Hard work, not money, drives Zimbabwe's cricketers
By the time they arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's cricketers had lost their appetite for a fight. A luckless Brendan Taylor lost both tosses and scored no runs at all across 20 deliveries in two innings. His team followed his lead in two crushing defeats. The yawning gulf between India and Zimbabwe was emphatically exposed.
The disparity between the two teams need not be measured purely in runs, wickets and results. Long-term cricketing success is increasingly based upon the wealth and resources available to respective cricket authorities. It's a moneyed game and there, too, Zimbabwe simply cannot compete. Yet the more insidious problem is not the amount that Zimbabwe's cricketers are paid - it is how much they are valued by their own board.
It's no secret that Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) is in the midst of some serious financial strife, but there is rumour and speculation interspersed with the actual, tangible effects of that strife. "Financially, we are not doing very well," admitted ZC president Peter Chingoka. "The latest loss you will have seen, from our report, is that we're down about $4.2 million last year. We're carrying serious bank loans now which basically stagger us from one four-year cycle to the next."
The only serious money ZC brings in comes from the World Cups, with the World T20 and television rights from bi-lateral series bringing in smaller amounts. The organisation has not been spared by the tempestuous Zimbabwean economy, nor by the wider global economic climate. A visit by India, England or Australia to Zimbabwe would turn a profit, while a South African tour would just about break even. All other tours are run at a loss. It is for this reason that there will likely be no A tours into or out of Zimbabwe this year. The funds simply aren't there.
It was reported in local media that ZC were set to gain $8m from India's visit, although that figure hasn't been officially confirmed. Whatever the actual profit from the tour eventually is, it is "basically a drop in the ocean because of all these other problems", added Chingoka. "It's very important, but it doesn't fill the hole, for a number of reasons. Taken in isolation it looks very attractive, but this only happens once every three or four years, and since India's last tour here, we're talking about losses of maybe a million dollars for every tour."
Compare that to the money made by the BCCI for every tour they host, not to mention the IPL, and it's easy to see why Indian cricketers' salaries dwarf those of their Zimbabwean counterparts. Virat Kohli's Grade A central contract nets him around US$186,000 a year - Taylor earns only a fraction of it - and that figure doesn't include the even greater amount Kohli brings in through endorsements. If he'd made the trip out to Zimbabwe, MS Dhoni, the world's 16th highest paid sportsman for 2013 with earnings in excess of US$30m, would be operating well within his means if he decided to buy one of Zimbabwe's domestic franchises outright. Context is important here, and in Zimbabwean terms the national cricketers are not badly paid - but that doesn't necessarily translate to stability and security in the work environment.
"You can't take a Virat Kohli and compare him to a Brendan Taylor, because the company that Virat Kohli works for has got resources much better than the company that Brendan Taylor works for," explained Chingoka.
"The XI guys out there, they've got a lot of people that look up to them with envy from this country, from a Zimbabwean perspective. So that's the context that you've got to put it in. In the context of your own country, are you that badly off? And the answer to that would be a very strong 'no'. If you say, in the international context, are they being badly looked after, it would be a big 'yes'. They are badly looked after from a point of view of comparing them with Jimmy Anderson in England or Michael Clarke in Australia.
"Their salaries would do quite well in commerce and industry in this country. You should take a drive with Elton Chigumbura or Prosper Utseya: where they've come from. And tell me that they're not idols. If they were doing badly, they would not be idols."
The feeling seems to be that Zimbabwe's cricketers have no grounds for complaint. They are lucky to have the jobs they have, and earn the money they do. But given the history of the relationship between the board and the players, it's clear which way the power dynamic leans. Zimbabwean cricketers may be idols in the eyes of their countrymen, many of whom live in abject poverty, but that's not always the view the cricketing authorities hold.
"That mentality is a dangerous one because [ZC] make 100% certain that [the players] are aware of that, but they expect them to go and compete in an international environment," explained former captain Heath Streak, himself jettisoned from the coaching set-up as ZC looked to cut costs earlier this year. "It's more about how they get looked after than how much they get paid. It's the little things that go with it - getting paid on time, getting an allowance, getting to the hotel and finding things are sorted, having your fuel taken care of. Just the basics sorted out.
"All that stuff, it gets to the players. Eventually they perform like they're getting treated and they get treated, most of the time, like they're second-rate citizens, and that they're lucky to have the jobs that they have and earn the incomes that they have. Instead of creating an environment where they're accountable for their performances, and where you have other people who aspire to be like them."
Are Zimbabwe's cricketers made to feel valued? Do they operate in a supportive, healthy environment? One hears of past team meetings where it was made very clear to the players that they were replaceable. That attitude probably had its roots in the ructions between the board and the players in the early to mid-2000s. The atmosphere isn't nearly as poisonous these days, and during training sessions the squad seem a genuinely happy bunch, but the life of a Zimbabwean cricketer can be a tenuous one.
Take the example of Ray Price. The left-arm spinner came back to Zimbabwe when the cupboards were pretty bare in 2007, and offered six solid years of service. In that time, he was the backbone of an often brittle bowling attack and rose to No. 2 in the one-day rankings. Price served his team well, and wanted a chance to say goodbye to international cricket. His team-mates wanted to give him that chance, and so did his coaches. Yet Price was put out to pasture by the selectors without so much as a press release, let alone a farewell match. The message from the powers that be is clear: we decide your fate.
"That, for me, is the fundamental problem, until players are valued accordingly," added Streak. "Once that happens then you can demand performances from them and they'll be more accountable to how they perform because you're looking after them. That's your product. Till that mentality changes amongst our admin we're going to keep going down that slippery path until we get to our final demise. [ZC] seemingly don't care. I think their attitude is those guys are lucky to have a job. They don't look at them as - if those guys don't perform, we don't have a job."
Whether or not they have the full support of their board, and whether or not they believe they're fairly remunerated and looked after, Zimbabwe's cricketers know that, ultimately, their success or failure is down to their own hard work.
"Most of us know that cricket is all we've got and we are looking after it the best way we can," Taylor said when Zimbabwe returned to Test cricket in 2011. "We know that given our circumstances we may have to work harder than others, but the guys have never been afraid of hard work."
Life isn't fair, and nor is the international cricket system. George Monbiot once said that if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The same might be said of cricketers in Zimbabwe.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town