Zimbabwe's Southern Rocks franchise dissolved
Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) and its franchises will contract 55 players for the 2014-15 season, which will also see a shrinking of the domestic game. While 15 central contracts have been awarded and 40 domestic players will be signed up, the number of franchises has been cut from five to four with the Southern Rocks the team to have been dissolved.
The announcement brings certainty to a situation which has hovered in limbo since a series of player strikes of non-payment hit Zimbabwean cricket last summer. Financial difficulties meant that players - both national and domestic - went up to four months without salaries. They protested by boycotting the local competitions which caught the attention of the ICC.
In March, ICC CEO David Richardson and chief financial officer Faisal Hasnian visited Zimbabwe and recommended a series of cost-cutting measures including reducing the number of franchises and cricketers on contract. Now it appears ZC are implementing some of those measures as they look to reach stable ground which enable them to fulfill their international obligations.
Fielding a full-strength national side is the most important step to doing that and Zimbabwe's central contracts should make that easier. Along with the expected names of Brendan Taylor, Hamilton Masakadza, Prosper Utseya and Elton Chigumbura, Zimbabwe have contracted batsmen Sikandar Raza and Regis Chakabva and bowlers including Tinashe Panyangara and Tendai Chatara. Sean Williams, who was one of the players unsure of his position last season, has also been contracted.
In addition to those deals, ZC has also secured the services of six more players for international fixtures over the off-season through winter contracts. These agreements, which are typically three to four months long, will ensure the players are available for the Test against South Africa in August and the tri-series which follows and also includes Australia.
Most notable among the six winter contractees is Mark Vermeulen, the 35-year old batsman with a troubled past who is determined to give himself the best chance of playing international cricket again. The list also includes wicketkeeper Richmond Mutumbami, promising seamers Michael Chinouya and Donald Tiripano, offspinner John Nyumbu and batsman Timycen Maruma.
All six players on winter contracts will form part of the 40 that are contracted domestically as well. That means there is room for a further 34 cricketers to receive franchises deals in Zimbabwe which will run for the 2014-15 season. Previously, each of the five franchises contracted seven players - giving Zimbabwe a total of 35 on domestic retainers - so although the number of teams has been cut, the number of players who will earn money from the game has increased.
The Southern Rocks were expected to become defunct in April because they were regarded as the most financially unsustainable team in Zimbabwe's system. Apart from the costs involved in maintaining the facilities, housing players and transporting them to Masvingo - which lies 280 km south of Harare and the same distance east of Bulawayo, making it the least accessible franchise in terms of location - the Rocks only had sparse successes.
Although they won the 40-over competition in the second season of franchise cricket in 2010-11 the Rocks were mostly a middling side who struggled in first-class cricket in particular. Where they were adequate was in producing players for Zimbabwe, the most prominent of whom is left-arm seamer Brian Vitori.
ZC had a choice between holding on to the franchise in the hope it could be a source of development or sacrificing a team for the greater monetary good, at a time when the administration was suffering from spiraling debt. The latter always looked the better option. Add to that that ZC has lost many of the coaches it would use in the franchise system, with Grant Flower involved in Pakistan, Heath Streak in Bangladesh and Gary Brent no longer heading up the academy, the decision to erode the Southern Rocks appears practical.
If it means ZC will be able to pay players for the full duration of the 2014-15 season and meet all its commitments for incoming tours, it could also be a masterstroke in restoring the country's cricket credibility.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent