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This was a gruesome tour, embarrassing all who saw it, from the middle, in the stands or on television. The weakened Zimbabwean team was not expected to be any match for South Africa, but the carnage was even worse than forecast. The entire Test series was completed in five days - half its scheduled length - and the one-day matches were just as one-sided.
When the International Cricket Council confirmed that Zimbabwe's Test status would be restored in January 2005, in time for this tour, there was a robust debate in South Africa about its value. Zimbabwe had been suspended after the dispute between their board and the leading white players left them with a hopelessly weak team. The South African consensus seemed to be that they should support Zimbabwean cricket, but also take the chance to give their senior players a break after the tough series against England.
In the end, the selectors rested Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini at various times during the three one-day internationals and two Tests. Captain Graeme Smith, however, ignored medical advice that he should nurse a troublesome ankle (run over by an Indian taxi in November).
Protests about the Zimbabwean government's record on human rights were limited to huffy letters to newspapers, and sporadic but meaningless calls for boycotts. To most South Africans, the idea of a boycott was as preposterous as actually going to the game. But those who did attend, or watch on television, did so with the kind of fascination probably experienced by crowds at the guillotine. Would it be a clean kill? Would the victim kick and struggle first?
The cricket attracted little global attention either. But ICC officials, due to discuss Zimbabwe's cricketing future in March, were watching closely. And in the midst of the tour there was a major development when the players' rebellion collapsed. Heath Streak, whose removal as captain in April 2004 had precipitated the crisis, reached a settlement with the board, and was rushed to South Africa for the last one-day international; another leading all-rounder, Andy Blignaut, returned to join Streak in the Test team two days later. Both played a couple of significant innings, but they proved powerless to prevent Zimbabwe going down to another humiliating whitewash.
There are talented cricketers in Zimbabwe, and more may yet come through. But the youngsters, emerging straight from school, have had no chance to hone their skills. The 21-year-old captain, wicketkeeper-batsman Tatenda Taibu, displayed an inspirational spirit in the face of overwhelming odds and could be a truly effective international player. It was another batsman with genuine potential, Hamilton Masakadza, who best illustrated Zimbabwe's problem, however. Masakadza showed determination and some ability when he survived more than two hours in the final innings of the series.
Much of his cricket in the preceding three years had been played at Free State University in South Africa. That gave him an edge over his teammates, who suffer from the poor quality of their domestic first-class game. If other young Zimbabweans had the same chance, it could make an enormous difference to the game's future there.
Match reports for
Combined Gauteng-North West XI v Zimbabweans at Potchefstroom, Feb 16, 2005
Combined Easterns-Northerns XI v Zimbabweans at Benoni, Feb 18-21, 2005