March 23, 2000

Zimbabwe Cricket Online editorial

Overshadowing all other cricket news in Zimbabwe this past week has been the sad story of how Zimbabwe threw away their golden opportunity to beat the West Indies in the first Test match ever played between the two teams. A mere 99 runs were needed to win, but the team choked on the final corner and crashed for a total of less than 100 for the first time in Test cricket.

I was not one of those who thought victory was assured; I have suffered too many past disappointments in matches where victory looked assured to take anything for granted. I knew that Ambrose and Walsh would be fired up and that it would be a very difficult task; if Andy Flower failed this time, I had very real fears for the team. Unfortunately that was just how it turned out; once again they cracked under pressure.

During the World Cup coach Dave Houghton admitted publicly that his team had 'choked', and this accusation led to strained relationships between himself and his team. Alistair Campbell, captain at that time, preferred to talk euphemistically about 'lacking confidence'. But it is basically the same thing: the team as a whole lacks confidence in extreme pressure situations and tends to cave in. They need to bite the bullet, admit to themselves that this is what happened, and tends to happen, and work out what they can do about it. No excuses: they choked. Houghton realises no doubt that it would be counter-productive to use that term publicly now, but both he and Andy Flower, quoted after the match, stated that the team should have got the runs but lacked the confidence. This is diplomatic language, but it still means basically that they choked.

Following the match on CricInfo was painful. I would guess that the policy had been to see off Ambrose and Walsh and grind out the runs one by one. So superb was the West Indian bowling, though, and so overwhelmed, it appears, were the majority of the batsmen that the runs frequently came almost to a halt. The wickets never did. As the innings tortuously wound its way to its ignominious conclusion, over after over passed when it appeared that there was nobody prepared even to consider the possibility of scoring runs; the team seemed to be transfixed like rabbits in the headlights of a car. I'm guessing from the way it came over the air via CricInfo, but it seemed as if Stuart Carlisle was the only batsman who tried to counter-attack in his brief innings. The rest seemed frozen in stone, condemned men stone-walling their way to execution.

It was tragic, as this wiped away all memory of the superb way in which the team had played, especially in their bowling and fielding, earlier in the match. They won every day except the last. But the batting, apart from Andy Flower in the first innings, was once again pathetically below potential. It seems incredible from this distance that Neil Johnson was used as an opening batsman in a Test match, especially since Trevor Gripper is in the same side. Johnson is too flashy to be secure against the new ball in Test cricket, although his approach is well suited to one-day internationals. Perhaps he can alter his natural game to fit the mould in Tests, but reports seem to indicate that he did not try to do so. Had Gripper opened, or Gavin Rennie been selected, and Johnson come in where he fits best, in the middle order, where strokeplay as it turned out was desperately needed, the innings might have gone differently.

But once again the majority of the specialist Zimbabwean batsmen, who have done so well in past seasons, failed both times round. This included Campbell, after two centuries in warm-up matches had given rise to hopes that at last he was coming right. Apart perhaps for Rennie, I feel that the most talented players are all in the touring party, but maybe the selectors need to look for difficult qualities in players. Mere talent does not seem to be enough. Perhaps they need to look for players who may be less talented but who rise to the hour of need instead of choking.

Take Iain Butchart as a recent example. During the eighties Zimbabwe was stuck in the backwaters of international cricket, so our overseas readers may not be aware of just how many of the victories we achieved during those years, mainly against the youth or B teams of Test-playing countries, were due to 'Butchie' coming in with bat or ball and producing the goods at the death. His overall record was not great, but when the chips were down there was no better man to play in your team.

He first came to worldwide attention in Zimbabwe's 1983 World Cup win over Australia, although it was captain Duncan Fletcher who took more of the limelight. But Butchart shared a crucial 75-run partnership with Fletcher that played an important part in that match. In the opening match of the next World Cup, New Zealand made 242 for seven; Zimbabwe were 104 for seven in reply when Butchart shared a vital 117-run partnership with Houghton, and was still at the crease with three balls to spare, one wicket left and four runs needed for victory. There is no one in world cricket I would have backed more readily to score those runs than Butchart; unfortunately at this moment an unwise call for a quick single by his partner ran him out.

Now to the 1991/92 World Cup, where Zimbabwe beat England in their final match. Eddo Brandes took the headlines, but Butchart's 24 was Zimbabwe's second top score. When England batted, Neil Fairbrother and Alec Stewart looked to be edging them towards victory at 95 for five chasing 135, having more than doubled the score. Butchart came on, dismissed Fairbrother and DeFreitas, and Zimbabwe were on top again.

At first-class level two Zimbabwean victories immediately spring to mind when a tight finish was in prospect, but Butchart burst through with the bat to clinch the match. In 1983/84 Zimbabwe needed just 105 to beat a Young Indian team, but were struggling at 60 for seven when Butchart walked to the crease. No problem for him - his aggressive 29 not out brought a two-wicket victory. In the following year Zimbabwe beat a strong English Counties team captained by Mark Nicholas by three wickets - Butchart 49 not out, helped by Denis Streak in an unbroken partnership of 74 that won the match in the last over. I could quote several one-day matches against such teams, too, all unofficial and largely forgotten by now, when Butchart turned the tables with bat or ball to bring a narrow Zimbabwean victory, although he himself modestly will not concede that fact.

This was the calibre of the man: the crisis always brought the best out of him and he rarely failed when there was still a chance. Sadly Test cricket came too late; he had been for several seasons languishing in Masvingo and was past his best, though he did have the consolation of one Test cap. How Zimbabwe cricket could do with him around today! Things might well have been different at Port of Spain. But all we can hope for is that the selectors will unearth some players who can handle a crisis as well as he did. Cricket is played in the head, and sadly too many of our players are still badly lacking there. The time has come for them to come to terms with that fact, and work out what they can do to put it right.

Fortunately we now have some Zimbabwean feedback from the Caribbean, as CricInfo are publishing Alistair Campbell's tour diary.

It will be interesting to read what he has to say about the final day of that Test match, when Zimbabwe quailed at the prospect of achieving the almost unimaginable. Outwardly he, and other players, has always talked about lack of experience, lack of confidence, still learning and all that sort of thing. I hope the players can be brutally honest enough with themselves at this stage no longer to hide behind such excuses and admit, "We choked again. I choked again. But where do I go from here?" A harsh diagnosis it may be, but it will be a positive step, because without such honesty there can be no remedy.

On the local scene, club league cricket, once again ably reported by Clive Ruffell, has come to an end, and it is pleasing, except for Old Hararians supporters, to see another team surpass them for a change, as Alexandra Sports Club have won the Vigne Cup. Their well-drained ground is to their advantage, but they still have the best overall record.

At first-class level Manicaland head the Logan Cup table after three rounds, after two victories and a draw against an ungracious Mashonaland team. Unfortunately lack of transport, telephone facilities and the quick departure of the Mashonaland team made it impractical for me to produce a usual 'Player's View' on the match, but match reports are found elsewhere in CricInfo.

Cricket is thriving in Mutare, inspired to a large extent by their captain, former Test player Mark Burmester, whose biography appeared in our last issue. There is a great community spirit there, with a crowd of perhaps 200 people, including a large proportion of children, who also I am told turn out to support their team in the first league.

The ground itself, by their own admission, is not yet up to first-class standard, but they are working on it, and the willingness of the local supporters to pitch in and do all they can puts Harare to shame, for a start. It is still somewhat overgrown in places, the pavilion is old, but money has been spent on new covers and equipment and there are enthusiastic plans for new development, including a local academy, more news of which has been promised in a press release within the next two or three weeks.

There are still a few fallen trees lying around, victims of the recent cyclone, but it is in a beautiful setting, as is Mutare itself, surrounded by the Bvumba Mountains. There is great potential and great enthusiasm, and I am not ashamed to say I am hoping that Manicaland win the Logan Cup this season. That would give the fine, hospitable people of Mutare a wonderful boost that they thoroughly deserve.

Last weekend the other Cinderella province, Midlands, celebrated their first victory by beating Matabeleland in a close match.

With most of the experienced international players overseas, matches tend to be dominated by outstanding individual performances by a few while the majority are still trying to adjust to three-day, let alone first-class, cricket. This is only to be expected, and fine centuries by former Under-19 and Academy players Mark Vermeulen and Doug Marillier dominated the Kwekwe match. Both have had up-and-down seasons; they may not be quite ready for Test cricket yet, but hopefully they are on their way. So may be Neil Ferreira, who ground out another determined century for Manicaland.

It should be a good experience for these young players to be carrying the fortunes of their teams' batting on their shoulders. That also should help to prepare them for Test cricket, where Zimbabwe's greatest need at present is clearly for players who can handle a crisis and take control when all others fail.