Zimbabwe 'ready to go' as rumours swirl
Zimbabwe is a surreal, sometimes positively Kafkaesque place to visit. One might see a stretched Hummer or a shiny new Lexus wobbling over pot-holed, unlit roads or eat exorbitantly priced sushi several thousand kilometres from the ocean. You're about as likely to see a tabloid headline about a goblin or a mermaid as you are about a political or sex scandal, and you can pay for your groceries using US dollars, South African Rands, British pounds, Chinese Yuan, Australian dollars, or some combination of the above (not to mention, for some transactions, Botswana Pula, Japanese Yen and Indian Rupees). But there's no Zimbabwean national currency.
If you're a cricketer, you might find yourself fined US$1000 and dropped from the side for lightheartedly sharing a video that's freely available on YouTube with team-mates. Here, apparently, this is all just supposed to make sense. It's normal.
On Wednesday, it emerged that seamer Tinashe Panyangara had been fined and expelled from the national squad for sharing a video of Mitchell Johnson's bowling. When asked if anyone in the squad had been watching videos of Dale Steyn ahead of Zimbabwe's game against South Africa, senior batsman Hamilton Masakadza bowed his head shyly and dissolved into a fit of giggles. His coach, Steve Mangongo, offered a deadpan: "Yes, we have. We always do analysis." Okay then.
While they floundered against Australia in the opening match of the tri-series, Mangongo insisted that his team is "ready to go" against the South Africa side that cruised past the Australians on Wednesday, adding that they are "very comfortable" and "not worried about the opposition". That's fighting talk, but the results suggest that Zimbabwe have some serious catching up to do if they are going to make a fist of Friday's match. The players have certainly put plenty of blood, sweat and tears into their preparation, and trained solidly from 8.45am to 12.30pm the day before the game.
Yet more than intensive training, it seems what Zimbabwe really need is some stability. A disciplinarian approach is fine, so long as it comes with clear support structures and some continuity. It's not clear whether that is the case here, and the gist seems to be that if players don't perform to the standard prescribed to them, they can expect to be dropped. Never mind that Zimbabwe are ranked 10th in the world and their opponents are nestled at the opposite end of the table, with vastly more extensive national sporting, coaching and support structures to help them.
Zimbabwe have used six different opening combinations in their last eight one-day internationals, cycled through seven different seamers and four spinners. There's not a lot of stability there, and it's been made clear that everyone - even senior players such as Brendan Taylor - is playing for their place in the XI every time they take the field.
"We look at all possible means available, and all possible available personnel to work with until we get it right," Mangongo said. "It's simple and straightforward. So that's why there has been shifting, and chopping and changing: because they are not doing their job. Until they do their job, we'll continue."
Reports in the media have suggested that despite three half-centuries (including a 93 and an 84) in the five matches leading up to the third ODI against South Africa, Masakadza was close to losing his place in the side after a failure with the bat in the second match.
Seemingly resigned to the status quo, he said: "Obviously you don't really know what happens behind the scenes, and you can't believe everything that you read about, but the fact of the matter remains: in any professional sport, if you're not doing your bit and you're not doing your job and not performing then you obviously can't feel safe about your place. That's just the bottom line. You get out there and you do your job, and that's the only way you know you'll be safe."
With precious little stability and little peace either on the field or off it, where do Zimbabwe's cricketers turn for inspiration? For Masakadza, it comes from the pride he feels in representing his country - as weird, wonderful and frustrating a place as it can be. "For me, at the end of the day, once you do get picked and you cross the rope, it ceases to exist whether you're giving 100% for your coach or for your team-mates," he said. "The biggest thing is that you're playing, and you're out there playing for your country. That's the biggest thing, and everything else comes second. You're out there to represent your nation and that's it."
While Zimbabwe has battled shortages of all sorts of commodities - such as sugar, salt, fuel, cash and electricity - over the years, there's one thing it always has plenty of: rumours. The one doing the rounds on Thursday morning was that Steven Trenchard, the Johannesburg-born Mid West Rhinos batsman, had been called up to join the national squad.
Trenchard, 31, played club cricket for Wimbledon in the Surrey Championship Premier Division before joining the Matabeleland Tuskers franchise in the 2010-11 season. After moving away from cricket for a while, he reappeared on the domestic circuit earlier this year on Mid West Rhinos' books, and despite middling form at provincial level he holds a good reputation in National League club cricket - though whether or not this warrants a national call-up is up for debate.
When asked about the rumour, Mangongo explained that Trenchard is "being looked at, just like any other Zimbabwean player". Is he part of the squad from which the team will be picked to play Australia? "No he's not. There's many rumours which fly in this part of the world." Outside, Trenchard walked from the field with the rest of the squad, dressed in the team's practice kit. Just another normal day in Zimbabwe.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town