The first-class farce
What goes around comes around. News this week that there is uncertainty over when, and possibly if, Zimbabwe's first-class competition can take place against a backdrop of the board's massive financial troubles recalls a similar situation in 2006. Back then, things were further complicated by a bitter battle between a heavily politicised board and the leading players. But in essence then and now it was about money.
In 2006, cricket in Zimbabwe had been increasingly dragged into the country's political turmoil for a few years, but that only became apparent with the black-armband protest at the 2003 World Cup. As Robert Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party infiltrated almost all aspects of Zimbabwe life, it was inevitable that cricket would be unable to escape.
In the aftermath of the World Cup, the board was swiftly taken over by political appointees. Some had hands-on cricket knowledge but many were shockingly ignorant of even the basics. With cricket seen as very much a white man's preserve, their main aim was a purge of the old regime. In the space of 18 months many long-standing administrators were removed and replaced, constitutions rewritten or just ignored, and dissent stifled.
Peter Chingoka, Zimbabwe Cricket's chairman, did little to try to fight what was happening. His supporters claimed that, given the inadvisability of opposing Mugabe's henchmen, his best bet was to go with the flow and try to head off the worst excesses. His critics countered he was a tool of the regime.
Players' representative Clive Field said: "I think we're stuffed, more stuffed than we've ever been. If this is the bunch that's going to help deliver cricket, I don't know what they are going to be delivering at the end of it. I don't think it's going to be cricket. It's going to be a corpse."
By 2005, the wider cricketing world had noticed what was happening, and Zimbabwe Cricket, faced with the complete inability of their team to compete internationally, announced a self-imposed one-year withdrawal from Test cricket.
That bought them time - especially in the face of moves from some countries to suspend them - but the decay continued as regional and national selectors - a group also largely chosen on political grounds - became erratic in their choices.
In January 2006 the Sports and Recreation Commission, a government department, took over the offices of Zimbabwe Cricket. All whites and Asians on the board were fired because of "their racial connotations and saving their own agendas and not government policy", according to Gibson Mashingaidze, an army brigadier and chairman of the commission.
Local meetings were bitter and incendiary affairs with threats and accusations rife. Many long-standing officers were scared away, others just kicked out. The purge was not racial, it was political. At one ZC meeting a brave board official asked why Mugabe remained its patron."If the member knows what is good for his health, he will desist from asking such questions," countered ZC's new managing director Ozias Bvute.
There was also no money. Many asked where the generous ICC grants had gone and eventually there was a forensic audit that left many questions unanswered, if only because the ICC decided to keep some of the findings to itself. "Trust us" was the message. Few did.
As 2006 began most of the leading players were on strike, angry about not being paid and the interference in the running of the game, calling for Chingoka and Bvute to be removed . Against that backdrop, Zimbabwe extended its suspension, in an even weaker position than when it had first done so.
What Zimbabwe needed if it was to find the next generation of players was a vibrant domestic structure. In 2005-06 even that fell apart.
ZC had boasted throughout that all was well with cricket inside the country. Much depended on the Faithwear Cup, the main limited-overs tournament. With five teams and all matches taking place within a week, it was hoped it could stumble through. But, as in the country as a whole, political opportunists were unable to rein themselves in even for that long. Thanks to their interference, the Faithwear Cup was a farce from the off.
"It very quickly became apparent that it lacked quality or credibility," wrote Cricinfo's Steven Price. "The nadir came when Mashonaland were forced to field a side so bad it was sad, after their head selector, Bruce Makovah, refused to pick players from established clubs who he was rowing with. In four matches, only two Mashonaland players averaged over 10 with the bat (the best was 15.50) and only one passed 50 runs in all."
In that opening game - won by Matabeleland - 16 players made their List A debuts, including all 11 of the Mashonaland side. Both Cricinfo and Cricket Archive stumbled around in the dark trying to find even the most basic biographical information about them and for weeks all that was known was their surnames and initials. By this time ZC was refusing to have any dealings with Cricinfo and the scorecards rarely appeared, although they were obtained months later.
Mashonaland's captain, 21-year-old Hilton Toro, had never played serious cricket before and has not since. In four matches as a batsman he averaged 5.75. In the four games only one Mashonaland batsman scored more than 50 runs in all and only two finished with averages in double figures. Only one Midlands batsman scored more than 35 runs in total throughout. Some grounds, also robbed of cash, were also not fit to stage cricket. As the currency collapsed, some could not even pay for petrol for the mowers.
A day before the last brace of matches, ZC announced it had paid the money owed and that most of the players had ended their strike. It was too late to salvage anything from the wreckage of the Faithwear Cup but it was enough to enable Zimbabwe to raise a side to play Kenya later in the month.
Despite that, uncertainties remained over whether the rebels would play in the Logan Cup, Zimbabwe's first-class tournament, played, without interruption other than during the World Wars for a century, which was due to start a few days later. ZC realised abysmal performances in one-day matches were one thing but the potential for a shambles over three days was too great to risk.
At first the board refused to use the word "cancelled" in relation to the Logan Cup. It said, to general incredulity, that it had "changed the seasons" and it would happen later in the year. "The reasons for its postponement/cancellation (take your pick) are unclear," wrote Price at the time, "but critics claim that it is a combination of the financial problems which dog ZC and a fear that the standard would be dire." It never happened.
"It was much the same at the next level down," concluded Price. "There was a newly structured National League, where the top teams from Mashonaland were set to play against the top two teams from Matabeleland and one from Midlands, Masvingo and Manicaland. The move was aimed at strengthening the domestic structure but the standard was desperately poor.
"Established clubs in Mashonaland pulled out in protest against the leadership of MCA chairman Cyprian Mandenge, a man many seemed unwilling to trust. Matabeleland clubs subsequently followed suit when they refused to play in any form of cricket organised by Zimbabwe Cricket."
A league of sorts was cobbled together but few saw it as anything other than a face-saving exercise. "Few people showed any interest and even the local media ignored it," Price wrote. "One source said that those taking part had been promised much, but the reality was that they earned about ZW$300,000 (US$1.50) per match."
What happened next?
- Zimbabwe cricket slowly recovered in the next few years but those running it continued to be internationally widely shunned but welcomed by the ICC. Allegations of financial mismanagement have never gone away
- In 2009, Chingoka was refused admission to the EU because of his links with the Mugabe regime. He remains chairman of the board, albeit a very low-profile figure
- Price continues to live in Zimbabwe but grew disenchanted with cricket and rarely writes on the game
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa