Zimbabwe's wilderness years not all arid
Harare Sports Club looked like it was readying itself for a classic southern African braai. In fact, it was preparing to be the venue of Zimbabwe's return to Test cricket, but if not for the sprinkling of ground staff on the outfield and around the pitch, it could have been mistaken for someone's very large backyard.
In the left corner some men were playing cricket, the youngsters charging in to bowl and being batted off like flies by the older players. In the right, the music of Bob Marley, Jennifer Lopez and bhangra singer Sukhwinder Singh was blaring out of the speakers. In the middle was the Maiden pub, hosting a corporate conference as well as a smattering of regulars drinking Coke (too early for beer), and, as they say in Zimbabwe "having humour" on the verandah.
Inside, Alistair Campbell's interview with SuperSport on Tuesday night was being re-run. Zimbabwe's convenor of selectors lashed out at senior wicketkeeper-batsman Tatenda Taibu for criticising the administration on the eve of the team's return to Test cricket. Campbell called Taibu's outburst a "slap in the face" and said the timing of his comments was bad.
This is how cricket happens here. On the face of it, it's as relaxed as a Sunday afternoon, but open the door and it's a closet of secrets. It would be simplistic to say that while things have changed, much has the stayed the same. Cricket has obviously moved forward in Zimbabwe, but how that was achieved remains complicated.
Meet Brian Vitori, a 21-year old left-arm seamer who will almost certainly become a Test debutant on Thursday. Vitori is from the south-eastern Masvingo province, a place known for the Great Zimbabwe ruins, not cricketing prowess. He is a product of the new franchise system, which is in its second season. Ambitious, confident and resolute, he encapsulates everything that is shiny and new about Zimbabwean cricket.
Despite having played provincial cricket from the age of 15, Vitori has only played 18 first-class matches and 11 List A games, mostly because of the lack of cricket in the country in 2007 and 2008. He featured in the Faithwear domestic one-day competition in the 2005-06 season, arguably Zimbabwe's lowest point in the sport, with little success, but emerged out of recent tournaments as one of the most promising bowlers in the country.
As a reader of this website, you probably already know as much about Vitori as any international batsman does, because the administration has kept him hidden from prying eyes. Bangladesh arrived at the ground while Vitori was practising in the nets on Tuesday, and Heath Streak, the bowling coach, promptly excluded him from any further participation in the session. Only when the game gets underway will anyone, including Vitori, be able to judge how good he really is.
"I have never been under the speed gun," Vitori told ESPNCricinfo. "So it will be nice to see how quick I am." Then he quickly changed tack. "But I know I am quick. I think I have the ability to do most things with the ball." He believes he will help carry the name of Masvingo. "Some people from my home town will be coming here to watch the Test match. They are interested to see how the team does, but I know they also want to see how I will represent them."
Vitori has spent the last three months training intensely for this chance to be an ambassador for his region. "It all started at the big training camp that we had in May. Thirty-two players were invited to take part, and we learnt a lot. Heath taught me the most because we worked on everything, from my fitness to my accuracy. The main thing about bowling is to keep it simple - no pressure, no panic - so that's what I do. After all that training, last month we played against Australia A, and even though we lost, it was good to play a competitive side because it showed us what we need to work on."
Vitori's positive story - including the fact that he doesn't come from Harare or Bulawayo, the big cricket centres - is an indicator of the progress Zimbabwe has made. But when you add Taibu's dissenting voice, the picture looks less pretty. Taibu claimed cricket in Zimbabwe was teetering on the brink of disarray because there were no central contracts and not enough professional structures. Coming from Taibu, the media and public paid attention, but his story presents only one aspect.
Vitori confirmed that the money he earns from his franchise contract is enough to live on comfortably and that it is possible to have "financial security and make a living from cricket" today.
"The ZC gave grants to the franchises and they contracted players with that money," Streak said. "The idea is that once we start playing more cricket, we will have between 10 and 15 centrally contracted players."
After abandoning his international career in 2006, Streak returned to the fold two years ago as part of a wave of former players who came back in an effort to rebuild Zimbabwe cricket. "I walked away from the game when I was in my prime, my early 30s, but I don't question what I did morally. I came back because I hope one day if my son wants to pursue a career in cricket he will be able to play for the country of his birth."
Streak thinks the country's economic problems overall, not just in cricket, are holding the game back. "The clubs at lower levels have suffered the most because they have very little funding to maintain their facilities. But under these circumstances to have still managed to get sponsors is encouraging," he said. Banks Stanbic (for domestic 20-overs), Metropolitan (for domestic 40-overs), Castle Lager (for first-class) and Delta Group have all been contracted recently. "Of course, with that, we've created a cycle. In order to keep the sponsors we have to keep winning, and that is the next challenge," Streak said. "Most of all, we have to perform to a certain standard in Test cricket so that we keep our Full Member status."
That is a test Vusi Sibanda, the experienced opening batsman, thinks Zimbabwe will pass. "We have put in so much hard work over the last five years. The mindset has also changed. Zimbabwe cricket will be more aggressive in future."
The most heartening sign of change in cricket in the country has been the development of black African cricket. Players like Sibanda, Hamilton Masakadza and Chris Mpofu, who were part of a young side during the rebel saga in 2004, are still around, and cricket here has become a more equal game across races than in neighbouring South Africa, among players and fans. "It's got to do with self-willingness," Sibanda said. "There is a strong cricket culture here and black players have shown that they want to get involved."
Unlike in other African countries, where football trumps cricket, in Zimbabwe it is the opposite, partly because of the poor state of the country's football, which is currently embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. "We've always taken our cricket seriously. Even when we withdrew from Test cricket, we knew we would be back. Cricket has more funding and sponsors than football and the game has been marketed well. We kept ourselves in the picture all the time and people want to see more of us," Sibanda said.
Starting on Thursday, they will.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent