Zimbabwe in 2006 December 29, 2006

Little cause for optimism

Steven Price reviews Zimbabwe's year in 2006

Brendan Taylor and Blessing Mahwire celebrate Zimbabwe's sensational win against Bangladesh in August ... but it was a rare high © AFP
Well, at least 2006 wasn't as bad as the two previous years but, given what Zimbabwe have been through, that hardly represents anything to write home about - although it was still progress of sorts.

Whereas 2004 and 2005 were dominated by off-the-field events, at least Zimbabwe played enough cricket to enable critics to see what their new side, shorn of most players of experience or pedigree by the sapping infighting and the country's social decline, were made of.

The results surprised few. Kenya bloodied their noses in March, there was a woefully and predictably one-sided tour of the Caribbean in May, and the year ended with dismal showings in South Africa, the Champions Trophy and finally Bangladesh. In between there was a brief burst of sunlight as Bangladesh were beaten 3-2 in Zimbabwe but, sadly, it proved to be a false dawn. A young side with scant facilities, playing against a backdrop of a nation in chaos, could not be expected to do any better.

According to the ICC's official rankings, Zimbabwe started the Champions Trophy one place above Bangladesh. The folly of that assessment became clear to all as Zimbabwe turned in three limp performances, failing to reach 150 or bat out their overs in any of their three matches. Worse was to come in Bangladesh when all five ODIs were lost without any real fight, meaning that the year ended with 12 straight one-day defeats.

Of the 29 ODIs played in 2006, eight were won, with the three home victories over Bangladesh the only ones over a Full Member country. In many of the defeats Zimbabwe made no attempt to win, opting to try to bat out time rather than go for runs. It was arguably an understandable strategy in the Caribbean, but it looked increasingly pointless and counter-productive as the year went on.

There was no Test cricket either. In January, the government-backed Sports & Recreation Commission took over the administration of the game after the in-fighting between the beleaguered Zimbabwe Cricket board and the country's stakeholders neared a final showdown with moves, led by former supreme court judge Ahmed Ebrahim, to topple the Peter Chingoka-led regime.

The SRC immediately reappointed Chingoka as interim chairman, despite widespread accusations of financial mismanagement levelled against him and his cronies. One of the first acts of the "new" regime was to suspend the country from playing Test cricket for the second time in as many years. While most thought that signalled the end of Zimbabwe as a Test-playing country, the ICC blithely chose to pretend all was well, largely because of the schmoozing of Chingoka among the game's great and good - and his ingratiation with the powerful Indian board didn't harm his cause - and in October announced they would resume Test cricket in November 2007.

Prosper Utseya ponders life in Bangladesh. The discovery of the Caribbean tour, his form fell away alarmingly once he was given the added responsibility of captaincy © AFP
If the SRC takeover was meant to herald a new dawn, it failed. Chingoka sought to alleviate accusations of financial impropriety by implementing a forensic audit by "a firm of auditors of international repute". In reality, a small, local firm in Harare was appointed; its report has never surfaced and all enquiries about it are met with silence. The continuing presence of Chingoka, the man who has presided over the rapid decline of a once thriving sport and whose every move seems to be based on what suits him rather than cricket, was often too depressing for words.

In a move that would have warmed the heart of Zimbabwe Cricket's patron - Robert Mugabe - Chingoka swept the local provinces of all stakeholders who opposed him and appointed a rag-bag of sycophants with almost no cricketing background. The long-established provinces were scrapped and replaced with ten new organisations and, in the most cynical move of all, the constitution was rewritten, making it impossible for the board to be challenged ever again. The last move was too much even for the SRC, and discussions over the structure of that constitution meant that no elections were held in 2006. Even if they had been, the outcome, so efficiently had the system been manipulated, would have been as depressingly predictable as that of the ICC's factfinding mission, headed by Percy Sonn, in August.

There wasn't even any domestic cricket worth speaking about. The Faithwear Cup, the country's one-day tournament, descended into farce in February when most leading players boycotted it, and the sides that turned out were so bad as to be ridiculed even in the government-controlled media.

And the country's once prestigious first-class competition, the Logan Cup, which had been played constantly for more than a century - world wars excepted - was cancelled, although for months nobody was told. Even then, ZC tried to claim that it had not been cancelled, insisting that the dates of the seasons had been amended, before admitting the truth. A full programme is promised for 2007, but ZC's promises tend to have much flexibility built in.

New man on the block
Offspinner Prosper Utseya, who was widely praised for his flight and accuracy in the Caribbean, was the outstanding performer of the early part of the year. Sadly, he was appointed captain in July, even though he is only 21, and his form disintegrated under the added pressure. Given time and some space, he could still be a genuine international player. The other rising star is Sean Williams, the former Under-19 captain who walked away from the national game in April only to return in September. He showed enough form - and importantly, maturity - in Bangladesh in December to suggest he might have what it takes.

Fading star
Not so much a fading star as someone whose presence showed the lack of talent available to the selectors. A rotund top-order biffer, Piet Rinke was called-up in February, despite not having played much cricket for two years, and initially he justified that gamble by clubbing two fifties against Kenya. But against anything decent he was all at sea and his technique clinically ripped apart. In the Caribbean he managed 23 runs in six innings - including a streaky 12 in the final match - and in 11 outings against Full Member countries he amassed 48 runs at 4.36.

The burnt-out remains of the Academy © Cricinfo
High point
The series win at home to Bangladesh was the one highlight in the year. Even though Zimbabwe were the hosts, few expected Bangladesh to stumble so badly against such an inexperienced side. Zimbabwe won the opening game by two wickets in a real thriller, but they went one better five days later in the third match when Brendan Taylor, faced with the daunting task of scoring 17 off the final over, smashed Mashrafe Mortaza for two sixes - the second off the last ball with five to win - to spark rare scenes of delight among the local diehards.

Low point
In November, a fire destroyed the Zimbabwe Academy buildings, one of the game's few tangible assets. ZC officials disgracefully - and briefly - tried to blame plotting by those opposed to the board, but the reality was that it was the desperate act of a mentally ill man, former Test cricketer Mark Vermuelen. His past was littered with odd behaviour, but a serious skull fracture he sustained in an ODI in Australia in 2003 was thought by many to have accelerated his decline. He needed care and treatment. The authorities threw the book at him.

What does 2007 hold?
Sadly, more of the same. The lure of the World Cup is the glue which has stuck the side together, papered over chasms and even lured a few old faces back. Once that is over, expect accelerated bloodletting and infighting. With the country's descent into social breakdown showing no signs of relenting, it is too much to expect cricket to prosper. How can people worry about a game when the average life expectancy is 36 years - the lowest in the world? The only hope is that domestic cricket at least takes place, that Chingoka and his lackeys finally do the decent thing and walk away, and that the ICC shows some common sense and keeps Zimbabwe sheltered from Test cricket. Don't hold your breath.

Zimbabwe in 2006
Matches Won Lost Tie/NR
ODIs 29 8 20 1