Zimbabwe cricket February 10, 2009

Flickers of hope for Zimbabwe

It might be premature, and whisper it quietly, but there are signs that Zimbabwe cricket might have finally turned the corner

Zimbabwe move towards another win during their 5-0 whitewash of Kenya © Cricinfo
It might be premature, and whisper it quietly, but there are signs that Zimbabwe cricket might have finally turned the corner.

While there have been moments of encouragement over the last six, dark years, most famously when they beat Australia in the ICC World Twenty20 Championships in 2007, they have almost always been fleeting, and the crash back to reality swift.

But this time there is a feeling that there is something more substantial to recent successes.

At the end of last year, Zimbabwe were whitewashed by Sri Lanka in an ODI series in Harare. And yet, despite the scoreline, some of the games went to the wire, and in at least two of them Zimbabwe threw away winning positions, testimony to their lack of experience more than ability. Learning to pace an innings rather than always adopting a crash-bang-wallop approach comes with time.

In Bangladesh last month, Zimbabwe again showed that they could no longer be considered cricket's perennial whipping boys, with two wins in four meetings against the hosts. The five-match series in Kenya, which was touted locally as the Kenyans chance to prove they were better than Zimbabwe, was as one-sided as contest as you will hope to see. The bullied had turned bully.

There has been no overnight transformation in the Zimbabwe side. Over the last couple of years the emphasis has been on things that could easily be improved. As a result, the fielding has come on in leaps and bounds, and accepting that there are no genuine fast bowlers to be had, a line-up of tight spinners and nagging seamers has been assembled. This works well in the one-day game, but before anyone gets too excited, they would be ripped apart in a Test. For now, fortunately, it's only ODIs that Zimbabwe have to worry about.

The biggest problem, and one that to an extent remains, has been the batting. Under Kevin Curran, the young cricketers were schooled to bat through an innings and forget about winning. The result was a side devoid of self-belief and without the ability to play an innings the situation demanded. The general demoralised air of a side which went into every game looking to limit the scale of the loss was clear for all to see.

Robin Brown, who succeeded Curran, instilled confidence and gradually encouraged the batsmen to play to their strengths. What the batsmen need now is to play more in as many different conditions as possible. To that end, the invitation from the Indian board for Zimbabwe to take part in its domestic tournaments can only be good.

They are also crying out for specialist coaches, something harder to attract given the state of the country as a whole. When the head coach position was advertised recently there were no credible applicants from outside Zimbabwe. Without top-class coaching, there is only so much that can be achieved.

In the long periods when Zimbabwe have no matches, the board should encourage its contracted cricketers to play abroad. If that means using some of the ICC millions that comes its way to subsidise them, then so be it. They will learn more playing league cricket in Europe or South Africa or Australia than they ever will taking part in domestic cricket at home, and they will be able to draw on top coaches as well.

It is early days but finally there is cause for hope. Whether that's enough for cricket to overcome Zimbabwe's other overwhelming social and economic problems is another matter. But at least there is hope.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa