Zimbabwe prepare for tough tests ahead
Zimbabwe face one of their busiest seasons ever. After a relative lull last season, they will play, politics permitting, ten Test matches against four different opponents. On top of that they have at least 28 one-day internationals between now and next June.
West Indies arrive in November, followed by Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Australia between February and June next year. Unless yet another Sharjah tournament crops up, Zimbabwe's away tours consist of two trips to Australia, one for a two-Test series in October and the other for a triangular tournament, which will also in include India, in January and February.
Given Zimbabwe's decline in the last three years - mainly for political reasons - right now is scarcely the best time to take on world-champions Australia. In their one and only previous encounter in 1999-00, Australia won by ten wickets and the form-book would indicate more of the same.
But Zimbabwe's young players will learn from the experience, and they must hope to give at least a marginally better account of themselves this time. The more experienced players consider Australia to be the most sporting of their opponents. That may surprise many, but then the Australian players do not consider Zimbabwe a threat or an annoyance.
On current form, Zimbabwe cannot expect to match either West Indies or Sri Lanka, even though both have suffered dismal overseas records in recent years. However, they both won in Zimbabwe the last time they played, and that was when Zimbabwe were considerably stronger than they are today.
The most interesting series, then, will be against Bangladesh, who have improved remarkably since the last World Cup. Only the brilliance of Inzamam-ul-Haq prevented them from recording their first Test victory recently, over Pakistan, and they will now have Zimbabwe in their sights. They will have the home advantage, but Zimbabwe will certainly have to fight hard to stay ahead of Bangladesh.
Each visiting team will now play five ODIs instead of three, of which three will be played in Harare, and the other two in Bulawayo. That means Harare will host what is probably a world-record of 12 ODIs in a season.
Against everyone apart from Bangladesh, it is quite possible that Zimbabwe will struggle to be competitive. They have only one world-class player in Heath Streak, the captain, who is streets ahead of anybody else with the ball and is also worth his place on his batting alone. If he gets injured, Zimbabwe will indeed be in dire straits. Grant Flower appeared to be on the verge of greatness six years ago, but a chronic lack of form and confidence have reduced his average from 40 to 30, and he has never quite recovered against international bowling, although still a terror against lesser opponents.
Stuart Carlisle, meanwhile, has played the occasional dazzling innings in one-day cricket, but has yet to master the world stage. Only these three of the party that went to England have played in even 20 Test matches, such is the paucity of experience in the Zimbabwe team at present.
Having said that, there is youthful talent in abundance, especially among the allrounders. Andy Blignaut (25), Travis Friend (22), Sean Ervine (20) and Mluleki Nkala (22) are all players who both bat and bowl with great ability, and whose best years are ahead of them. Blignaut has already displayed some talent, but the other three all have a long way to go. The good news is that, if they stay in the country, they are capable of making it to the top.
Other players still finding their feet, but with the ability to succeed, include Dion Ebrahim, Stuart Matsikenyeri, Douglas Hondo, Douglas Marillier and Raymond Price. Tatenda Taibu, aged only 20 and already vice-captain, is now a name on many lips, and it is hoped that Hamilton Masakadza, currently at the University of the Free State in South Africa, will be able to make up for lost time. Craig Wishart, harshly treated by the selectors over the years, may finally find his experience and powerful batting appreciated after it was missed on the England tour, while opener Mark Vermeulen, it is hoped, will get his head right and fulfil a promising career.
One major gap in Zimbabwean cricket, to which Streak among others has frequently drawn attention to, has been the lack of cricket played by the Zimbabwe A team. This season the administrators have done their best to make up for this by scheduling first-class matches for Zimbabwe A against all four touring teams, and also by organizing a tour by Sri Lanka A in January and February. As with the senior tours, their programme will include two unofficial Tests and five one-day matches. A tour to Namibia took place in August, with two first-class matches played against the full Namibian team.
At domestic level, the Logan Cup will again be played when, as far as possible, all the international players will be available, namely in September and then again in March and April. The same four provincial sides will take part and play each other home and away, giving a total of six matches per side. The inter-provincial one-day tournament, scheduled for December, will involve every team playing each of the others three times, meaning nine matches per side in total.
In club cricket the news is less satisfactory. The national league, beset by mushrooming expenses and transport problems, has been suspended, and instead each of the four provinces will hold its own club competition. As was predictable, most of the leading players from elsewhere are signing up with Harare clubs to give themselves the strongest possible competition, much to the detriment of the game in the other provinces. It would surely have been a better plan to have kept the national league intact at first-league level only.
Last season was probably the worst Zimbabwe have ever experienced, with the loss of the inspirational Andy Flower the greatest blow of all. This time round however, it is hoped that they will begin to claw their way out of the trough. The talent is there, though still very raw. Provided there is no more damage done by politics and economics, Zimbabwe can look forward to a brighter future with cautious optimism. But there is still an immense amount of work to be done.