Splendid and dismal
In keeping with the original spirit of Mark Twain's oft-quoted line about his own obituary, reports of the death of cricket in Zimbabwe are routinely exaggerated.
Cricket in the country isn't dead, but it existed in a near-constant state of penury throughout 2013, and a bloating, debilitating debt of at least US$15 million left no room for expansion or innovation. Contingency piled upon contingency and more than once it appeared the whole sorry mess might scutter off the rails. Yet there were moments of brilliance on the field that gave just enough succour to keep hopes of a better future alive.
The year rumbled ominously into view with a row between former sports minister David Coltart's Sports and Recreation Commission and powerful members of the Zimbabwe Cricket set-up. The SRC had attempted to impose international norms upon Zimbabwe's selection committees across all sports, suggesting that any person tasked with convening the selection of a national side should have played international sport themselves. The result was an ugly fracas that lent a grumpy air to the team's trip to the Caribbean in March, their first international tour in over a year and Alan Butcher's last as national coach.
Givemore Makoni, the convenor of selectors and the person most affronted by the SRC's directive, kicked up enough of a stink to ensure he stayed in the position, and by the end of July it was Coltart who was looking for a new job after being ousted in a general election that might charitably be described as flawed. There are those in ZC's administration who will have celebrated the end of Coltart's tenure, despite the great lengths he went to in convincing the rest of the world that Zimbabwe should no longer be considered cricket's pariah. The players will surely miss his influence.
Their win over Pakistan in the second Test, in Harare, in September was rightfully and joyously celebrated: it was their first over a major Test side since 2001, when they beat India at the same venue. It was all the more special for its unexpectedness, coming in a year of topsy-turvy results. Zimbabwe were noticeably rusty in the West Indies and came off slightly better than Bangladesh in their home series in April-May, drawing the Test and T20 series and taking the ODIs 2-1. Their 335-run win in the first Test was their biggest in terms of runs, but Zimbabwe weren't quite at their best during the tour, and at times it seemed that they were on top by virtue of not playing quite as badly as the tourists were.
Zimbabwe seemed to unravel when India visited, playing worse with each game, but set many of their mistakes right against Pakistan. Given the pattern of improvement, an end-of-year visit by Sri Lanka would have made for very interesting viewing, but alas, by then ZC's cupboard was bare and they couldn't afford to host another team. They very nearly couldn't afford to begin their own domestic season, which eventually started over a month late, without any sponsors, after an emergency visit by an ICC delegation.
Off the field, this year was especially tough for Zimbabwe's cricketers, who threatened strike action no less than three times over non-payment of monies owed to them. They found the presence of mind and unity of purpose to create a players' union, finally, in August. That they eventually did so only after the pugilistic Ozias Bvute had left ZC after 12 years, for a position on the board of the beleaguered national airline, Air Zimbabwe, was probably not a coincidence. Given his modus operandi, it's hard to imagine Bvute having countenanced such action.
The players bumbled a little into their new, unionised set-up, and it remains to be seen just how effective the union can be when negotiating with a board that is millions of dollars beyond broke, but it is a historic development nonetheless.
It appears to have come too late for batsman Craig Ervine and fast bowler Kyle Jarvis, though, who both left the country (perhaps on Air Zimbabwe flights) to pursue careers overseas and whose loss will be keenly felt.
Others managed to score overseas contracts while remaining available for the national side, but life was often little better away from home for Zimbabwe's cricketers. Several players approached the challenge of securing money owed to them after stints in the Bangladesh and Dhaka premier leagues with what must be by now a familiar sense of exhaustion and dread. The warning signs appeared soon after the BPL T20, when payments were delayed by more than two months.
For some, the situation worsened after the DPL. A furious Sean Williams took to social media after being left stranded along with Sean Ervine in a Dhaka hotel without their confiscated passports when the team they'd been playing for, Brothers Union, failed to pay accommodation fees. Both players were also still owed money by their club, and Williams vented on Twitter, saying he wished to "never set foot on this soil ever again in my life".
Unfortunately for him, once back in Zimbabwe, he played in Matabeleland Tuskers' first Logan Cup game of the delayed season before the whole shebang went cattywampus once more, with yet another player strike, this time involving senior players from every domestic franchise. Bring on 2014.
Pakistan are one of the more watchable teams in international cricket, whether you're rooting for or against them, and the fifth day denouement of the second Test at Harare Sports Club provided some of the most absorbing Test cricket of the whole year. The set-up was nearly perfect: Zimbabwe took the field on the final morning needing five wickets and Pakistan 106 runs. Misbah-ul-Haq took the visitors to within striking distance of their target, but the Zimbabweans overcame the nerves of a dramatic finale unprecedented in their careers to pull off a 24-run win. For the first time in a long time, it was their triumph on the field that made headlines.
There were a couple of blots in Zimbabwe's copybook this year, particularly during the tension of the player strikes. Assistant coach Stephen Mangongo's scuffle with young legspinner Natsai Mushangwe wasn't too pretty either, but it was in the cancellation of Sri Lanka's visit and the subsequent postponement of the domestic season that Zimbabwe approached their nadir. In December, disgruntled and empty-pocketed senior players from every franchise decided they'd had enough and downed tools yet again. This festive season will be a sombre one.
New kid on the block
The first thing one notices when watching Tendai Chatara bowl is his curiously lopsided action, his left arm almost glued to his side as he rushes through the crease. But at the other end of that action, this year, there were wickets - and lots of them. Chatara, who is only 22, took 32 wickets in 18 international games in 2013. Jarvis collected more Test scalps, but Chatara proved his usefulness across all formats and his maiden Test five-for sealed the Test win over Pakistan. Given Jarvis' retirement, Chris Mpofu's fall down the pecking order, and Brian Vitori's susceptibility to injury, Chatara could well find himself Zimbabwe's senior bowler in 2014.
Zimbabwe shed several bright lights in 2013. Craig Ervine had been the only batsman to return from the winless tour of the Caribbean in March with his reputation enhanced, and Jarvis had, at just 24 years old, already shown he had the mettle to be a Test-quality quick. But it was Ray Price's retirement that took a hefty chunk out of the team's soul, and its spine. Price was that increasingly rare creature: a cricketer defined as much by his character as by his sporting skill. Price asked for and deserved the opportunity to say goodbye to Zimbabwean cricket with one last match. That he was denied the chance speaks volumes for the regard in which Zimbabwe's cricketers are held by their bosses.
What 2014 holds
Though Zimbabwe will enter the year deep in the red, there should be at least a little easing of the financial pressure upon them in the coming months. The board will receive a cut from the World Twenty20, though it's unclear how much of that will go to the cricketers themselves, who have asked for 10%. There are plans for a tri-series involving Australia and South Africa, which will bring in substantial revenue from the sale of television rights. Beyond that, there is a World Cup on the horizon, and ICC CEO Dave Richardson expects Zimbabwe to receive revenues of up to US$25 million over the next few years. That could still amount to very little progress without clear and effective administration, and Zimbabwe will face as many hurdles off the field as they do on it.
Zimbabwe also appear to be moving towards greater participation against the leading Associates, with a limited-overs series against Afghanistan mooted for January and talk of four-day games against Ireland during the year. If such allies can be courted, and convinced to foot some of the bill, Zimbabwe could fill more of the gaps in their calendar without leaving themselves out of pocket.