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World Cup 2011

Tough for Zimbabwe to go beyond group stage

Firdose Moonda

February 17, 2011

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At the turn of the millennium, the Zimbabwe cricket team appeared ready for a metamorphosis from struggling minnows to promising competitors on a global stage. They had a strong batting line up, a threatening bowling attack and all the makings of an outfit that could pull off regular victories if all went according to plan. It didn't. Despite qualifying for the knockout stage of the 2003 World Cup, politics derailed the sport and a mass exodus of players followed. With normal sport being an impossibility in an abnormal society, the game degenerated into a state of despair.

Between 2004 and 2007, Zimbabwe only managed to beat Bangladesh, Kenya and Bermuda. Their 2007 World Cup campaign was embarrassingly unsuccessful and they were not able to win a single match. Only in 2009 did the game, along with the country, start to stabilise. Players who had completely disassociated themselves with cricket in Zimbabwe, such as Heath Streak, came back into the fold as coaches and started to re-inject passion into the game. The process of rebuilding is still young but slowly Zimbabwe are starting to turn the corner again.

World Cup Pedigree

They've made it out of the first stage twice - in 1999 and 2003 - but everything in between that was been dismal. In 1983, they won one match, in 1987 they earned no victories and they were able to win a just one game in 1992 and 1996. The 2007 edition was a bad one, going back to no wins, but they only had to play three matches.

Recent form

In a reasonable last 12 months in ODI cricket, Zimbabwe beat West Indies in Guyana before losing the series 4-1. They reached their first tri-series final in a decade in June last year before losing to Sri Lanka in a tournament that also included India. A 2-1 series win over Ireland underlined their dominance over the minnows but in December 2010, they lost 3-1 to Bangladesh in Bangladesh, a valuable but potentially demoralising experience ahead of the World Cup.

Expert eye

Neil Johnson: "They are going to struggle but they do have some dangerous players who could cause an upset. The captain, Elton Chigumbura is a big, powerful hitter upfront. Charles Coventry, if he fires, can also set up a good platform for the middle order to build on. The batting has to be strong because the bowlers are weak, although the spinners will have something to offer.

Prediction
Moving beyond the group stage is going to require a supreme effort. They will have to beat at least one stronger teams which include New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia.

Watchability

Even though it's often a hard and gritty fight to bear witness to, there's plenty that's attractive about Zimbabwe cricket. When batsmen like Coventry get stuck in, a world record could be broken. Most of the energy in their play comes in the batting but the spinners can weave a magical scene on their day. If they manage to slay a dragon, it will warm many hearts.

Key players

Besides being the captain of a side desperate to impress Elton Chigumbura is also their top allrounder which is a lot of responsibility to carry for a 24-year old. He is a young man with plenty of experience, having played in two under-19 World Cups and over 120 ODIs for his country. Chigumbura is a hard-hitting batsman who enjoys taking the aerial route and controlling a partnership. His medium pace will come in handy, more so, because Zimbabwe's seam attack is its weakest link and if he can produce something special in that department as well, it will be a credit to him as both a captain and a cricketer.

Tatenda Taibu , a clear illustration of dynamite in a small package, is an intelligent and intuitive cricketer, who is busy at the wicket, whether in front of the stumps or behind them. He is a creative batsman, who accumulates runs in both traditional and non-traditional ways and has a range of shots that are attractive to watch. He had a cute and sneaky way of rotating the strike and will more than likely form a massive part of the core of the Zimbabwean line-up. He was identified early as a successor to Andy Flower with the wicketkeeping gloves and his skill in that department is unquestionable. He also acts as one of the marshals of the team from that position.

Zimbabwe boast an arsenal of spinners but Ray Price is their top gun. At 34 years, he is a veteran of the game, having made his debut 13 seasons ago, and as with many spinners, has just stepped into his prime. Since being recalled to the national side in 2008, Price has been an economical and street-smart bowler, who out-thinks batsmen before they can do the same to him. The regularity of his success has become such that he is now rated fourth in the ICC's ODI bowler rankings. Price's attitude embodies that of the typical Zimbabwean cricketer: hardened and wholehearted and always ready to throttle the rag doll by the neck.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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