The last year was not a good one for Zimbabwe cricket. The national team fell four runs short of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, and Zimbabwe Cricket came very close to being suspended from the ICC soon after - had it happened, it would have been ruinous for the game in the country.
Zimbabwe will not be at the World Cup, but Vince van der Bijl, the former South African fast bowler who was hired as a consultant by ZC last year, believes that there is now "a viable game there" as ZC continues to claw its way back from the edge of the abyss.
Van der Bijl's appointment took place as the cash-strapped organisation attempted to formulate a path through multiple challenges, with Zimbabwe being put on notice for suspension from the ICC ahead of the annual conference in Dublin in June 2018. By September, though, ZC was said to be "in survival mode". Now, an optimistic van der Bijl believes that Zimbabwe's future could still be bright, but a lot of work remained to be done for that to happen.
"The proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. They've got to keep their costs below their income, and ensure the schools are continually feeding talent into the game" VINCE VAN DER BIJL
"ZC have to show the ICC, which I think they will, that cricket is a viable option and that their strategy is absolutely viable and will produce cricket of an international standard," van der Bijl told ESPNcricinfo. "And so right now we have a viable game there. And the proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. They've got to keep their costs below their income, and they've got to ensure that the schools are continually feeding talent into the game."
Ahead of last year's ICC Annual Conference, ZC were mired in a $ 19 million debt, having lost out on what would have been vital revenue from a place at the World Cup. Incoming ICC funds were being drained by the servicing of debts, and cricket in the country was stagnating. "So the ICC said, and bless them for doing this, that we don't want to lose this heritage and legacy of cricket in this country," van der Bijl explained. "Because 15 years ago, it looked very strong. So they gave certain parameters."
Foremost among those was a roadmap for ZC to find its way out of crippling debt, and for that the board needed help from Zimbabwe's government. "And the government came to the party. The government froze an amount, paid all the creditors that were due, and dropped the interest rate from a very high interest rate to 6.5%. So that all made it viable for the operation to work properly."
"But obviously ZC has to produce cricket of an international standard, and have structures in the company which are going to continually feed that into the future," van der Bijl added. "So there are challenges. Like any company in an operation that's going through provincial management for example, when they're close to bankruptcy they have to do certain things. And it takes courage. It takes courage."
In order to keep a drip feed (or "controlled spending", as van der Bijl put it) of ICC funds coming in, ZC had to trim both its administrative staff and the number of teams in the domestic competitions. The national academy side, Rising Stars, was dismantled, the domestic season was abridged, and various austerity measures implemented as the organisation sought to keep losses out of the way. It hasn't been easy.
The 2018-19 season featured just 12 first-class matches, with one match postponed and two abandoned completely after increases in the price of fuel and rising hardship sparked civil unrest around the country. A rare trip to India that had been scheduled for March was also postponed, while a visit from Afghanistan was called off over ZC's inability to have the games screened live on television. With Zimbabwe on a five-month hiatus from international cricket between their trips to Bangladesh in November and UAE's tour in April, most of the national squad was available for the domestic season, but even that was truncated.
"It's really important playing club and, in particular, franchise cricket as that's the build-up to the international stage," wicketkeeper Regis Chakabva told Reuters. "As players we always want to play more games but unfortunately this season has been really short for us. Nothing beats game time and hopefully the administration resolves that next season."
For van der Bijl, that the domestic season still went ahead despite all the challenges was a positive sign. "I think the domestic game was successful this year," he said. "Even though they had four, rather than five, teams," he said. "So the academy infiltrated into the other franchises, which meant the youngsters were playing with experienced, old bulls who could feed information and give them the experience, which I think happens in cricket around the world. So that side was good.
"As far as I'm aware, the finances have been within their controlled spending. An MD (managing director) is imminently going to be on the ground and announced quite soon I think, and that will be the final chip. Things are going according to plan, but it's going to require fiscal discipline and open communication with the players, and everyone understanding where they fit in the game.
"The work that's being done, I think, is the work of this open transparency with the players, everyone understanding the strategy. It's the modern way of running a company. Gone are the days where you have a dictatorial chief executive who just tells everyone: this is the strategy, this is the mission, this is your team song. This is about collaboration. I believe in collaboration and connectivity totally."