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A special correspondent
September 20, 2006
The crisis in Zimbabwean cricket, and in the country as a whole, remained unresolved and unimproved at the end of 2005, another miserable year. In 2004, a player rebellion sparked by the sacking of national captain Heath Streak had weakened the side so badly that the ICC had temporarily suspended Zimbabwe's Test programme. They returned in January 2005. But their defeats grew ever more painful, and a brief attempt at reconciliation with the rebels was overtaken by a wider mutiny, this time led by Streak's young black successor, Tatenda Taibu. In November, Taibu resigned, and by January 2006 the government of Robert Mugabe - still in power despite global contempt for his regime - had replaced Zimbabwe Cricket's strife-ridden board with an interim committee, which announced a further 12-month withdrawal from Test status.
The country's first break from Test cricket ended with a trip to Bangladesh, the newest and until then weakest Test nation. But the Zimbabweans were left holding the wooden spoon as Bangladesh recorded their first Test victory, by 226 runs, and followed up with their first series wins in both Test and one-day cricket. Returning to Africa, Zimbabwe lost their next five Tests - against South Africa, New Zealand and India - by an innings, and a sixth by ten wickets. Only one of those games limped into the fourth morning, and two never reached the third. Having won their first two one-day games in Bangladesh, they lost ten in a row by September. The A-team, which tended to overlap significantly with the supposedly senior side, did little better.
Consistent humiliation on the field was only the most obvious sign of the deteriorating situation. Early in 2005, the player rebellion appeared to have collapsed. Streak, Zimbabwe's one world-class player after Andy Flower's protest at "the death of democracy" led to his departure in 2003, returned after lengthy negotiations with ZC, apparently without consulting the other rebels who had withdrawn in his support. Some were disappointed. The week that Streak declared his availability, his family ranch was removed from a list of farms designated for government confiscation. It seemed he had been presented with an offer he could not refuse, for his family's sake.
Streak was rushed to South Africa, in time to join the team in the final one-day international. He scored more runs in one innings than any of his colleagues managed over three, but Zimbabwe still lost. Another rebel, Andy Blignaut, who had failed to forge a new career with Tasmania, was hurried back alongside Streak for the two Tests, despite being far from match-fit. ZC was clearly desperate. Blignaut managed a couple of fifties, but neither he nor Streak could make their team competitive.
Of the other rebels, Gavin Ewing and Barney Rogers had already returned, and four more, Stuart Carlisle, Craig Wishart, Trevor Gripper and Neil Ferreira, agreed to a provisional deal after changes in the running of cricket were promised. ZC chairman Peter Chingoka declared the player rebellion over. Grant Flower, however, stayed away. He had secured a future with his brother at Essex and insisted nothing had really changed. Five others decided either not to return or to wait and see, most notably Sean Ervine and Raymond Price, who also found a haven in county cricket. And in October 2005, Streak announced his retirement from international cricket in order to captain Warwickshire.
The changes demanded by the rebel players had centred on the constitution of the ZC Board and on selection policy. In particular, they objected to two board members, Maqsood Ebrahim and Ozias Bvute, believing them to be political activists with no significant cricketing background, uninterested in the good of the game. But by November a split between the two had appeared: Ebrahim, the chairman of selectors, said that ZC was trying to remove him as chairman of Masvingo province, while ZC accused him of racism. The enigmatic Bvute had become a board member in 2000, when an integration task force was introduced, and since then he had worked ceaselessly to expand his influence. He took over as managing director in late 2004, resigning his place on the board. Theoretically, this made him the board's employee, but this was not how it looked. Opinions differed as to whether Bvute had a genuine political power base or was simply a very clever opportunist exploiting a national climate of fear. He often displayed great charm, personality and enough charisma to win over opponents. But his aim was confrontation. His determination to remove all opposition was in line with his government's policy, as was the ridiculous assertion that the welfare of Zimbabwean cricket was being sabotaged by a few recalcitrant whites. When the Mashonaland clubs, including the black club Takashinga, rebelled, he crushed the revolt, closing the Mashonaland Cricket Association offices and calling in the police to arrest the officials on fraud charges. Most were later released and restored to their posts.
One thing Bvute could not control, however, was the performance of his national team. In the late 1990s, Zimbabwe had been respected battlers, renowned for punching above their weight in world cricket. As black players of quality emerged and cricket began to gain national interest, the sport should have increased in depth and strength. Instead, politics took a sinister grip. Inevitably, some whites wanted to maintain their dominance, but this was not common. More common was resentment of any success gained by a white-dominated team coming from people who were not prepared to wait for transformation to occur naturally.
The ICC's response to the Zimbabwean crisis may not have been as feeble as it appeared: it is impossible to believe that Bvute would have countenanced the rebels' return on any terms but total surrender had he not been put under extreme pressure. There was talk of demoting Zimbabwe and Bangladesh to a lower tier of Test sides, or restricting them to occasional Test series at home, until they showed they could compete. It seems likely that these threats forced Bvute to negotiate.
But as 2005 wore on, the controversies multiplied. In August, Phil Simmons, the national side's West Indian coach, was sacked during a visit from New Zealand, who inflicted Zimbabwe's heaviest Test defeat. He was replaced by Kevin Curran, a (white) former Zimbabwean international. The players signed a petition stating that Simmons's dismissal was "unjust, unfair and not in the best interests of Zimbabwe cricket"; he went to court to challenge it, while ZC tried to have him deported.
