If the Australian team thought they knew in advance who and what they might face in Zimbabwe, they got an eye-opener when they changed planes in Johannesburg en route to Harare. At the airport, they met the young Zimbabwean all-rounder Sean Ervine - heading in the other direction. He said he was on his way to Perth to spend time with his girlfriend, the daughter of the Zimbabwean coach Geoff Marsh. By the time the Aussies returned home, Ervine had pledged his allegiance to Western Australia; he hoped to represent Australia eventually. He left behind the rump of a cricket team and an increasingly sinister country, where cricket has become the victim of politicians.
The failure of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union to reach an agreement with Ervine, sacked captain Heath Streak and 13 other banished white players left them unable to field a team capable of competing against any serious international team, never mind the world champions. This was no ordinary players' dispute; it was obvious to anyone spending time in the country that forces were at work with the aim of getting rid of white cricketers. As it became clear there was no chance of a deal with the players, ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed flew to Harare, apparently to try to save the tour. He was told the ZCU did not want to meet him. He left, furious, to convene an emergency ICC teleconference that was to consider suspending Zimbabwe.
Hours before that was due to happen, and the day before the Test series was scheduled to begin, the ZCU withdrew from all Tests up to the end of 2004. Even this capitulation was painted as some sort of victory by the Zimbabweans, who claimed they remained in control of their own destiny. But the Australians made it clear they were in no hurry to rearrange the two Tests they were supposed to play here; Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said the team was "heavily committed".
Though the ICC was anxious to protect the "integrity of Test cricket", it was unbothered about one-day cricket. So the withdrawal did not affect Zimbabwe's schedule of one-day internationals, and the three planned for this trip were brought forward. Australia won them all easily enough. But with the team under-motivated, they did not inflict anything quite as bad as the 35 all out the young Zimbabwean team suffered against Sri Lanka a month earlier.
However, Australian captain Ricky Ponting made it clear he thought it was not just the integrity of Test cricket that mattered, but the integrity of international cricket generally. His side wanted nothing less then the best versus the best. He described the Zimbabwean team as "pretty ordinary", which is Australian for terrible.
As the tour went on, some of Australia's leading players and officials became increasingly angry about a different kind of integrity, saying they were being continually misled, especially by ZCU members promising that a settlement was imminent. After a while, even the normally bland Sutherland said: "It's got to the point where I won't believe anything until I see it." The private Australian view was summed up publicly by Tim May, chief executive of the international players' union FICA, who said the ICC had to investigate the allegations of racial discrimination against the missing players and "immoral and unethical behaviour" by ZCU officials. Claims by the ZCU that they were winning the hearts and minds of the black majority through their development programme bore no resemblance to the evidence of this tour. Despite the strength of the opposition, fewer than 6,000 turned up in total to see the three matches, even though the first was played on a public holiday and the last on a Saturday. Even those crowds were swelled significantly by busloads of schoolchildren in uniform. Without them, the total for the second fixture, played on a Thursday, would have been smaller than a bank queue.
However, only one player declined to make the tour for moral reasons, the leg-spinner Stuart MacGill. Other players were also privately concerned but - despite being assured by Cricket Australia that they would not be penalised for opting out - they were understandably concerned about the possibility of a deputy taking advantage of weak opposition and securing their spot. Some, however, may have shared the view of the ex-player Dean Jones, who happily signed a contract to commentate on the cricket which forbade him to mention any wider issues involving president Robert Mugabe or Zimbabwe: "I'm just there to watch the cricket and I don't give a rat's arse what he does about his country," he said.
What the Australians saw suggested the ZCU did not give a rat's arse about what it was doing to the cricket, and they rapidly lost heart for the whole trip. They did not enjoy the one-sided series much, though the game drives and golf were some consolation. It was all that could be said for a dismal excursion. When asked later what positives the team could take away from Zimbabwe, Ponting's initial response was telling. "Good question," he said.
Match reports for
Zimbabwe A v Australians at Harare, May 17-18, 2004
2nd ODI: Zimbabwe v Australia at Harare, May 27, 2004