Zimbabwe's unwavering supporter
Every team has its Neil. The No. 1, endearingly eccentric, never-say-die fan, who loyally attends every match he possibly can, and supports his team with all his heart. Zimbabwe's Neil is white, easily the wrong side of 40, and watches about one ball in 20 during the games he goes to because he's too busy marching around the ground, garnering as much support from the crowd for his beloved team as he possibly can.
Everybody who has ever watched a game of cricket at Harare Sports Club will know Neil, if not by name then by his behaviour. He walks diligently to the front of each and every stand, and urges the spectators to shout for Zimbabwe. Whenever anyone obliges, he heartily joins in, clapping along and dancing, with no discrimination against the age, gender or race of his fellow supporters.
Today was not Neil's day. In truth, it hardly ever is. And when it hasn't been Neil's day, it hasn't been Zimbabwe's day. For the first quarter of this game, the young Zimbabweans held their own. Tinashe Panyangara was more than a handful in his opening spell, and he was well backed up by the innocuous-looking offspin of Prosper Utseya and Gavin Ewing.
It could be said that Ewing is a cricketer not so much in the mould of Darren Lehmann but rather a player who stretched and broke Lehmann's chubby mould as he forced his way out. He was one of the original group of so-called rebels, but he has since resolved his differences with Zimbabwe Cricket and made his one-day debut today. He's a little portly, but he does OK, and picked up the wicket of Andrew Strauss as Zimbabwe threatened to pose a serious challenge to England.
But then Kevin Pietersen and Geraint Jones's 120-run partnership swung the match firmly back in England's favour, and the final three-quarters of the game was sealed. Both struck half-centuries, and boosted England's total past 260 when 200 had looked more likely.
After a fairly cautious start to their partnership, they went into overdrive in the closing overs, merrily swiping the now-ragged bowling attack for four sixes between them. Jones smashed Panyangara out of the ground over long-on, and Pietersen would have done the same to Brendan Taylor, had the three-storey-high roof of the building at the City End not intervened.
And with runs coming so quickly in the last ten overs, where could the spectators turn to? Certainly not the scoreboards. Both are at best a pretty reliable source of misinformation, and at worst are wildly inaccurate. When England's batsmen went into warp drive, the poor scorers just couldn't keep up, and at no time were they in agreement as to who was on strike, how many runs had come off whoever had or hadn't bowled the last over, or what the actual score really was.
England's blitz drained the spirit from Zimbabwe, and though the second-innings run-chase started promisingly enough, it then imploded spectacularly, as all ten wickets tumbled for just over 60 runs.
Not that that stopped the decent-sized crowd from enjoying themselves. When it became apparent that the batsmen weren't going to make a fist of the second half of the game, the crowd chose instead to rejoice in the comic irony of Utseya and Christopher Mpofu's stubborn last-wicket partnership. Every time Utseya put bat to ball, or Mpofu miraculously survived another over from Ashley Giles or Darren Gough, they let out an appreciative cheer, accompanied by a burst of noise from the all-singing, all-dancing, all-drumming and all-hooting troop of supporters at Castle Corner.
A noticeable proportion of the crowd were kitted out in caps and T-shirts, available from the strangely familiar-sounding "Cricshop", emblazoned with Zimbabwe Cricket's new logo. The logo, made up of a ball, some stumps (because, unfortunately, balls are always hitting Zimbabwean stumps), the Zimbabwe bird, and a section of the outfield showing the boundary rope - which signifies, as Peter Chingoka urges in the series programme, that the grass is never, under any circumstances, greener on the other side - is also now splashed across the backs of the stands, the team's bus, and on several fancy new-age flags dotted around the ground ... pretty much everywhere you look really.
Zimbabwe Cricket's new name, team, and shiny new logo is meant to herald a glorious new start for the game in this country. Yet behind all this, they can't even get the scoreboards to agree with each other, let alone show the right score. Gaggles of street children still gather to beg at the gates to the ground, and beyond them, beyond the government-created façade that all is well in this country, the real Zimbabwe is still falling to pieces. The massive gap between the grossly rich and the desperately poor in Zimbabwe is highlighted by the difference between the swanky interior of the Harare Sports Club, and its surroundings.
But, in truth, it's not all gloom and doom for Zimbabwe cricket. Large numbers of schoolkids, who make up the majority of the crowd at the matches, play cricket around the back of the stands, and on the open stretches of grass in the sports club. There is nothing rudimentary about their techniques, and talent and enthusiasm is obviously being fostered among the very young. There is major, and growing, interest in the game. But what can be done to stop cricket going the way of soccer and rugby in Zimbabwe, and being ruined by the ne'er-do-wells in charge? Are the hopes and dreams of Zimbabwe's growing multitude of young cricket-lovers in the right hands? The simple answer is a resounding no. How can cricket be saved? Well, they could put Neil in charge.
Steven Price is a freelance writer based in Harare.