March 2, 2000

Zimbabwe in West Indies: a Preview

Touring party: Andy Flower (capt), Heath Streak (vice-capt), Andy Blignaut, Grant Flower, Alistair Campbell, Stuart Carlisle, Murray Goodwin, Trevor Gripper, Neil Johnson, Mpumelelo Mbangwa, Brian Murphy, Mluleki Nkala, Henry Olonga, Bryan Strang, Craig Wishart. Additions for the one-day series: Gary Brent, Tatenda Taibu, Dirk Viljoen, Guy Whittall. Administration: Ali Shah (manager), Dave Houghton (coach), Carl Rackemann (bowling coach), Amato Machikicho (physiotherapist), John Bryceland (fitness trainer).

These days Zimbabwean touring teams arouse discussion as they always did, but usually, instead of "Why on earth was So-and-so selected?", the question is more likely to be "Why on earth was So-and-So left out?" Gradually the pool of Test-class cricketers in Zimbabwe is increasing and there are always in the future going to be unlucky players who merited a place but narrowly missed selection.

Paul Strang remains an omission from the national side as his wrist injury is taking a very long time to heal. He played his first club game for several months last weekend, but was quite unimpressive, and his inclusion for the tour of England must also look unlikely at this stage. He will no doubt be working hard against time to try to reach full fitness and form again.

Another omission from the full touring party for fitness reasons is Guy Whittall, who has suffered a recurrence of his knee injury that put him out for much of last season. It is hoped that he may be fit enough to fly out in time for the Second Test.

Andy Flower is another with injury problems, having cracked a bone in his finger in South Africa which is still troubling him and may well have affected his form against England. It might have been wise to have taken a reserve wicket-keeper on tour to relieve him of that job during the warm-up matches, and perhaps Tatenda Taibu might have been chosen for that role had he not been still at school. Taibu, who turns 17 in May, is a fine prospect as a wicket-keeper/batsman with a good record for the Under-19 team already, and will be coming out anyway for the one-day series; he is not expected to play but merely to 'gain the exposure and experience of overseas touring', as the ZCU press release states.

When the one-day triangular tournament, which also includes Pakistan, begins after the two-Test series, there will be a partial change in personnel, with four players returning and four more, including Whittall and Taibu, taking their places.

The most interesting choice was that of Cape Town University student Brian Murphy as the side's one specialist spin bowler. In the recent past spin bowling was one of the country's major strengths, but the past year or so has seen the loss of form and injury of Paul Strang and the unexpected retirement of Adam Huckle. Off-spinner Andrew Whittall has lacked penetration, and even his place in the one-day side has gone, although he has been appointed captain of the Zimbabwe A team to tour Sri Lanka in April. Ray Price presumably is considered not yet ready, and the feeling appears to be that a wrist spinner like Murphy would be more likely to be effective on West Indian pitches. He is also a very useful batsman. A biography of him appears elsewhere in this magazine.

Mluleki Nkala, like Taibu, was earmarked for international cricket from his mid-teens, and now that he has finally left school with his A-levels the selectors have wasted no time in including him, despite the fact that he has just started at the CFX Academy. He is also an all-rounder who, if selected for the Tests, will earn his position primarily as a bowler but his batting will also be most useful.

Bryan Strang is slowly winning the perhaps overdue confidence of the selectors, although whether he and 'Pommie' Mbangwa, both just over medium-pace, prove to be effective and can challenge for a Test place on West Indian pitches remains to be seen. Andy Blignaut may well play a Klusener-type role for Zimbabwe in the future, which is his own ambition, but unless he strikes early form is more likely to feature in the one-day tournament.

Everton Matambanadzo is one name mentioned as a bowler unlucky to be omitted, and so he was. Who would he replace? That is always the difficult question. Bryan Strang has been too consistent to deserve to lose his place again. The young all-rounders Blignaut and Nkala have great potential and have much to gain from this tour, so it would be harsh to exclude them. Perhaps Mbangwa, who has not been as consistent this season, is the most fortunate of the pace bowlers to be selected. Matambanadzo has the extra pace that may be of more use in the West Indies, while Zimbabwe are unlikely to play both Strang and Mbangwa, of similar pace, in the same side. Few players have worked harder at their game than Everton, few are more pleasant and popular, and all who know him must hope that he stays fit and receives more opportunities soon.

The bowling will as usual be built around the pace of Henry Olonga and the fast-medium seamers of Heath Streak, likely to remain for some time as the only Zimbabwean to take 100 Test wickets, and it will be a serious blow if either of them breaks down. Olonga is inclined to be erratic, but may well be inspired to one or two of his most devastating performances on this tour and is the most likely player to win Zimbabwe a match. Streak is still not back to his best, and with his recent fitness problems there are doubts that he will ever again be the bowler of old. But he is nevertheless a fine competitor and a serious threat to the opposition.

There are no surprise inclusions among the batsman. The most common question being asked in Zimbabwe at present is, "Why is Campbell still in the team?" Alistair Campbell is a potentially brilliant strokeplayer, but his appalling record this season of just two fifties in no fewer than 40 innings since the start of the World Cup would surely have cost him his place long ago in any other team in the world. Naturally one hopes that he will finally come to terms with his talent in the West Indies, otherwise one wonders just how much longer the selectors will continue to select him when his performances quite clearly do not justify it.

