Zimbabwe emerge from the wilderness
Zimbabwe's fairytale run to their first final in a tri-series involving only Test-playing nations since the NatWest Series in 2000 ultimately ended in a nine-wicket thrashing, but the hosts emerged from the tournament a different team. As in their six-wicket loss to England at Lord's a decade ago, the Zimbabweans appeared overawed by the situation. The difference is that the team is now much better placed to build on its successes of the last 10 days.
How has this transformation come about? A lot of the changes in Zimbabwe and in Zimbabwean cricket until the about-turn of the last few months have been for the worse, but one major positive in recent times is the make-over of the cricketing infrastructure that had gone to seed cricket like the country around it. Another - which has been reflected in the newfound robustness of that domestic cricket framework - has been that cricket has become, culturally, a national sport rather than a white sport per se. On this foundation cricket is going to grow inevitably, provided things remains stable in Zimbabwe and continue to move in a positive direction.
Things being as they are, one could even argue that the cricket system in the country is somewhat ahead of South Africa, where Makhaya Ntini has bemoaned the lack of black advancement in cricket. Nowhere is this clearer than in the person of Elton Chigumbura, Zimbabwe's captain, and the humble background he shares with a large portion of the team and with most cricketers in the country.
A particularly heartening story came out of Zimbabwe cricket's programme to unearth fast-bowling talent. When the trials moved to Masvingo, people travelled from all over the province to audition, but none from further away than four young cricketers who journeyed more than 200km from Chiredzi to have an opportunity to fulfill their cricketing dreams. Through their sheer determination and a display of raw talent at the trials, two of the boys were selected to progress to the final selection. They now have the chance to try and forge a potentially life-changing career in cricket. If the system makes it possible for their story to have a happy ending, then it is surely working.
Another pleasant development, somewhat less sentimental but more reflective of Zimbabwe today, is apparent in the crowds that have attended the recent games. Though undoubtedly a mixed and vocal audience, most of the spectators have been black school children, generally from poorer townships. The grounds have not been packed to capacity, but it hasn't helped that many of the games have been during the working week: most Zimbabweans still can't afford to take a day off work to go and watch cricket.
Still, more people have come to watch than have done in several years, and a great many that haven't been able to make it to a match have followed the series on television. What's more, Harare Sports Club today is a world away from the 1990s, when cricket was an almost entirely white occupation, and a black Zimbabwean at the cricket was likely to be either a security guard or a seller of biltong and sweeties. Or Peter Chingoka.
And yet, despite the positive signs, it would be premature to suggest that Zimbabwe have moved completely beyond their frailties - a month ago they collapsed against New Zealand, losing nine wickets for 26 runs to be out for their lowest Twenty20 score, and in two of their three games against Sri Lanka in this series their batting or their bowling - or both - failed. Zimbabwe cricket is still fragile, and the team still has some distance to go in order to become consistent.
The collapse of cricket in Zimbabwe was tied to the severe problems in the country as a whole, and likewise cricket has been able to rejuvenate because of the relative stability at the moment. In this sense, Zimbabwe's cricket acts as a rudimentary gauge of the state of the country; in both areas there hasn't been the wholesale change that many people were hoping for, but it seems that things are heading in a more positive direction now. For better or worse, cricket there is tied to the uncertain future of the nation.
Where will the current team be in five years? Not so long ago, they were a hastily-assembled bunch of teenagers, completely out of their depth in international cricket. Six years have passed since the rebel player crisis - seven since the black armband protest that foretold its coming - and the enthusiastic but unprepared adolescents have grown into young men, and are gaining in experience and confidence. Chigumbura and Brendan Taylor, who debuted in the same game against Sri Lanka in Bulawayo in 2004, are both only 24 - young in cricket terms - but have played over 100 ODIs now, as have Tatenda Taibu (who, at 27, has played 118 games and is the most experienced member of the present squad), and Prosper Utseya, who also got his first taste of international cricket on that disastrous Sri Lankan tour. Hamilton Masakadza, who made a historic international debut at 17, is not far behind with 94 appearances.
One result of of the current squad's traumatic beginnings is that Zimbabwe have been handed thrashings, at one time or another, by every major team they have played in the interim - including Bangladesh. Another is that they are now in the process of developing into a more hardened unit of young cricketers approaching their prime with a wealth of experience in their ranks. In a few years the current core of the side will be nearing 30, peaking, and will have played almost as many ODIs as the Flower brothers had when they retired in their mid-30s.
But, ultimately, it is Tests that matter, and Zimbabwe aren't quite ready yet. Too often in the last few years, Zimbabwe's failures have come as a result of the frustrating, but far from unfamiliar, inability of the team - and especially the batsmen - to apply themselves when even a modicum of pressure is placed upon them. The weakness was a mental one, as batsmen who had been repeatedly brutalised by being thrust onto the international stage before their time had their confidence fractured, and the spectacular collapse became a default setting rather than an aberration.
The serenity, and confidence, of their successful run-chases against India and Sri Lanka, suggest that they are beginning to overcome this problem. Their task must now be to build on the renewed sense of self-belief, and enhance their mental toughness.
More often than not, the middle order has looked solid. Greg Lamb, though he appears pedestrian by the standards of modern cricket, is at least developing the ability to occupy the crease, hold off the collapse, and build partnerships. Craig Ervine has made a promising start to his career, and belief is not a problem for Charles Coventry, Chigumbura or Taibu.
The opening pair also look a decent combination. Indeed, Masakadza's evolution as a one-day batsman over the years has been remarkable. Taylor was already a known talent in high school and though he's had his problems with the cricket authorities over the years, he seems to be blossoming under the new coaching set-up, headed by Alan Butcher.
Butcher, rightly, has given him positive criticism over his fitness, and Taylor has admitted that the current environment is the most professional he's ever worked in. Now, he is working hard, getting fit, and beginning to reap the rewards. Taylor has 2,870 ODI runs for Zimbabwe - fifth on the all-time list - and needs just 31 more to move ahead of Heath Streak. With at least ten years of international cricket potentially ahead of him, he is definitely a bright prospect.
The recent upsurge of the team has been expressed in their style of play. There has often been a certain inventiveness to their game-plans, such as keeping a slip in play for large portions of the game, and pioneering the use of four spinners in tandem - which is an aggressive, rather than run-saving, tactic. From their joyously creative celebrations when wickets have fallen - such as Masakadza's 'Just Married' t-shirt, Chris Mpofu and Taibu's Bebeto-inspired shuffle, or Ray Price and Mpofu's synchronised happy feet - one can see that the team is having fun.
What can one read, finally, in the result of this tri-series? Certainly, it suggests the return of competitive cricket to the Zimbabwe national side after a seven-year absence, and another step in the recovery from the collapse that was heralded by Andy Flower and Henry Olonga's heroic stand at the 2003 World Cup. With more exposure to top-quality opposition, this will be a competitive side and is moving back towards Zimbabwe cricket's traditional mantra: "If you take us lightly, we will beat you."
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPN Cricinfo