Annual review: Zimbabwe January 3, 2005

A few sparks amid the gloom

Heath Streak lost the fight with the ZCU but stayed to fight bigger battles © Getty Images
Zimbabwe cricket was rarely out of the headlines in 2004, but sadly for all the wrong reasons. But a year which had at times threatened Zimbabwe's very future on the international stage ended with signs that the future might not be all gloomy. But as with so much in Zimbabwe, the shoots could so easily be crushed.

The year was dominated by the Heath Streak affair. What at first seemed to be a little local difficulty between Streak and some of the national selectors rapidly escalated into something far more serious - a schism between the old guard and the new. The row was about cricket but was a battle repeated across so many walks of life under the government of Robert Mugabe.

The affair rumbled on throughout the summer, with both sides growing increasingly polarised and accustations flying here, there and everywhere. By the time the ICC sat to hear both sides' arguments, most people were heartily sick of the whole situation.

In the end there were no winners. Streak and his fellow rebels lost their fight, undermined by public indifference, some PR for their own goals, and the desire of the ICC to wash over the whole affair and get on with the game. A few atrikers drifted back, others emigrated, and one or two, including Streak himself, stayed to fight bigger battles.

The Zimbabwe Cricket Union claimed victory, but it was at best pyrrhic, and several of its leading officials emerged with reputations severely tarnished. In October it reinvented itself as Zimbabwe Cricket, with a logo allegedly designed by chairman Peter Chingoka's wife but seemingly knocked up by one of his pre-school nephews.

The massive - and expensive - rebranding exercise was aimed at drawing a line under the old regime. But it was a disastrous own goal, attracting the anger of many stakeholders of all colours and political persuasions, and the year ended with civil war looming and the Logan Cup, Zimbabwe's domestic competition, facing a series of boycotts.

But there were reasons to be cheerful. The youngsters thrown into the lion's den by the strike initially looked like rabbits caught in car headlights, but despite some heavy defeats, they started to show that they might be up to the task and that there was some real talent. In the Under-19 World Cup, Zimbabwe's youngsters hinted at what the future might hold when they skittled Australia for 73, Tinashe Panyangara taking 6 for 31, to eliminate the favourites from the main competition.

And away from the international spotlight, those few journalists who were eventually allowed into the country to report on the England tour - and the government's attempt to ban a random selection of scribes showed up the ZCU's claims to be apolitical for the joke many always suspected - sent back stories of the ability on show at some of the country's clubs and schools.

On the field, Zimbabwe were probably overtaken in Tests and one-dayers by Bangladesh - January's series will confirm each country's standings - and ended the year as cricket's whipping boys.

Even without the defection of 15 players - the reality was that only half a dozen of them were losses to the national side - Zimbabwe faced growing difficulties on the field. The year began with drubbing after drubbing in Australia's VB Series, and went downhill from there.

Tatenda Taibu: moulded a side from close to nothing © Getty Images

Admittedly, the home Test series against Bangladesh was won 1-0, but it was a struggle, as was the subsequent one-day series which Zimbabwe edged 2-1 (giving them their only two wins from 25 ODIs during 2004). After the strike, the results took on an even more distorted feel, and rarely can a series have been as unappetising and one-sided as the one against Sri Lanka which followed.

Australia's visit in April and May was overshadowed by political argument and a growing feeling among the tourists that they didn't want to be there. The one-day series was won by Australia 0-3 - they barely broke sweat - and, mercifully for cricket as whole, the subsequent Test series was postponed at the 11th hour. By the time Zimbabwe resumed their international commitments, against England in November, they were developing a hardened shell.

The inexperience was still all too evident and will undermine Zimbabwe's best efforts for some time. But the side will get better, given time, encouragement, and investment. The hope for 2005 is that the ZCU's leadership stops pursing its own agenda and starts working for the good of the game in Zimbabwe. Don't hold your breath.

Top Performers

Tatenda Taibu Even in the pre-strike days he was a fixture in the side, but the departure of Streak saw him handed the captaincy aged only 20, and barely a side to speak of. But he distanced himself from the politics - those who criticised him for doing so really didn't understand quite what a difficult task he had anyway - and knuckled down to the job in hand. He moulded a side from nothing, and in the early days was the No. 1 batsman, wicketkeeper and seam bowler as well. The only worry was that the burden affected his own form as the year went on, but it was hardly surprising, and it will return. Taibu is a class act.

Elton Chigumbura Chucked in at the deep end after Streak's departure, 18-year-old Chigumbura took a few games to find his feet but quickly showed that he possessed bundles of talent with 77 against Australia and then two fifties against England. The second one of those, a 47-ball 52 in the first home ODI against England, really gave Zimbabwe cricket the first reason to smile in a long time. A powerful hitter of the ball, his undoing was often a lemming-like desire to smack everything out of the ground, but that will change in time. The skill is there in bundles. He is also a useful medium-pace bowler.

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Zimbabwe in 2004