Virtual anarchy in Zimbabwe
So wretched was 2004 for Zimbabwe cricket that it was hard to envisage how 2005 could be any worse. That it was - and by some distance - underlined just how serious the problems had become. The year ended in virtual anarchy. The players were refusing to play while Peter Chingoka and Ozias Bvute, the unpopular Zimbabwe Cricket chairman and managing director, remained at the helm; allegations of widespread mismanagement and fraud were doing the rounds, and threats and intimidation appeared to have become the norm.
Perhaps the saddest single event in a shameful 12 months was the resignation and retirement of Tatenda Taibu, Zimbabwe's 22-year-old captain. Taibu represented the best hope for the future, and yet he and his family were threatened after he fronted the players' opposition to Chingoka and Bvute. While the board claimed to have backed Taibu, it was noticeable that the source of the threats, an objectionable pro-Mugabe hardliner, was not censured. In fact, by the year end he had emerged as a new force in Zimbabwe cricket, heading up one of five new provinces created by ZC to keep the ruling faction in power. Other players gave up the struggle and sought to pursue their careers overseas, most noticeably Heath Streak, the man whose dismissal as captain in April 2004 triggered the whole crisis.
On the field, Zimbabwe's decline continued. They played eight Tests, and lost seven, all by massive margins. The one draw, against Bangladesh, owed much to Taibu, whose 85 and 153 dwarfed his colleagues' contributions. The scale of their match-on-match humiliation can be judged by the fact that two of the losses came inside two days, and with the exception of the Bangladesh matches, the margin of the defeats would have been greater had opponents not declared early. The one-day performances were equally dire, although the year started with back-to-back wins in Bangladesh. But they went on to lose that series 3-2, and the remaining nine matches all ended in defeat, and again the margins were almost all large.
In the autumn, the Under-23 side played in South Africa's domestic competition and a President's XI in India; both returned home without so much as a draw, and with few reputations enhanced. Perhaps the nadir came in October when Zimbabwe A were beaten three times at home by Kenya. So keen were Zimbabwe's selectors to save face that they fielded a virtual full-strength side; it made no difference.
The infrastructure had collapsed to such an extent that many who wanted to play the game had neither the equipment or the coaches. Money which should have gone to them was missing - stakeholders were asking where as much as $12 million had gone - while the board's bloated administration grew by 800%.
Throughout all this, the ICC remained on the sidelines, insisting that it could not involve itself in a "domestic matter". But, as one senior administrator told me: "If you see someone drowning, do you stand and debate about whether to save them, or do you jump in?" The fear is that the damage done to Zimbabwe cricket might already be terminal.
New man on the block Charles Coventry showed glimpses that he could be a useful batsman, but he needs to learn to build an innings; Colin de Grandhomme, who has been talked about as one of the best young batsmen, also impressed with the U-23 side in South Africa.
Fading star None. The few stars there were have long since jumped ship, leaving enthusiastic but raw youngsters to face the music.
High point Precious few. The two one-day wins against Bangladesh gave false hope, as did the opening session of the first Test against New Zealand when the visitors were reduced to 113 for 5; they still won by an innings inside two days.
Low point Where do you start? On the field, the first day at Centurion when Zimbabwe were bowled out for 54 and South Africa closed on 340 for 3 (and went on to complete another two-day win); off the field, the circumstances which led to Taibu's retirement.
What does 2006 hold? Sadly, more of the same. With the ICC and its directors hiding behind their own rules, Zimbabwe's decline is likely to continue. There is talent there, but it is hard to see how it can avoid being crushed by the weight of political indifference outside the country and mismanagement inside it. They are due to tour West Indies in April. If they do, then they face more humiliation; if they don't, then they are likely to be kicked out of international cricket on a technicality, so sparing the ICC any less palatable decisions. A more cynical person might argue that would actually suit some people, easing the crush of the international merry-go-round and removing a constant thorn in the side.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo