Much ado about nothing
It was a season that saw a lot of rancour and little action on the domestic front, with the only action on the international scene when Zimbabwe played hosts to New Zealand and India last September. Tatenda Taibu and Heath Streak were the big names then. It seems a million years ago.
The headlines were dominated by disputes between players, administrators and the board, and that impacted heavily on domestic cricket. The player drain robbed the provinces of talent, and bitter feuding between local and national officials led to clubs ceding from leagues. The net result was that precious little meaningful domestic cricket took place at the very time the national side was crying out for new talent.
The selectors picked a squad for series against Kenya based on a handful of farcical one-day games, and then had nothing more to go on when they sat down to pick the side for the West Indies trip.
On the home front, the country's major first-class competition, the Logan Cup, which has been staged for over a century in Zimbabwe and even survived the fighting in the 1970s, was not played. Board officials continue to insist that it will happen - the latest claim is that the seasons have been changed so it will now take place later in the year - but as Zimbabwe now heads into winter, it is hard to see how. The reasons for its postponement/cancellation (take your pick) are unclear, but critics claim that it is a combination of the financial problems which dog ZC and a fear that the standard would be dire.
The result was that young players had nowhere to test and improve themselves against the best of their peers. That should have worried the ICC, but as has so often been the case, it ignored what everyone else could see and entrusted the same people responsible for causing the mess to sort it out. Another domestic issue for it to brush off.
At least the Faithwear Cup, the inter-provincial one-day competition, did take place, but it very quickly became apparent that it lacked quality or credibility. The nadir came when Mashonaland weres forced to field a side so bad it was sad after their head selector, Bruce Makovah, refused to pick players from established clubs who he was rowing with. In four matches, only two Mashonaland players averaged over 10 with the bat (the best was 15.50) and only one passed 50 runs in all. The net result was that Matabeleland lifted the title with ease.
It was much the same at the next level down. There was a newly-structured National League, where the top teams from Mashonaland were set to play against the top two teams from Matabeleland and one from Midlands, Masvingo and Manicaland. The move was aimed at strengthening the domestic structure but the standard was desperately poor.
Established clubs in Mashonaland pulled out in protest against the leadership of MCA chairman Cyprian Mandenge, a man many seemed unwilling to trust. Matabeleland clubs subsequently followed suit when they refused to play in any form of cricket organised by Zimbabwe Cricket. At the time of writing, the rebel clubs were mulling over setting up a breakaway league.
In reality, a league of sorts was cobbled together, a move opponents claimed was little more than a cosmetic exercise. Few people, however, showed any interest and even the local media ignored it. At the time of writing, it has just concluded but few have had anything positive to report about quality or interest. One source said that those taking part had been promised much, but the reality was that they earned about ZW$300,000(US$1.50) per match.
Few outside Zimbabwe believe that the domestic structure is robust, despite the protestations of the board. As things stand, it is unclear whether there will be any credible local cricket in 2006-07.
The ZC board cannot afford another season like this one if the game is to survive in any meaningful form. No competitive cricket means that more players will be lost, and the pool of talent is so shallow at the moment, that could be fatal. If it manages nothing else in 2006-07, ZC has to grab the domestic structure by the scruff of the neck and make it work. That might mean some pride has to be swallowed by all concerned and some political/racial/personal scores put to one side. The alternative does not bear thinking about.
Although Zimbabwe is suspended from Tests, it will still receive the full allowance of several millions dollars it would as if all was normal. That money simply has to be used to keep grass-roots cricket alive and not, as many believe is the case, to fund a bloated administration. That, and not pursuing an unrealistic goal of returning to the Test arena in 2007, is what will define the future.