Bangladesh in Zimbabwe 2013 April 16, 2013

In cricket and life, Zimbabwe changes while staying the same

The blackboard at the Maiden Pub, at the Harare Sports Club, advertises the Test series © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Progress is measured by how much things have changed. In Zimbabwe, it is judged by how much they have stayed the same over the last while.

When I came here in 2011 to cover their Test comeback, things were spoken about as being "not so bad". That meant shops were almost fully stocked, even with items like milk that were unobtainable in the past, and the electricity supply remained stable most of the time. More importantly, so did the currency. Dollarisation gave Zimbabwe some certainty and because the greenback is still around, some of the calmness is too.

The streets are still wide enough to remind you this is Africa, the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel is still $30, Harare Sports Club still has the faded grandeur of an old Volkswagen Beetle, the Red Lion pub still has people topping up at 9am, and Vusi Sibanda still pulls.

Two years later, he manages to do it without looking as though he is going to get out. How important that could be for Zimbabwe in the next two weeks.

Their series against Bangladesh is not about cricket. It is about pride. That is a big deal for the minnows because they don't have things like maces to play for.

To understand, understand this: Zimbabwe view Bangladesh in the same way Manchester United feel about their noisy neighbours, the way the Red Sox envy the Yankees, or the way Bjorn Borg looked at John McEnroe. The difference is that Zimbabwe have neither the glamour nor the fight to match any of those. All they have is the dream and that is quickly becoming inadequate.

It's not enough to have Grant Flower doing throwdown after throwdown, it's not enough to have Ray Price's inextinguishable energy bowling over after over, it's not enough to have Brian Vitori's determination running in again and again. The talent needs structure.

Like paint, if it is left to run, all that will be created will be an obscure indistinguishable albeit artistic picture and Zimbabwe Cricket is like a Jackson Pollock work: no-one can explain it, or what has gone wrong with it.

After presenting the world, including me, with the single rose bud that was the 2011 Test win over Bangladesh, the full flowering did not follow.

Some of it can be explained by funds drying up. Some of it by the departure of Alan Butcher and culling of Heath Streak's services as bowling coach. Some of it by Craig Ervine accepting a deal to play club cricket in Ireland over a winter contract back home. But some of it cannot be explained at all.

Flower is still committed to the cause. Stephen Mangongo, the interim coach, is too. The players are still behind him. They still arrive at training with eagerness, they still request extra time in the nets, they still listen attentively when spoken to, and they still care. Their conundrum is whether they can do anything to show that.

Zimbabwean cricket is caught in a timewarp. The personnel are mostly the same, the ethos is the same, the hope is the same but something has changed. Much like the country.

At the airport, the signs have been upgraded to include writing in Chinese, a reflection of the investment coming in from the East. Air Zimbabwe, the ill-fated carrier that I have tried and failed to fly on twice (yet have now made a third booking on) is operational. They have a billboard to prove it.

Other things have stayed as they were. The South African Rand is still exchanged at 10 to the dollar here, which is finally more accurate than it was in 2011 when seven would have been the going rate. The process to get media accreditation is still as arduous as it was before.

If you want to understand that inexplicable cliché about the more things change, the more they stay the same, come to Zimbabwe. Then, know that the players would give anything for their performance to be as good as it was in August 2011 when they beat Bangladesh. That would be exactly the change they need to restart their cricket, yet again. And the sense of achievement would be the exactly same as it was then.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent