Kevin Curran backs Zimbabwe to deliver
Kevin Curran, the Zimbabwe Under-19 coach, has said his side is in good shape to upset a few of the bigger nations at the World Cup in New Zealand and refused to use the current unstable political situation in his country as an excuse for lack of depth and preparation.
Curran, the former national coach, who was criticised for telling his players to simply compete before looking to win matches, was upbeat about his side's' chances and saw his role as a chance to give something back to his country.
"I've been involved in Zimbabwe cricket since 2000 and for me politics and sport have never mixed. My job is to actually give back what I learned when I first started my career and cricket has come a long way. In the last three or four months everybody has really tried to get cricket going in the right direction and we've gone a long way," Curran said.
"I don't know why so much is being made of the [political] situation. To be honest I'd like to do my best and give back what I learned in the sport. If you look anywhere in the world there are things that work well and things that haven't worked so well. I just think from a cricketing point of view there are a lot of talented players in Zimbabwe and I'm trying my best to get the best out of them."
Curran believed the political situation at home did not deter teams from travelling to Zimbabwe, pointing to the Pakistan Under-19 team tour of 2009. "We've had a really good build up this year. We had a series against Pakistan where they came and toured Zimbabwe, we've had a tour to Bangladesh which was a really good experience for our young guys and then we went via Johannesburg, played at their High Performance Centre and played against their Academy.
"There's been quite a lot of cricket for these guys, where in the past World Cups they haven't had many warm-up games to get that exposure because they come straight from school cricket. And then to play on the international stage is quite a big step. I've tried to give them as much exposure as possible and from February when I took over, they've certainly improved 50%, so we're hoping for some good things."
Zimbabwe are paying the price for their poor showing in the 2008 event in Malaysia where they finished 14th, thanks to disappointing losses to Malaysia, Nepal and Ireland. As a result, they are being grouped in 2010 with hosts New Zealand and Sri Lanka. However, Curran doesn't see the tough group as an issue, saying he has faith in his team to do the job.
"Basically only two go through in our Group out of New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Canada [and Zimbabwe] so it's tough. I'm quietly confident that if we get it right on the day we've got the players to beat all three of those sides.
"We've shown against Pakistan where we beat them once and we came very close against Bangladesh. In fact, we should've won a couple of games against Bangladesh. It was just through a little bit of inexperience perhaps that we lost those games. We competed in all of them and that's the bottom line at this level when guys come from school boy cricket and haven't had that exposure as long as they are proving that they are learning every time, they are going to become good cricketers.
"Hopefully I can keep this side together for the next two years and hopefully there's one, two, maybe three players who can go on and push to play for the national side in the not-too-distant future."
Curran has changed the trial system that was in place for the Under-19 team selection. Previously, trials would be conducted at the end of the school year, but Curran felt that the system was dated and that too many youngsters were falling through the net.
This time around, in February, he sent scouts out to look for the best young players and report back to him before selecting a squad of 70. A series of trial matches followed and the squad was whittled down to 35 with which Curran worked closely for three months before finally settling on the 15 for the World Cup.
He is far happier with the new system and, even though his side haven't had the same international exposure as some of the other teams at the tournament, he is confident that their preparation stands them in good stead.
"Obviously it would have been nice to have a few more practice games but what I will say for the organisers of the cricket has been fantastic. Just today we had a warm-up game against Afghanistan at Lincoln in one of the outer grounds and I don't think I've seen an outfield like that on some of the Test grounds I've played. The facilities have been unbelievable and people have gone out of their way to do the right thing. For these young guys whatever happens in the tournament, they are going to come out better people and better guys."
Curran is aware he must watch how he approaches the players regarding the tournament and be careful not to blow things out of proportion.
"I think sometimes young guys are a bit naive and maybe that's a good thing because if you hype it up too much for them it can complicate things for them more. We've done a lot of hard work off the field and our preparation in that sense has been pretty good, so they've just got to go out there and enjoy the occasion.
"If you make it too big an occasion then perhaps you won't get the best out of them. I want them to just go and express themselves and, should they do that, they have the capability to do well."
Marc Ellison is a freelance sports writer