Was dropping Brendan Taylor warranted?
To speak of Zimbabwe cricket and certainty in the same breath is to speak of white Christmases in Africa: they just do not happen. The former sways between changes to the structures, payment delays and a fixture list that can make the shifting sands of the Arabian desert seem stable when compared with cricket in the country, but one man changed that. Brendan Taylor.
Since making his debut in April 2004, Taylor has been involved in almost every ODI - the format Zimbabwe play most often - his country has taken part in. Almost, because in 2008, he missed out on 17 ODIs after making himself unavailable because of a dispute with the board and a year before that he was dropped for the last match of a series in Bangladesh and the return home series after notching up scores of 1, 1 and 4 in the three games prior to his axing.
Apart from those games where Taylor was left out, poor form had never accounted for his place in the XI until Thursday. With Zimbabwe 2-nil down in a three-match series and batting their broken element, their most experienced top-order player, Taylor, was left out. He was not injured, he was not being rested, he was dropped.
The disbelief resonated from the commentary box to social media platforms were questions over whether a return of 20 runs from the two matches that preceded the final fixture was reason enough to bench the man who put on 93 in a Test a week earlier and scored a half-century and a 43 against Afghanistan in the last month's contest. Zimbabwe's coach Stephen Mangongo believed it was.
"It's a professional sport, there is always pressure. It is not Boozer's XI," Mangongo said. "It is a privilege to be selected, it is not a right. Whether you get one game or 20, there is always pressure and if you are professional and you get paid to do the job you must go and do the job."
The truth is that almost no one among Zimbabwe's specialist batsmen were doing their job. Although their margins to South Africa defeat got smaller as the series went on, their methods of getting to those results grew worse because of their batting. Mangongo acknowledged that the efforts were lopsided with the tail wagging the dog quite literally.
"The lower order batted with a lot of courage, a lot of determination, a lot of pride and dignity. They put runs on the board more than the top order," he said. "Obviously we've got our work cut out for us in terms of the top order. It has been a perennial struggle and we've still got that problem on our hands. We've got to confront the demons and deal with them and get it right at some stage if we want to compete, let alone beat international sides."
In attempting to piece the puzzle together Zimbabwe trialled different combinations, all unsuccessfully. The Vusi Sibanda-Richmond Mutumbami pair yielded 16 runs before Hamilton Masakadza, who came in at No. 3 steadied things. When Masakadza was promoted into Sibanda's spot for the second game, he put on 21 runs with Mutumbami but Sikandar Raza who was installed at No. 3 did not score at all. On their second go, Masakadza and Mutumbami were out in the first two overs and while Raza showed promise, it was up to Elton Chigumbura, promoted into Taylor's spot, to give the innings a backbone.
Exactly what Zimbabwe gleaned from all that is probably only that Masakadza should not be opening. Although he has scored most of his runs at the top, he has admitted to being more comfortable at first-drop. Sibanda's talent has bought time often in the past but whether it will continue to do so with both Raza and Mutumbami around is doubtful, unless Mutumbami moves down. There may be a case for Chigumbura being given more time at the crease but there is doesn't seem to be any for leaving Taylor out, something which seems to be happening increasingly.
Taylor was stripped of the ODI captaincy after the Afghanistan series as part of a plan to unburden him. He was also taken off wicketkeeping duty, which Mangongo explained before the South Africa series. "I'm looking at a specialist role. I don't believe in part-timers," he said. "Wicketkeeping is a key role and I need the best man for the job, not a part-timer and that is the route we are going to do. BT is going to specialise in his batting, not keeping. That's his role. We will look at a specialist keeper to do the job."
Mangongo promised to be equally harsh on other players who did not pull their weight. "Nobody is safe. We are coming from bruising encounters with Afghanistan where we have slid to our lowest levels - losing to an Associate member. It just tells you that there is something wrong here and we need to fix it," he said. "This is part of the roadmap to fixing it and making sure we are competitive against the top teams and we thrash the Associates. Nobody is safe because we haven't done well."
Sibanda experienced that recently and now, so has Taylor. Although his dropping is proving more difficult for Zimbabwean fans to stomach. Taylor's decade with the national team has included acts that have made him a hero to people of varying backgrounds.
Taylor refused to join the white-player walkout because he felt he was too young to involve himself politically and wanted to play for Zimbabwe. Although he had a dispute with the board in the years when chaos reigned, his was shortlived. On Test return, he led from the front. When more players walked away, he remained and that is not for lack of opportunity to follow them.
As recently as the eve of the South Africa Test there were whispers that Taylor was contemplating a Kolpak offer. He denied that and confirmed he had resigned with ZC for the next year. Following his axing, he posted on Twitter: "I can't wait to represent my country again. I will be back," he posted on Thursday."
Mangongo's uncompromising approach that will keep people on their toes is something to be lauded in an environment where mediocrity has been accepted too often. That said, Taylor has seldom been the protagonist of those middling times and so he has probably earned some time to remain flat-footed. The tri-series will tell.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent