Hosting fewer Tests and scaling down operations may be the way forward for Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) as it navigates a changing cricket structure and tricky financial waters. Zimbabwe will not be part of the new Test league that is set to start in July 2019, and are happy with the development. They do not intend to stop playing Tests altogether, preferring in future to play them away from home. Instead they will shift focus to limited-overs cricket.
In one way it is a formalisation of the status quo, in which Zimbabwe are already playing a greatly reduced number of Tests. "What we quickly realised was that hosting Tests is something that costs us a lot of money, and that is a commodity we do not have at the moment - in fact we owe people a lot of money," ZC's recently appointed MD Faisal Hasnain told ESPNcricinfo.
"As things stand, it costs us money because we get almost negligible amounts from our current TV rights and sponsorships, and these continue till 2019. So if we were in a formal Test league, where we were forced to play Tests at home, we just would not be able to sustain it financially, unless we get substantial help from the ICC or from some other source - and the ICC Test fund no longer exists and other funding sources are few and far between.
"Obviously, we will continue to play Test cricket, but in our current circumstances we will try and play them away from home, primarily to save costs. We will concentrate on playing more ODIs and T20s, home and away, under the ODI league and the T20 open format, which will hopefully enable us to cut expenditure and potentially generate greater revenues."
Zimbabwe have just finished hosting a two-Test series with West Indies, which has cost them somewhere in the region of $1 million. For an organisation in as much of a financial battle as ZC, that is an unnecessary strain. There is a possibility that, in discussion with Afghanistan and Ireland, Zimbabwe will formally ask the ICC for certain relaxations from the full requirements of the strict playing conditions - conducting matches without DRS for example. They may also ask for leniency in TV broadcast requirements for international cricket. This could ultimately make it more affordable to host Tests, and ZC has already taken up the matter, informally, with the ICC.
Crucial to their quest to better financial health is income from the ICC, in the form of distribution and World Cup participation fees, which makes qualification for the 2019 event even more important. With that in mind, Zimbabwe has embarked on an ambitious project to convince certain players who had left the country to return, but the flipside of that has been the toll it has taken on their finances.
Both Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis are being paid more than they were at Nottinghamshire and Lancashire respectively, and were also given a small portion as an advance to secure their return. Solomon Mire, based in Australia, received what one source said was a "good deal, better than that of the other players who have stayed behind".
Unsurprisingly, the treatment of the trio has created issues within the team. "Players who come back automatically get paid more than the guys who are there," one source said. "It's bad because there are players who have made sacrifices to stay in Zimbabwe and they are suffering." ZC denies their return has led to rifts; Hasnain says players have told him the atmosphere in the dressing room remains fine.
In addition to employee and player salaries being part-paid at the end of October, and because of the financial challenges their board faces, Zimbabwe's players have yet to receive their match fees for the Sri Lanka tour that took place in July. A proposed increase in player allowance for this season's domestic matches has also not come to pass.
At least one board member is understood to have opposed the efforts to lure Taylor, Jarvis and Mire back because of the expense, but the prospect of having them in the team for the World Cup qualifiers motivated ZC to do "everything it could", according to the source, to convince the players to commit to Zimbabwe.
ZC is attempting to stabilise its operations and finances under Hasnain and CFO Feroza Shariff, though given the country's ongoing economic crisis and the limited opportunities to raise money that will not be easy.
ICC money will be an important source of income and rationalisation of costs will have to continue. With no Test ranking points for Zimbabwe to concern themselves with, there would appear to be sense in not hosting home Tests. So even though they will not abandon Tests altogether, this could lead to a fundamental shift in outlook and the way they position themselves as a cricketing nation. The Logan Cup, Zimbabwe's first-class competition, for example, may be shortened from its current format - in which teams play each other in a double round - to a single round, and there could be an increase in domestic ODI and T20 competitions.
In that light, it is not outlandish to wonder whether West Indies might have been the last team that will play a Test in Zimbabwe for a while. According to the current FTP, Zimbabwe are scheduled to host Pakistan for a two-Test series next year in June-July, a tour which also includes three ODIs and two T20Is. Preceding that, Australia visit for a tour that was originally scheduled to include two Tests, but no longer does; instead they will feature in a T20I tri-series alongside Pakistan.
For Zimbabwe Test fans, the good news is that their team's schedule on the road is busier. They will play the inaugural four-day Test in South Africa over Boxing Day, and are in talks to become Afghanistan's first Test opponents in February next year, most likely in the UAE. That is set to take place after a tri-series in Bangladesh and they are then supposed to return to South Africa for one Test, three ODIs and a T20I in October next year. In March, they are also due to host the ICC qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup, in which two teams from 10 will proceed.
Another tour to Bangladesh - for three Tests and three ODIs in early 2019 - and a single Test in India along with three ODIs in March 2019 takes Zimbabwe to the end of the current FTP, with their hopes pinned on participation in the World Cup.