Sri Lanka's third Test tour of Zimbabwe, through no fault of their own, was a travesty of international cricket from beginning to end. The civil war between Zimbabwe's administrators and cricketers is reported elsewhere, but it led to the absence of 15 good players in a country desperately short of them. The upshot was a farce in which the Sri Lankans easily won all five one-day internationals and then hammered the team chosen to represent Zimbabwe by record margins in the two Tests.
The International Cricket Council refused to recognise the extent of the crisis until the results of the Test matches meant that they could bury their heads in the sand no longer. They then stepped in to safeguard the Australian tour that followed from similar abuse of international status; the Zimbabwe Cricket Union agreed to postpone those Tests, before they could be stripped of their official standing. But by that time the Sri Lankan series had become a part of cricket history that could not be revoked.
The shrapnel from the civil war affected the tour from beginning to end. There was a will-they-won't-they saga as to whether the dissident players would make themselves available for the start of the one-day series, then for the final three one-day matches, then the Test series. After the one-day games the players, as a goodwill gesture, returned to practice, and the selectors included the four they considered indispensable in a Zimbabwe A team for a pre-Test warm-up.
This was the only tour game the Sri Lankans failed to win, but then negotiations broke down again, and the team selected for the Tests was basically the one that played in the one-day series. That side had enjoyed a couple of fair games - as well as suffering one humiliation - but Test cricket was a challenge too far, and they were totally outclassed. Of the team that did play Sri Lanka, only Tatenda Taibu, who became the youngest Test captain in history eight days before his 21st birthday, Dion Ebrahim and Douglas Hondo had been established members of the team before the boycott. The others consisted mainly of black players from the fringe of the full-strength team, some of whom had already tasted international cricket unsuccessfully, and Under-19 players. Two of the latter gave most hope for the future: opening batsman Brendan Taylor, usually the only white left in the team, and pace bowler Tinashe Panyangara. In the one-day series Zimbabwe averaged 16.75 runs per wicket against Sri Lanka's 36. The disparity would have been greater had the tourists not rested key players after the first couple of games and found difficulty in lifting themselves against opposition so badly below standard. In the two Tests, however, the statistics were ludicrously tilted: Sri Lanka averaged 96.46 runs per wicket against Zimbabwe's 19. To their credit the young Zimbabweans - Hondo was the grand-daddy at 24 and the average age was just under 20 - never gave up. They were clearly thrilled to be given the chance of playing international cricket, and never really lost heart, although physical and mental exhaustion had its effect. Their batting, though, was horrendously weak, as exemplified by an all-time record low of 35 on the only pitch not prepared with batsmen in mind.
The main virtues of their largely medium-paced bowling were enthusiasm and accuracy, which did keep Sri Lankan scoring within bounds in the oneday series, but proved little more than cannon fodder in the Tests. The sole specialist spinner was Prosper Utseya, who kept a brake on the run-rate but failed to take a wicket in his six matches. The fielding was enthusiastic but immature, with the close catching particularly fallible. Taibu remained unfailingly cheerful and optimistic in his impossible job as captain of a decimated team with no experienced or successful players to support him. He led from the front, with an epic 96 not out on his debut as captain, when both openers had been dismissed without scoring; he even took off his wicket-keeper's pads and bowled to supplement his side's meagre attack.
For Sri Lanka, facing such feeble opposition inevitably meant that they learned little about themselves. Of the newer players, Farveez Maharoof was the most impressive as a seam-bowling all-rounder and valuable batsman. For the others, it was largely a matter of enhancing personal records - when they had the chance. For middle-order batsmen like Tillekeratne Dilshan, that chance did not come often enough - he batted only four times in seven international games.
The new Test captain, Marvan Atapattu, has a good enough reputation against stronger teams; against weak attacks, he fills his boots. He scored big centuries in both Test innings, but did not really enjoy his tour; he complained after his return home about poor organisation and facilities. It seemed the ZCU were so preoccupied with their own crisis that they could not get their act together to take proper care of the tourists. Kumar Sangakkara played as a specialist batsman in the Tests, passing the wicket-keeper's gloves to Prasanna Jayawardene, who did a fair job, though the Sri Lankan management hinted this arrangement might not be repeated. Sangakkara scored a massive 270 in Bulawayo, where he shared a record-breaking partnership of 438 with Atapattu. But such records were seriously devalued.
Muttiah Muralitharan's seizure of the title of Test cricket's leading wickettaker was one record likely to have occurred here whatever the quality of the opposition. It was just sad that he could not have overtaken Courtney Walsh's record of 519 wickets in more salubrious circumstances. It was still a memorable occasion, acclaimed rapturously by his team-mates and all of Sri Lanka. Muralitharan said his aim was to play on until the 2007 World Cup, by which time his Test total might be stratospheric. Chaminda Vaas spearheaded the pace attack with skill, as he has done ever since he first toured Zimbabwe almost ten years earlier. He destroyed the top-order batting in the early one-day internationals before being rested, and deserved better figures in the Tests. Nuwan Zoysa gave him good support. But the entire tour was a mismatch with few memorable moments or worthy records. The exception was a remarkable feat by a remarkable and unique bowler - Murali.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Zimbabwe A v Sri Lankans at Harare, May 1-3, 2004