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Despite something of a renaissance in Test cricket, England's one-day performances remained abject during the first half of 2001: in June, they lost all six NatWest games against Pakistan and Australia, taking their run of defeats to 11. Towards the end of this humiliating sequence, and with the World Cup on the horizon, the coach, Duncan Fletcher, announced a brief limited-overs tour to his native Zimbabwe. The main aims were to build team spirit, determine which of the emerging talents would be ready for the World Cup, and decide which roles best suited the more established players. Confidence-boosting victories would be a welcome bonus.
England travelled to a country in turmoil. Seizures of land from white farmers and suppression of opposition leaders were continuing under the regime of Robert Mugabe. Some questioned the ethics of playing cricket against this backdrop, although the Zimbabwean team were not among them. Whatever the rights and wrongs, it made the practicalities difficult: arrangements were not finalised until the week before England arrived, and even the Barmy Army mostly stayed at home.
The rifts in Zimbabwean society were reflected in their cricket. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union and senior white players went into the series with conflicting agendas: the ZCU wanted to encourage black involvement and so strengthen the team in the long term; the established players were desperate to restore pride by competing on the day. As they lost match after match, Alistair Campbell claimed publicly that the side was being weakened by selection on race rather than merit, an outburst which later cost him his place. Add a pay dispute that led to threats of a strike, and a 5-0 reverse was not so surprising.
England, though, were able to concentrate on the cricket. Their top order - openers Marcus Trescothick and Nick Knight, and either Nasser Hussain or Mark Ramprakash at No. 3 - successfully tried out a more positive approach to the first 15 overs, rattling up starts of between 78 and 101 in each game. Knight's statistics were formidable: 302 runs at an average of 100 and a strike-rate of almost 77. However, questions about his technique would be definitively answered only by facing stronger opposition - as would doubts about Hussain's scoring-rate, which was 81 here, as opposed to 63 before this trip.
Having elected to miss the Test tour of India, Alec Stewart and Darren Gough were left at home. With Andrew Caddick rested and Ashley Giles injured, England had nine players with fewer than seven one-day caps. One of those, Matthew Hoggard, was the outstanding bowler on either side in his first one-day international series. He took ten wickets in four games with his big-hearted out-swing and conceded only 3.65 an over, showing how well acquainted he had become with African conditions after two winters with Free State. Jeremy Snape displayed the confidence developed during Gloucestershire's record-breaking run of one-day successes, bowling his off-spin notably slowly at around 40mph. But it was James Kirtley, picked for his Gough-like skiddiness, who occupied most column inches.
He hit the headlines after the first match, not for his debut figures of two for 33, but because his action had been questioned by the referee, Colonel Naushad Ali. This sparked an outcry, primarily because Ali had flouted established procedures by revealing his misgivings to a journalist rather than the ICC. He did eventually file an official report after the fourth match, and it led to Kirtley remodeling his action. In the interim, he remained free to play, and his non-selection for the third and fifth matches owed more to his lack of prowess with the bat than the furore over his action.
With James Foster, the 21-year-old Essex and Durham University wicket-keeper, no substitute for Stewart as a batsman, England were reluctant to play more than two of Kirtley, Hoggard, Chris Silverwood and Ryan Sidebottom for fear of further weakening the batting - which left them a specialist seamer short. Andrew Flintoff was never given his full allocation of overs and, although Ben Hollioake bowled more consistently than in the summer, the gap was often plugged by Ramprakash's off-spin. This proved only a temporary answer: his exclusion from the one-day squad for India and New Zealand indicated he had not done enough - perhaps paying the price for batting too much like his captain.
However, the true significance of England's performances was hard to gauge because of the disastrous weakness of Zimbabwe. The tale was familiar. Only the Flowers averaged over 30 with the bat and only Grant Flower and Gary Brent went for less than 4.5 an over with the ball. With the talented youngsters Tatenda Taibu and Hamilton Masakadza sitting school exams, the ZCU's aim of fielding three non-white players in each match weakened the team: Mluleki Nkala, Doug Hondo and Henry Olonga took one wicket between them, and all cost more than six an over. Crucially lacking was the team spirit that had so often made Zimbabwe sides greater than the sum of their parts. By the end of the series, their run of consecutive defeats stretched to 12 - worse than England's at the start. England, at least, had turned some sort of corner; for Zimbabwe, that corner would have to be found on a Bangladeshi field.
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