Hitherto, the black players in the national side (with the conspicuous exception of Henry Olonga) had been reluctant to protest. Most come from the townships; cricket has opened the door to success for them, and opposing ZC could mean a return to the ghetto. But they were clearly affected by the controversy between ZC and the Mashonaland administration: morale was so low during the concurrent one-day tournament that the Mashonaland team, which provides the bulk of the national side and won the first-class Logan Cup for a sixth successive season, finished bottom. The near-unanimous protest over Simmons's dismissal showed their growing unhappiness. In November, the players, headed by Taibu, held a press conference to call for the resignation of Chingoka and the suspension of Bvute. The chairmen of the provincial associations backed up the team and demanded explanations of "unusual financial dealings" by the board. Rumours of irregular foreign-currency dealings were fuelled when officials of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe raided the ZC premises. That the board was in financial crisis was clear from the fact that the players were still awaiting pay from the series with New Zealand, held in August.
"If we don't do anything, cricket in Zimbabwe will die within a year," said Taibu. Afterwards, he was reported to have responded to threats from board officials by taking his wife and young child into hiding. The threat of another strike appeared to recede when ZC announced it had agreed the terms of contracts with the players. But by the end of the month, Taibu had resigned the captaincy and announced his retirement from the game in Zimbabwe, though he made it clear he would return if the situation improved.
In the meantime, he went to Bangladesh to play club cricket. It seemed that Chingoka and Bvute might be forced out when they were arrested on suspicion of contravening the law on currency exchange, and board vice-chairman Ahmed Ebrahim called an emergency meeting. But Chingoka and Bvute were soon released. Finally, the government took direct control. The board was dissolved, and the white and Asian directors sacked, while Chingoka, despite criticism of his administration in a government report, was retained as chairman of an interim committee. Bvute apparently remained too. The players, who had said they would no longer tour unless their contracts were agreed, their pay handed over and Chingoka removed, subsequently agreed to end their strike in the hope of getting paid, but threatened to withdraw again if they were not satisfied. With the decision to surrender Test status, they would be playing only one-day internationals, in any case, and New Zealand had quietly dropped the return tour when their government indicated it would not issue the Zimbabweans visas. The ICC described Zimbabwe's withdrawal as "sensible", but said there were still many issues the interim committee needed to resolve. The ICC also continued to insist that it would not interfere in the country's internal affairs, to the bemusement of cricket-lovers inside and outside Zimbabwe. Yet for a small country, Zimbabwe still had a wealth of talent, which was being exploited and abused in criminal fashion. Taibu, who turned 22 in May, proved himself a player of genuine international class. He did his country proud, holding the batting together, keeping wicket well, and captaining a losing side without despair, always offering a smile and a philosophical approach at post-match interviews. He was criticised for a lack of imagination and tactical awareness, but he rarely had any old hands to help him with advice - he was often Zimbabwe's most experienced player. Dion Ebrahim, a gritty batsman and a superb fielder, lost form, while Douglas Hondo was plagued by injury and inconsistency. One bright spot, however, was the return of Hamilton Masakadza after three years at a South African university. A couple of fine innings showed he still had great potential, but he too needed to find consistency. Opening batsman Stuart Matsikenyeri had more ability than runs or discipline, while Vusi Sibanda again wasted his abundant gifts.
Among the even younger players, Tinashe Panyangara was prone to injury, Brendan Taylor earned a six-month ban for disciplinary offences, and Elton Chigumbura lacked the experience to back up his talent. Pace bowler Chris Mpofu and leg-spinner Graeme Cremer were promising newcomers, but struggled in a decimated team. Prosper Utseya had a remarkable economyrate of less than four an over in one-day internationals, apart from one hammering in South Africa, but could not take wickets in any form of the game. Off-spinning all-rounder Stuart Williams, another Under-19 player, showed promise in the one-day games in South Africa.
The standard of play in domestic cricket was low, but at least the firstclass Logan Cup was staged when the national players were available. Some of them showed they could play four-day cricket competently - as long as the opposition was not too strong. The title went to Mashonaland for the sixth successive season. Led by Taibu, they won their first five matches by handsome margins, before Manicaland turned the tables in the final game. Manicaland and Matabeleland won three games apiece, but Midlands lost all six matches. It was as well that the champions were so clear: it was impossible to get either a table or confirmation of the points system out of Zimbabwe Cricket.
Taylor scored three centuries for Mashonaland, including a career-best 193. Double-centuries were scored by his team-mate Carlisle, former rebel Neil Ferreira, for Manicaland, and Doug Marillier, who had withdrawn from cricket for a year in disillusionment but returned for Midlands. The top domestic bowler was Manicaland's Blessing Mahwire, with 45 wickets. He was also an underrated batsman, but queries about his action the previous season hindered his international career. Cremer, the hardest-working bowler in the country, was the latest in a long line of quality Zimbabwean legspinners, and took 42 wickets.
If the administration should ever be restored to those who care for cricket, and if Taibu and the other rebels come back, Zimbabwe could still become a competitive side. But the point of no return cannot be too far away.
© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
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