Zimbabwe v Kenya series review March 5, 2006

No winners in battle for African bragging rights

Terry Duffin, Zimbabwe's new captain, falls in the fourth and final match © AFP
On paper, Zimbabwe's five-match series against Kenya was about bragging rights as to which country could legitimately claim to be Africa's second-best side. That it ended in stalemate after the deciding match was washed out was probably fair, as neither side gave any indication that they were good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the South Africans.

It was a series that passed by with few even realising, even in Zimbabwe where the attendances at the games were very poor. Only on the Sunday at Bulawayo did the crowd even come close to a thousand. Local media coverage was unimpressive - especially for the two games at Queen's Club - and not even the local TV companies bothered to cover the matches. Overseas interest was non existent.

The standard of the cricket was not good, but both had legitimate excuses. Zimbabwe fielded a side that was hugely inexperienced under a captain that had never played an ODI. Few had played any meaningful cricket for some time, and had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with the authorities. Kenya, whose players are recovering from a dispute of their own which undermined their progress for almost two years, had not played an ODI since September 2004.

But Zimbabwe should, in theory, have wiped the floor with the Kenyans. While the Kenyans scrape by on a minimal budget, Zimbabwe's income from sponsorship, TV rights and ICC handouts runs into millions. They also had home advantage. While the authorities will look to put a positive spin on the outcome, the result should be a real worry.

They won the fourth game in Harare impressively, but their other win, in the opening match at Bulawayo, came against a Kenyan side who had been in the country 30 hours and whose one net session had been washed out. The Kenyans certainly felt they were caught in unfamiliar conditions and were tired. Zimbabwe' s batting against a very ordinary attack was unimpressive in the second match, and embarrassing in the third, where they were skittled for 69.

There were plusses. For Zimbabwe, Brendan Taylor looked good with the bat and opener Piet Rinke showed he could hit the ball, and if he can temper his attack-at-all-costs approach, he could be a useful asset. Ryan Higgins, one of three players from the Under-19 World Cup, impressed with his legspin even if his batting disappointed.

Kenya would have been encouraged by the good form of Kennedy Otieno with bat and gloves, and Thomas Odoyo, named Player of the Series, showed form with both bat and ball. Peter Ongondo, who triggered Zimbabwe's demise in the third match, finished with 11 wickets, more than any other bowler.

What this did show was that these two sides are probably scrapping for 10th and 11th places in the world rankings. The series between Bangladesh and Kenya later this month should confirm that there is now a big and growing gulf between the Bangladeshis and the two African countries.

Kenya will travel with more satisfaction. Five years ago, Zimbabwe would have wiped the floor with them, but now they are on level footing. The Kenyans could even argue that they have moved ahead of the Zimbabweans - the ICC rankings support that - when home advantage and a lack of preparation is taken into account. Like the Kenyans, it was vital for Zimbabwe to get matches under their belt. Kenya will probably solider on to the World Cup in a year's time before clearing the decks and bringing in more youth.

Zimbabwe have had a youth-first policy forced on them by internal disputes, but they have some youngsters with real promise, as the Under-19 side showed in Sri Lanka. The question remains whether Zimbabwe Cricket can keep them on board or whether they too will be allowed to drift - or be driven - away. With the cupboard almost bare, that simply cannot be allowed to happen.

After they turned down an invitation to meet Kenya and Bangladesh in a tri-series, Zimbabwe's next outing will be in the seven-match one-day series in the Caribbean. On the evidence of these games, they face some very difficult outings and probably one or two humiliations against a side desperate to get their own one-day form back on track.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo