Zimbabwe v Kenya, 3rd ODI, Harare March 2, 2006

Only when I laugh

A special correspondent in Harare
Fans were reduced to ironic cheering as Zimbabwe were thrashed by Kenya at Harare Sports Club ... and many more familiar faces were reduced to the role of spectators

Zimbabwe cricket fans are no different from fans all over the world. They like having fun at matches.

But events in Zimbabwe over the past three years have left most with very little to cheer about as their team has become a punching bag for other sides. Two years ago when a rebel-less side were being bowled out for 35 by Sri Lanka, the cross-section of those watching from the Keg and Maiden Bar verandah ended up sarcastically cheering as each wicket fell. At least Chaminda Vaas and company were providing the entertainment that the spectators yearned for, which their own players could not provide.

It happened again on Wednesday as Zimbabwe's batting was crumbling like the proverbial deck of cards against Kenya - being bowled out for 69 chasing Kenya's 134, with the last six wickets adding four runs. The crowd had grown to just over 500 after Zimbabwe had restricted Kenya to a modest total and was growing more vociferous by the minute in anticipation of a rare home win.

But once you remove Zimbabwe's top five batsmen with the score still nowhere near the winning target, the game is as good as over. That is when the crowd thought that they would have a bit of reverse fun by cheering the last five wickets, in the knowledge that their boys had blown a wonderful opportunity to go 2-1 up in the series.

Zimbabwe's squabbles have dampened the spirit of local fans, whose interest in cricket was on the rise, especially after the country hosted six games in the 2003 World Cup. Just as integration was taking its course on the field, Zimbabweans of all races were mingling and supporting their team at matches. It did not matter whether they lost, but the way they played gave them some hope and pride. Cricket was the only positive projection left of Zimbabwe on the international scene.

But Zimbabwe ruined what would have been a good time out for their cricket-starved fans, most of who had sneaked out from work for the afternoon for some sport and a beer. The result did nothing to quench their thirst.

There is this thing with Zimbabweans. When they are dejected they laugh it off and continue with their lives. The Keg was almost full to capacity after the game as the fans drank the afternoon away.

It seemed like everyone was inside. Inactive players, former administrators, sacked directors, a veritable who's who of local cricket, and indeed, Zimbabwe's cross-sectional social spectrum. They just sat there and watched the youngsters being ripped to shreds on the field, and they were helpless.

Those watching could have assembled an XI which might have given the Kenyans more of a match. Former internationals such as Douglas Hondo, Babu Meman, Vusi Sibanda and Mark Vermuelen - as well as the former coach Phil Simmons - just watched helplessly. Some of them should still have been wearing the Zimbabwe colours.

The question left on the lips of many was simple. How can Zimbabwe compete when such able personalities are reduced to the role of mere spectators?