September 26, 2012

Comeback trail no smooth ride for Zimbabwe

A year ago they returned to Test cricket amid much optimism. Things seem to have gone downhill steadily since

Zimbabwe were not expected to win a match at the World Twenty20; they had accepted as much before the tournament began. At best, they knew that challenging Sri Lanka and South Africa for even a portion of a match, if not the full 40 overs, would be as close as they could come to victory.

In the event, they did not get close. The tournament was three days old when Zimbabwe returned home, having failed to give any sort of reasonable account of themselves. As professional cricketers, they had had two of their worst days in the office, scoring and then surpassing their second-lowest T20 totals in the matches they played.

The captain, Brendan Taylor, made no attempt to hide his disappointment, repeatedly telling the media that his side was "better" than they seemed to be at the tournament. Taylor's belief is more than just false bravado, because the squad does include talented individuals who could blossom into achieving cricketers - though that talent goes through so much hot water that by the time it comes out, it can only be the limp, over-boiled vegetable we saw in Sri Lanka

The future did not look this colourless just over a year ago, when Zimbabwe made their Test comeback. Their squad included a healthy mix of experience and youth, with players like Hamilton Masakadza and Taylor finally seeing their years in the game begin to count for something, and the emergence of a solid attack, led by Brian Vitori and Kyle Jarvis. The coaching staff was headed by a man passionate about Zimbabwe cricket, Alan Butcher, and included two former players, Heath Streak and Grant Flower, who had returned to the fold after walking away. The game was integrated, healthy, and seemed to be growing. The early results, which included a Test and ODI series win over Bangladesh, hinted at promise. The personnel are still there but the magic is not. Zimbabwe are fading into the sort of obscurity that has beset their African counterparts Kenya, who are now mostly only remembered for the 2003 World Cup, and for many of the same reasons that afflict Zimbabwe at present.

Lack of regular international fixtures, the loss of some players and a worsening financial situation at board level have all contributed to the stagnation of cricket in the country. The World Twenty20 performance was a symptom, and a telling one, illustrating how much help Zimbabwe cricket needs and how soon.

Before the tournament, Zimbabwe last played an international on February 14. Seven months passed between then and the day they faced Sri Lanka in the opening match of the World Twenty20. Had Zimbabwe not played some practice matches in that time, the margin of defeat could have been worse. An unofficial T20 tri-series between themselves, South Africa and Bangladesh, and a 50-over competition with South Africa A and Sri Lanka A kept them occupied but did not seem to do much more. South Africa sent an experimental side to that series, leaving out their best players, including Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. It was those three pacemen Zimbabwe could not stand up to in their second match of the World Twenty20.

Streak, Zimbabwe's bowling coach and former captain, said if the team had more practice against top sides, it may have fared better. "I know from when I was playing that the more we played international cricket against full-strength sides, the better we got," he said. "It's tough enough for us as a smaller team to play, and when we don't get enough matches, it makes it even harder. We don't need a lot of games but we need to be able to test ourselves."

Opportunities to do that appear slim. Pakistan have asked for their October tour of Zimbabwe to be postponed so they can play ODIs against India. This means Zimbabwe's next international series will only be next March, in the Caribbean. They could have played Bangladesh in the lead-up to the World Twenty20 but the series was postponed by mutual agreement: Bangladesh wanted their national players available for the BPL, and Zimbabwe hid behind the excuse of needing to upgrade ground surfaces in Bulawayo and Harare, when it was actually financial problems that prevented them hosting the tour.

Lack of regular international fixtures, the loss of some players and a worsening financial situation at board level have all contributed to the stagnation of cricket in Zimbabwe

Monetary concerns have long been an issue for Zimbabwe cricket. The board confessed that it would take time for it to break even after the three incoming tours last year, but it did not give a full indication of how bad the situation was. Only Tatenda Taibu, who has since retired from international cricket, suggested something was wrong when he said that players had not been paid in the lead-up to the Bangladesh Test.

ESPNcricinfo understands that even after central contracts were reintroduced for the 2011-2012 season, some players were not paid outstanding match fees. An insider said that the risk of losing players who are looking for more security is high because "there is little confidence among players that they will be treated well".

Already Zimbabwe cricket is feeling the loss of talented batsman Gary Ballance, who plays for Yorkshire and has been included in England's Performance Squad to tour India. Ballance returns to Zimbabwe every summer to play for the Mid-West Rhinos but has no interest in playing for the country of his birth, especially as he nears the line for England selection.

A source close to players in Zimbabwe said Ballance and Sean Ervine, who turned his back on Zimbabwe before the 2011 World Cup, could have been persuaded to play for Zimbabwe if the rules governing non-UK cricketers playing in the UK were different. Both players have committed to England because of the limits imposed on the number of overseas players a county can field. If these players could still play county cricket and have income security but remain available for Zimbabwe, they probably would.

Zimbabwean players' lack of exposure to top-level cricket elsewhere in the world is also minimal and has contributed to their lack of development. Taylor has played in T20 leagues in New Zealand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but he is unique in that regard. Jarvis is the only other player to have plied his trade elsewhere. He was spotted by New Zealand's Central Districts during Zimbabwe's January tour there and represented them for six matches in the Plunket Shield and finished as the fifth-highest wicket-taker overall, with 31 at an average of 21.06.

Experiences like Jarvis' are what former Rhinos coach Jason Gillespie thinks will make better cricketers out of the current Zimbabwe crop. With county cricket not really an option for those who want to continue playing for their country, Gillespie suggested that Zimbabwe actively seek opportunities for players to get experience by playing club cricket in the UK. Ed Rainsford and Glen Querl have made names for themselves in the Birmingham league and with the Unicorns, and Gillespie is trying to facilitate the passage for more players to take that path. "I have been in touch with a few league clubs that are interested in having a Zimbabwean cricketer as an overseas player, so we will see how that pans out," he said.

He also suggested that Zimbabwe try to play in some of South Africa's domestic competitions, specifically the T20 one. "Two franchises, Harare and Bulawayo, would be obvious choices," he said. As Rhodesia, Zimbabwe was part of South Africa's Currie Cup before the country gained independence, and Zimbabwe have played a few seasons in South Africa's first-class structures. They last played in the 2007-08 season as Zimbabwe Provinces, although they participated in the amateur division, not the franchise tournament.

Endeavours like that could, in Gillespie's view, help Zimbabwean cricket, but only if ZC get more meaningful international fixtures for their players. "Playing Australia A and SA A in 2011 was excellent cricket for Zimbabwe, because after that they performed well against Bangladesh and New Zealand."

Those matches were played at a time when hope was still being invested in Zimbabwean cricket. Reality has now hit. For people like Streak, things must go on, and he has reaffirmed his commitment to the game in the country, coupled with a hope that all involved will do the same.

"We were bamboozled by the mystery of [Ajantha] Mendis, and the South African attack had the better of us on a surface that suited them more than us. But we felt we should have been more competitive. Our next assignment is in West Indies next year, but before that we have our own domestic season. We need to be playing a lot of cricket from now on if we want to do well."

Before Streak could say what his expectations for the future were, Zimbabwe's notoriously fractious phone lines cut him off. Hopefully the cricket will not follow suit.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent