Zimbabwe make another beginning
Zimbabwe did more than simply survive their first day of Test cricket in half a decade, they bossed it. This may well be the rebirth of cricket in Zimbabwe, but the leitmotif of this new chapter still retains the rough edges of what has come before. Certainly, some of the main characters are familiar, though the setting has undergone a dramatic transformation since Dave Houghton's amateurs took the field as a Test team 19 years ago.
There had been a noticeable shift from hope to expectation for followers of Zimbabwe's cricket team as the return to Tests drew near, and though Zimbabwe slowed in the afternoon after Vusi Sibanda and Tino Mawoyo's bolting start, it's safe to say that those expectations have already been exceeded. The common, or garden, Zimbabwe cricket fan is a dogged sort, by need rather than choice, sustained by hope of a better future, and a hopelessly-optimistic streak. Today, that optimism seemed founded.
Unyielding positivity is a trait that has been handed down through the generations; that much is obvious after a glance at David Lewis' foreword to Jonty Winch's seminal work on the history of cricket in Zimbabwe. "Zimbabwean cricket stands breathtakingly on the threshold of an exciting future from which point it may gaze out," it reads, "in high anticipation but also with the necessary sense of proportion, at the potential glories and hopes which are attendant upon Test cricket." Despite the passage of 28 years since those words were penned, they are as florid, haughty, and apt now as they were then.
The view from the outside looking in is rarely quite as upbeat. "Against expectation..." began Wisden's report of Zimbabwe's inaugural Test against India, when the rookie Zimbabwe team surprisingly took a first-innings lead and the illustrious visitors were spared much embarrassment by Sanjay Manjrekar's marathon century. Zimbabwe captain Dave Houghton became the first player to score a century on his country's debut since Charles Bannerman and although in the end they had to settle for a draw, Zimbabwe were the first new member of the Test-playing community ever to avoid defeat in its inaugural Test match.
Zimbabwe managed to hold their own, just about, in those first few years, and a celebratory tone greeted their first Test win in their 11th Test three years later, by an innings and 64 runs against Pakistan at Harare Sports Club. Zimbabwe "not only created history", wrote Wisden, but did so "with style".
Fast forward a decade, to 2005. A depleted side started the year by handing Bangladesh their first Test victory, by 226 runs in Chittagong. "Misery", "nightmares", and "wickets tumbling like ripe mangoes" are three phrases that stick out from Wisden's report of that match, but what followed was even worse. Zimbabwe were shot out for just 54 by South Africa at Newlands in March, South Africa then racked up a hefty 340 for 3 in reply, and the Test was over in two days. Zimbabwe had become embarrassing, Tatenda Taibu called the first day "the worst day since I started playing for Zimbabwe", and the calls for Zimbabwe's removal from the Test arena began to grow louder.
Another two-day flattening at the hands of New Zealand and a couple of thrashings from India later, that was that. Cricket in Zimbabwe appeared to be sinking into oblivion, as the Logan Cup - which had been staged since 1903-04 - wasn't played in 2005-06 against a backdrop of chaos and strife both in the country and its cricket. By January 2006 the government had replaced Zimbabwe Cricket's strife-ridden board with an interim committee, which announced a further 12-month withdrawal from Test status of a team with an average age of 20.
And here we find ourselves, five years on, a rejuvenated team having dipped their toes into testing waters once more and apparently finding it to their liking. The players are older and wiser, the downward slide of cricket in the country has been arrested, and Zimbabwe insist they can hold their own once more. And yet, questions about how much has really changed remain.
Doubtless, a great deal of work has gone into reviving the structures that had descended into catastrophe, but if anything Zimbabwe Cricket have sweated even more to get their public image heading in the right direction. Though it wasn't quite on the same scale as Andy Flower and Henry Olonga's black armband protest at the 2003 World Cup, Tatenda Taibu's slamming of the board on the eve of the Test might well have descended into recrimination and scandal. After the lively conversation between Taibu and national selector Alistair Campbell on the outfield in Harare on Wednesday afternoon, Zimbabwe Cricket's conciliatory response thus caught one off guard - and happily so. Perhaps things really have changed.
As in the cricket, so it is with the rest of the country. After the political tumult of the last decade, Zimbabwe struggles on. While the tortuous end-game for kingmakers and cohorts continues, potential, resilience and laidback courtesy remain part of the common character of the people. Having switched to the US dollar as the de facto national currency, inflation is no longer an issue, but the supplies of electricity and water, even in the capital, remain unreliable. And if the water doesn't poison you, the politics will.
This is the world inhabited by Zimbabwe's cricketers, and the supporters of cricket in that country. Against an uncertain - but hopeful - backdrop, on a unique day in their cricketing history, as much as their skill or anything else the Zimbabwe players' character has been tested on the first day in Harare. Though they could yet slip up in this one-off entrance exam of a Test, we now know a little more about who they are and what they may be capable of. A great deal more will be learned over the next few days.
Liam Brickhill is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo