September 17, 2013

What now for Zimbabwe?

After a magical win, Zimbabwe will disappear from the international stage for at least five months and won't play a Test for double that time. So what next?

It's a confusing time for cricket in Zimbabwe. The southern hemisphere summer is only just beginning but the international cricket season is already over.

For the next few months, the moments of brilliance in Saturday's win over Pakistan will be recounted at braais, over beers, and in boardrooms. The buzz created could bloom into a mini-boom for cricket in the country. But a glance at the calendar shows a blank. And it raises an important question: what now for the game in Zimbabwe?

After demonstrating that they are capable of tussling with top teams, Zimbabwe will disappear from the international stage for at least five months, and won't play a Test for double that time. They're not hiding their disappointment over the lack of game time. One senior player said it will leave them feeling "as though we always have to start again", while Andy Waller admitted it is not ideal for his plans as the team's coach.

"You can forget what it feels like to win," he said. "It's hard for the guys because we believe we can compete against sides. We'll just have to work hard in the nets and get better for when we play again."

Zimbabwe's next assignment will be the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh and their next Test series is only due next July against South Africa. The long layover is because the two-Test, three-ODI and two-T20 rubber, due to take place against Sri Lanka in October, is set to be postponed. Zimbabwean fans are so disappointed they have started an online petition to bring Sri Lanka to the country. But that is financially out of the question.

That sounds like more of the same repeated rhetoric about Zimbabwe's lack of funds, but the truth is that it would be difficult for any board to host four series in a season. Zimbabwe have already had visits from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and even though the India ODIs brought in revenue, the losses incurred through the other series and the debt in the country makes another tour unviable.

In 2011, the MD of Zimbabwe Cricket then, Ozias Bvute, told ESPNcricinfo that the board lost around US$700,000 a series, which means they have already lost somewhere around $1.5 million this season. ZC is also $18 million in debt, which makes going further into the red irresponsible.

Already, non-payment has so angered the players that they have gone on to form a union - the first of its kind in a decade - and threatened strikes through the Pakistan series. Their ultimatums were met and ZC came up with a way to pay outstanding salaries from July and August, and some match fees, but that came at the expense of paying staff.

The groundsmen, the administrative workers and even the coaches are still awaiting pay for the two months mentioned. Another series would only worsen that situation and to ask for it to be held, knowing it would deprive people of the money they depend on to pay their bills, would be cruel. This is where real life and sport bump heads, because supporters believe it is equally unjust to keep Zimbabwe off the international stage.

Given the difficulty of hosting more international cricket, Zimbabwe can only hope to get invited by other countries and to work on their domestic game.

Currently there are no fixtures available for the 2013-14 local season, which has raised concerns about whether it will go ahead. Zimbabwe have to play domestic cricket to maintain Full-Member status and the talk is that it will be played from November. But planning and organisation will have to wait - the franchises have not been allocated budgets, so they cannot contract coaches or players yet.

Zimbabwe need cash to host teams but can't attract the necessary sponsors. As a result, they can't offer the players competitive-enough contracts

When it eventually gets underway, the domestic season is expected to take the regular format of three competitions - first-class, 50-over and T20 - and be contested by five teams.

This is where many feel Zimbabwe get it wrong. While the franchise system has increased both the reach and competitiveness of the domestic game, having five outfits has been deemed unsustainable. It means five venues that need to be maintained, and associated travel costs. Popular opinion is that only four are feasible, an idea that may be based on the way Zimbabwe's domestic cricket was organised before the franchise system, with four regions competing.

If that system were reintroduced, it would most likely mean Southern Rocks have to go. They are the newest and weakest of the teams, although they are getting better. They won three first-class matches last season, an improvement on their first summer, where they lost all their first-class and List A matches and won only one T20 fixture.

Results aside, Southern Rocks was where Brian Vitori and Richmond Mutumbami were discovered, which makes it difficult to write them off. ZC is also faced with the tricky question of how they can continue to engage areas where the game has failed to reach in the past, such as Masvingo, and whether it is possible to finance development properly.

Sponsors have been difficult to secure, as illustrated by the 20-over competition: it was backed by MetBank, still ZC's major creditor, when it was started in 2007, and then Stanbic Bank for three seasons until last summer. It grew to the extent that it could compare with other 20-over leagues around the world. It attracted foreign players, mostly from the UK, such as Phil Mustard and Peter Trego, and also the likes of Chris Harris, Lou Vincent, Lance Klusener and Andrew Hall. It even managed to entice Chris Gayle - he was embroiled in a dispute with the West Indies Cricket Board at the time and agreed to play in Zimbabwe for a minimal fee in order to get match practice. The window he broke at the Harare Sports Club is still broken.

Then Stanbic pulled out of most of its sports sponsorships in southern Africa and the Zimbabwean T20 competition was one casualty. Last season, unable to find a backer, the tournament was a low-profile event. The international element and, by implication, the glamour factor, was missing.

While that is a sign of the difficulty in marketing cricket in Zimbabwe, it enabled the best local players to come to the fore. Sikandar Raza Butt, who made his Test debut against Pakistan, was the tournament's top run-scorer, and Shingi Masakadza, who has been one of Zimbabwe's most improved and impressive players, was the leading wicket-taker.

The international players are regulars on the franchise scene. That helps keep the standard of the competition fairly high and ensures that the new talent unearthed is tested against the best in the country. Mutumbami is a case in point. He was the highest run-scorer in last season's Logan Cup and the standout wicketkeeper of the tournament, which earned him his Test call-up.

It also means the internationals, who might have learned new skills in competitions elsewhere, can pass on their wisdom. Some Zimbabwean players spend time at clubs overseas and come back having learned from others. This year, Sean Williams will play in the ongoing Dhaka Premier League and others are looking to follow suit.

Where Zimbabwean fans become nervous is when their players go abroad and don't come back. Kyle Jarvis played in New Zealand's domestic league and considered moving there before retiring from international cricket and signing with Lancashire. He has since defended his decision by tweeting, "You all need to understand what is really going in ZC", and "Givin the same opportunity, anyone else in the team would have left... and they still will."

But that is not entirely true. Sean Ervine committed to Hampshire and there are worries his brother Craig, who plays club cricket in Ireland, will go the same way. But Brendan Taylor turned down a similar offer because he "just wants to play international cricket". He is fortunate to have the means to do so without relying overly on ZC to make a living.

Keegan Meth, who missed out on the Pakistan series because he was getting married in Canada, aims to be back for the domestic summer provided the monetary situation is stable. Graeme Cremer opted out of the Pakistan matches too but has remained in Zimbabwe and will play cricket again once he is assured of being paid. Chris Mpofu is no longer on a central contract because he spent the last five months recovering from a stress fracture but he has hung around and aims to play this summer.

Even at the lower levels, there's a lot happening. Zimbabwe's Under-19 team will play in a quadrangular in India against the hosts, South Africa and Australia. And the academy continues to run at Harare Sports Club, with or without equipment. On the final morning of the Test against Pakistan, children ranging from 9 to 12 were seen bowling in an organised session. Here was the future of Zimbabwe cricket and it looked healthy.

What's worrying is that it's also stuck in a vicious cycle. Zimbabwe need cash to host teams but can't attract the necessary sponsors. As a result, they can't offer the players competitive-enough contracts. So the players go overseas, where the experience they gain could help Zimbabwe, but only if they return.

Some want the ICC to step in but the body does not fund anyone's bilateral series and Zimbabwe should not be an exception. There is talk the ICC may advance the grant it is due to give Zimbabwe or assist them with some of the fees from the 2014 World Twenty20, but what Zimbabwe really need is a better investment plan. That applies not just to cricket but to the whole country.

What keeps them going is an endless supply of optimism. Waller, who left a comfortable job at a school in the UK to coach back home, believes the depth in Zimbabwe cricket is heartening. "We had 27 members in our training squad and any one of them can make the national side. There are some good players out there, and for me that's exciting." He will spend the next few months working with them so that by February, "we will be playing better cricket".

Taylor agrees that Zimbabwe can only improve. "Just because we're not playing doesn't mean we can't get better. We can go to the nets and keep learning," he said. "We're professional cricketers and we need to live professional lifestyles."

Not that easy to do when the set-up barely allows for it.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent