Zimbabwe contract crisis September 6, 2005

The new beginning or the last hurrah?

Zimbabwe cricket is facing another poential crisis and it is all of its own making

Tatenda taibu celebrates ... but Zimbabwe cricket is facing more uncertainty © AFP
Zimbabwe Cricket's announcement that it was introducing performance-related contracts seemed, on the face of it, to be a sensible move in an attempt to bring an end to the team's repeatedly below-par displays in both Tests and ODIs.

But, as with so many things concerning cricket inside Zimbabwe, the move has backfired, causing serious unrest among the players and raising suspicions that there is more to it than meets the eye. Rather than acting as a rallying call, it has dumped Zimbabwe, already in seemingly rapid decline, with another unnecessary potential crisis.

For almost any other country, getting tough with players would probably work. But Zimbabwe has so few decent cricketers, let alone international-class ones, that it cannot afford to be choosy. There are five first-class sides inside the country and that means only around 70 players. These are funded, either directly or indirectly, centrally, and the side that keeps getting heavily beaten represents the best of them.

The board might have got away with its initial move had it not immediately scored a string of own goals. The decision to announce arbitrarily the ending of the careers of four players - Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Barney Rogers and Neil Ferreira - over the issue of contracts needs to be weighed up against the board's earlier action against Brendan Taylor. Reportedly slapped with a long ban for disciplinary reasons, that was rapidly overturned or overlooked, depending who you believe, as Zimbabwe's need for decent players came to the fore. Four other senior players, Trevor Gripper, Doug Marillier, Mark Vermuelen and Mluleki Nkala, did not even make the initial list of 27 players. On purely playing grounds - and the board said that was what had been behind the selections - some of the names left out are perplexing.

A side-effect of this latest move is that it will do little to encourage players currently overseas to return. Ray Price, Sean Ervine and Travis Friend are clinging onto their Kolpak deals with English counties because they are not guaranteed a future in Zimbabwe. With more uncertainty, they are even less likely to move back home.

The players are also angry at the way the board made assurances about the funding of a players' representative - Clive Field - which it appears to have reneged on, and some have suggested that some ZC officials have deliberately leaked false information regarding player remuneration and benefits to the media. One explained that he believed this had been done to undermine their position in a country where so many have nothing. "We are the lowest paid players in the world," he said. "Some of us do not have our own houses and some players still stay with their parents, I do not think that would be the scenario if we were well paid."

And the criteria used by ZC was also queried. One of the players implied that the people making the decisions know nothing about the game. He questioned how Douglas Hondo, with 56 ODIs and nine Tests under his belt, could be rated alongside Chamunorwa Chibhabha, who has only played one ODI.

The rebel strike last year divided loyalties among the players. The word on the ground is that almost all the players are united this time round.

Behind the scenes, it seems a power struggle is emerging inside ZC. Recent articles in the domestic media have hinted at this, and battle lines appear to have been drawn. Ozias Bvute's power has been increasing since he was elected as managing director last August - he has been seen for some time by many as being the real power behind the board - and those on the inside believe that sooner or later a move by him to replace Peter Chingoka as chairman is on the cards.

Were that to happen then the ramifications could be serious. Whereas Chingoka is well respected overseas and within the ICC, Bvute is an unknown force whose track record will not initially open many doors. Internally, he is not well regarded by many players, and his latest manoeuvre has hardly helped improve his standing.

Last month he dismissed Zimbabwe's two-day Test debacle as a one-off. Yesterday he said that the contract dispute was not a crisis. Sooner or later, if he is to be the new force in Zimbabwe cricket, he needs to accept reality and start addressing the facts and not the picture he prefers to paint.