Zimbabwe's batting ranks at the moment are full of talented players who, apart from Andy Flower, have not performed to potential this season. Grant Flower is badly out of form, although clearly fighting his hardest and possibly even trying too hard. Murray Goodwin, though, seems to be in good enough form, but every time he builds a firm foundation for an innings, which is frequently, he loses his wicket without going on to a big one. He urgently needs to put that right.

Gavin Rennie is generally considered most unlucky to miss out on a place. Convenor of selectors Andy Pycroft agrees that of all Grant Flower's potential opening partners against Ambrose and Walsh, Rennie would normally be considered the most secure, but he points out that Rennie's current form in club cricket is very poor, and that this is what led to his exclusion. Perhaps a good run in the Logan Cup, if he is able to regain his form, would put him in contention again; in the meantime he has been appointed captain of the Zimbabwe development team that will play in the tournament against certain ICC associate members in Zimbabwe in April and is a member of the Zimbabwe A team to tour to Sri Lanka.

Trevor Madondo is another mentioned by many as a batsman who should be going on tour, but he probably needs more maturity as a person and as a player. He has had difficulties with other players in the team, but this is definitely a personality problem due to lack of personal self-discipline and not a racial issue, as has been mischievously suggested by some. The lack of discipline is also evident in his batting, where he can play some brilliant cameos, although perhaps not at full international level so far. Madondo does have the A team tour of Sri Lanka to look forward to, and how he does both as a person and a player will have a strong bearing on his short-term future. Some fine performances will no doubt see him joining the ranks of the other 'fringe players' all struggling to get into the national side. Recent selection policy, though, suggests that he will have to be quite brilliant to win a permanent place within the next year or two, given the apparent security of one or two of the established players despite their lack of form.

As it is, Trevor Gripper is the most likely candidate to open the batting with Grant Flower against the West Indies in Tests. Gripper played a fine innings against Australia, but has failed since then, and one must wonder whether he is really mature enough for the job yet. Still, this tour will surely speed up the maturation process.

Stuart Carlisle and Craig Wishart have been fringe players for some time, and they enter this tour still on the fringe as far as the Test team is concerned. If they do break into the side, it will no doubt be down at around number seven where they have rarely been seen at their best, while above them are more experienced batsmen who have not pulled their weight in recent months. The selectors have seen the light in the one-day team, promoting Carlisle to number three, but he is hardly likely to go in ahead of Goodwin, Campbell, Andy Flower and Johnson in the Tests. Wishart is not even in the one-day team, although he showed what he could do in both versions of the game when replacing the injured Grant Flower against India at the start of last season. Perhaps his only hope of avoiding twelfth-man duties for most of this tour is to run up a big century in a warm-up match - if he gets the chance to do that.

Zimbabwe have placed a lot of faith in all-rounders, and Neil Johnson is the leading all-rounder player in the absence of Guy Whittall. Whether he will continue to be depends on whether he can return to his best bowling form. As a batsman consistency is unlikely, as he tends to be too adventurous, flashing at balls the more circumspect would leave, but when he comes off he can be a match-winner even in Test cricket, as was shown by his hundred in Pakistan just over a year ago.

Grant Flower is another batsman who can bowl, perhaps even in the Tests, although that will depend on whether Murphy is selected. There are several bowlers capable of making considerable contributions with the bat - Streak, Blignaut, Murphy and Nkala, while Bryan Strang would never forgive anyone who failed to include his name in such a list. But potential still has to be translated into reality, and the Zimbabwe tail has often proved more fragile than it should.

The captain remains the man who will hold the side together. He is carrying his triple burden more easily than he did in the past, but anyone would have to be virtually superhuman to succeed with such a burden indefinitely. Never before in Test history has a player been at the same time captain, wicket-keeper and leading batsman of his team; Alec Stewart of England almost did, but he was not often successful in even two of his roles.

Perhaps the nearest equivalent to Andy Flower's burden was that of the West Indies' own Gary Sobers, who was their leading batsman, a dual-purpose bowler and captain between 1965 and 1972. But Sobers had a much stronger team, at the start of his reign at least, and in those less stressful days he averaged about six Tests and one tour abroad a year, with no one-day internationals. Sobers also had that additional genius that only a very special few ever possess, yet even he became overworked at times. With a heavy season behind him and a tour of England ahead, Andy Flower faces a monumental personal task.

Still, Zimbabwe are playing the two teams currently ranked as the weakest in the world, apart from themselves, on current form. England appear to be on the way up, though it remains to be seen whether that 'up' is really significant. The West Indies still appear to be in turmoil, with new coach Roger Harper controversially brought in ahead of Viv Richards, and captain Brian Lara having unexpectedly resigned. Now past 35, Ambrose and Walsh are still formidable bowlers, but hardly have the same pace as of old, and their fitness is suspect. They have talented batsmen who, like Zimbabwe's, have not performed to potential. But there is the brooding genius of Lara, and like Tendulkar if he gets going there is little Zimbabwe will be able to do about it.

So West Indies must still be favourites, especially on their own turf, but hopefully their first visit to that territory will prove an inspiration to the Zimbabweans. Nobody thought they would win in Pakistan, so anything is still possible. We are used to disappointment, but that makes the occasional surprise all the more worthwhile.