Time for Zimbabwe to weigh up season of contrasts
There is no direct flight between Auckland and Harare. The Zimbabwe team probably wishes there was, for they will now have to spend hours in Perth and more hours in Johannesburg. Ample time to reflect on the tour of New Zealand, where they were not only whitewashed in every format but also stripped bare.
Only four months ago Zimbabwe had successfully chased 329 in an ODI against New Zealand, and came within 34 runs of winning a Test against them. Those heartening performances, however, were in Bulawayo. Their six-week, seven-match tour of New Zealand could not have been worse.
Zimbabwe were bowled out twice in a day in the Test, losing by an innings and 301 runs in Napier. They conceded more than 370 in two out of three ODIs, losing each by an increasing margin, and scored more than 200 only once. They were also blanked out in the two Twenty20s, even though they showed some fight in the shortest format. Zimbabwe's senior players did not perform and the pressure that created caused the juniors to buckle. Their unit was dismantled piece by piece so much so that all the workhorses and all the trying men couldn't put Brendan Taylor's side together again.
There are good reasons for Zimbabwe's blowout. They don't tour often, especially not down under. Zimbabwe were last in New Zealand ten years ago. This was a maiden tour for most of the current players and to visit a place that is significantly different to anywhere else in the cricketing world was a shock.
The weather in New Zealand is colder and more temperamental than in other place, even in summer, and adjusting to it can be a challenge. Besides the discomfort it causes, it also affects playing conditions. On some days batsmen have more seam and swing to contend with, on others bowlers have to fight a stiff breeze.
The elements alone did not make Zimbabwe's stay unpleasant. The hosts' onslaught was ruthless and they did not relent even after series were won and their dominance left undisputed. Martin Guptill did not stop scoring runs even after suffering a groin injury, and New Zealand's bowling attack, whatever the combination, did not stop taking wickets. Having made their Test return and begun the 2011-12 season with promise, Zimbabwe ended it annihilated.
"Ah, it wasn't great," Alistair Campbell, the chairman of the cricket committee and former Zimbabwe captain, said. It is a statement that will be in contention for understatement of the year, especially for its tone, one of casualness despite the serious subject.
Campbell, however, is not taking Zimbabwe's struggles lightly, having experienced the same as a player. "We have to be honest, even when I was playing, we always battled with consistency," he said. "We haven't found a formula to be consistent, home or away, yet. Yes, those margins of defeat were too big and when you have results like that, questions have to be asked. But we have to be asking them with the intention to make sure our cricket is on the right path."
That means giving the tour of New Zealand context and looking at the little things, which are overshadowed by the magnitude of defeat. "We have to review the season as a whole, and as a whole we haven't had a bad series," Campbell said. Zimbabwe started the summer by beating Bangladesh in a one-off Test and an ODI series, before losing to Pakistan and New Zealand despite a strong showing in the Tests. All those results were at home.
Away from home, Zimbabwe could not compete but Campbell said that was no different to the current trend in world cricket. "We have to put this in perspective, a lot of teams have struggled away from home. India have also lost Tests by an innings and plenty. Add England [in UAE] and Sri Lanka [in South Africa] to that list and Campbell's argument does not appear too flimsy.
Zimbabwe also have some positives from the New Zealand experience. Shingi Masakadza was the joint-highest wicket-taker in the ODIs, with five scalps, followed by Kyle Jarvis and Prosper Utseya on four. Hamilton Masakadza scored half-centuries in both the Twenty20s and Jarvis shared the top-bowler ranking in that series, earning himself a temporary contract with the Central Stags, a New Zealand domestic team. "We finished quite well," Campbell said. "It would have been easy to give up at that point."
Those few positives do not mask the problems, though. "On tour, you need your senior players to front up and that did not happen," Campbell said. Zimbabwe were also without two of their most experienced players: Chris Mpofu had a lower-back injury and Vusi Sibanda was ineligible after a grade-cricket stint in Australia. Mpofu has recovered, and Sibanda has returned and recommitted to Zimbabwe and will be available for the next series.
Even without them, Zimbabwe had a fair amount of experience but nothing to show for it. "The batsmen were found wanting technically. They were not able to cope with seam and swing," Campbell said. "And the bowlers could not find the right lengths." The fielding was awful as well.
One of the most disappointing players was left-arm fast bowler Brian Vitori, who struggled to build on his positive start in international cricket. "There were a lot of expectations on Brian," Campbell said. "He probably got a wake-up call about what is needed to play international cricket."
The experience of players like Vitori is what Campbell hopes will give Zimbabwe motivation to improve. "It's going to hurt. When they come home, they'll walk into a pub and they'll overhear people saying, 'Zimbabwe were rubbish'," he said. "And they won't want to hear that. They will say to themselves, 'I don't want to be called rubbish', and they will go out next time to make sure it doesn't happen again."
The opportunity to do that will only come later in the year. Zimbabwe host South Africa for five Twenty20 matches in June, an exercise that seems nothing more than big brother trying to beat up a little one. They also have some A tours planned, before Bangladesh visit in August.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent