There is the odd exception, like Andy Flower, who has the mental strength to rise above that morass of inferiority. But even he has been unable to find a disciple in the Zimbabwe team able to emulate him.
I don't know how effective sports psychology and counselling would be. The attitude of sportsmen reflects the society in which they live. To generalize, Australian society is aggressive, brash and self-confident, based on the "I can do it" state of mind; Zimbabwean society is meek, self-effacing, easily overawed and liable to tear down those who do believe the "I can do it" philosophy. Major brainwashing of young adults who have been brought up in this way is difficult.
In the short term, an 'enjoyment' philosophy like that so successfully employed by the Kenyans looks the best solution. Zimbabwe play their best cricket that way, when they take the pressure off themselves and just go out to enjoy the moment, to play every game as if it were the last - the successful Andy Bichel philosophy.
In the early days of Test cricket the Zimbabwe players there revelled in their new opportunities, as Alistair Campbell and the Flowers surely remember. They played within their limitations, but put their whole hearts into the game without getting grandiose ideas. They were always competitive, even if they lost. For the time being, this is all Zimbabwe can realistically hope for.
After India's loss to Australia, some of the players' houses were stoned and they knew that if they did not do a great deal better, very quickly, they and their families would be in serious physical danger. Zimbabweans face little more than cold contempt from their disillusioned supporters when they play badly. If India could revive so thoroughly under so much pressure, what does that say about Zimbabwe?
South Africa played grim cricket this World Cup, and were knocked out in the first round. Zimbabwe's cricket has been, by and large, equally careworn and pressurized. It hasn't worked, guys! Think again about your approach!
Incredibly, in view of the wide gulf in experience between the two teams, it was Kenya who showed more cricketing nous on the field in this match. They soon discovered that the pitch was slow and the ball did not come on to the bat, and adjusted accordingly. They pitched the ball up, bowled line and length, and waited for the Zimbabwe batsmen to get themselves out. They were never disappointed for long, as the Zimbabweans were only too eager to do so.
Andy Flower alone showed much idea of how to assess the pitch and play on it. He scored nearly half the total, and where would we have been without him. It seems we are soon to find out. Last month he refused to answer my query about his future plans, saying instead he would wait for the authorities to make a statement at the right time. It seems he has now bypassed the local press and told an international agency that he is leaving Zimbabwe cricket after the World Cup. We are surely in for a dismal time unless we can find somebody somewhere to put his hand up in the Australian style and take on the same responsibility.
It was most patriotic of Brian Murphy and Mark Vermeulen to injure themselves and thus allow the selectors to recall Alistair Campbell hastily to the team. Unfortunately Campbell, out of practice and probably not mentally adjusted to the sudden recall, failed, but at least he did not throw his wicket away this time. Many others in the side are more culpable. Even Tatenda Taibu seemed to be caught up in the miasma that Zimbabwe cricket can so easily become, and he batted without his usual sparkle and without success.
Martin Suji did the early damage with the first three wickets. Craig Wishart and Grant Flower both fell to quite unnecessary and inappropriate attacking strokes. They know Suji is Kenya's best bowler. Why wasn't the game plan simply to see him off, push him for singles where possible and to take big runs off the lesser bowlers? But none of Flower's partners appeared to be looking to push the score along with singles at all. Was there no game plan, or did the pressure situation reduce the IQ to the same level as the current air temperature in Europe and North America?
Amid all the poor strokes and soft dismissals we had a stupid run-out. Andy Flower called for a single, Andy Blignaut raced down the pitch in support, only for Flower to change his mind. We then had a foot race between Flower and Blignaut to reach the crease at the keeper's end, narrowly won by Flower. There was speculation and even ignorance shown in the commentary box as to which player should be given out, as the keeper casually jogged down the pitch to remove the bails at the bowler's end. The simple fact was that as Blignaut was the last to reach safety in the far crease, he was the one to go.
Both batsmen, it was clear, were keen on self-preservation at the expense of the other. Flower could argue that, as he was the senior batsman and well set, it was in the interests of the team that he should not be the one to go. But he did leave his partner right up the creek without a paddle. Blignaut had no such considerations as he tried in vain to reach safety before Flower did. Had he put the team first, he would then have walked straight off the field whether he thought he was out or not, so the senior batsman could continue. The incident reflected poorly on both players, and I hope is not an indication of team spirit - or lack of - in the side.
Kenya did start their reply uncertainly. In the first few overs, Zimbabwe managed to drop two catches and had a genuine catch at the wicket rejected, as umpire Venkat continued his remarkable record of umpiring errors at the expense of Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans.
But it should have been obvious that Zimbabwe's only hope of victory was to take wickets at all costs. Kenya could hardly fail to reach their meagre target unless they were completely bowled out. So - pack the slips and gully area and attack! But again Zimbabwe hedged their bets, set half-hearted field placings and paid the penalty, as several potential chances found no eager hands awaiting them. Batting, bowling or fielding, true self-belief was lacking, although there was good bowling from Streak and Blignaut.
Although the Kenyans had shown that the pitch was of no help to pace, it was too late to influence the result when Streak finally resorted to spin. By then Kenya had overcome their own nerves and in a flurry of superb strokes won the match at a canter. Zimbabwe may never find them easy victims again.
As Zimbabwe are on their way down, Kenya are on their way up. It will be hard for the ICC to deny them Test status after reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, and also unjust. I am just afraid that, because Test cricket is such a different game and their players are so unused to that version, that they will get humiliated, as Bangladesh have been. They may also have to pay a harsh price for ICC neglect in the longer version of the game in the recent past.
But it seems Kenya are a much more confident team than Bangladesh, and hopefully will recover and learn quickly. Certainly psychologically there is no better time than the present, when their confidence is at an all-time high and they still have their experienced top players in their prime. I just hope they realize that Test status will expose them to a merciless learning curve and that confidence and enthusiasm will make much less of an impact when faced with the vast experience of other nations in the Test arena - even hapless Zimbabwe, who cannot even like Sri Lanka use overconfidence as an excuse for today's fiasco.
Zimbabwe have one final match to play, against Sri Lanka on Saturday, and since all hope of a semi-final place is gone, we may expect them perhaps to play a bit better. Possibly they might even decide that playing World Cup cricket can be an enjoyable experience after all. The match might be quite meaningless, if New Zealand beat India on Friday. Otherwise the pressure will all be on the Sri Lankans, who are unreliable in such situations, but have a better track record than Zimbabwe. As indeed do most teams, unfortunately.
If any Zimbabwean players read this article and are offended by it, the answer is simple. Prove me wrong by coming up trumps in a genuine pressure situation at international level, and do it with a reasonable consistency. We do have occasional high spots - Doug Marillier in India, Heath Streak in New Zealand, Grant Flower against Pakistan, Henry Olonga in the last World Cup - but these are isolated moments of individual glory.
We need an overall change in mentality. I would be only too delighted to be proved wrong. But, based on the bitter evidence of years, I may have to wait a long time.