Zimbabwe December 27, 2008

Bleaker than ever

Things got worse than they were in 2007, with a loss to Uganda, chokes against Sri Lanka, and the effects of the worsening political and economic turmoil

Down and all but out: Zimbabwe's cricket situation continues to worsen © AFP

Given the escalating social and economic turmoil inside the country, it was hardly surprising that there was little cheer on Zimbabwe's cricket front. There is even an argument that simply keeping the sport alive represented an achievement on the part of Zimbabwe Cricket.

That having played so little - in the entire year they managed only 12 ODIs - they continued to receive substantial ICC funding remained a contentious point. Zimbabwe's results hardly appeased their critics, with 0-5 whitewashes in Pakistan in February, and at home to Sri Lanka in November. In between they contrived to lose an ODI to Kenya, and most embarrassingly to Uganda, and tied a Twenty20 international with Canada. Their one win of any consequence was against Ireland in a rain-hit triangular tournament in Nairobi.

Zimbabwe did punch above their weight in the political arena. Although the long-awaited independent audit commissioned by the ICC highlighted some serious flaws, the executive decided that no one person was to blame. Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, found that unpalatable, and weeks later lost his job as a result of his refusing to attend a press conference to announce the findings.

But even the ICC's unquestioning support began to waver when faced with the loss of hard dollars, and ZC chairman Peter Chingoka was forced to agree that Zimbabwe would withdraw from the ICC World Twenty20 in England in 2009 rather than risk a showdown with the UK government, which had made clear he was unwelcome. The board's lingering claims to be apolitical were all but blown away three weeks later when Chingoka was banned by the European Union for "having publicly supported the terror campaign carried out before and during the [March 2008] election".

The virtual revolving-door approach to the appointment of a national coach hardly helped the team. Robin Brown, who had slowed if not arrested the slide, and instilled some self-belief in a young side, was dumped unceremoniously when his one-year contract came up for renewal - rumours of major rows with the executive had been doing the rounds for months - and his replacement was the unknown Walter Chawaguta, a fringe first-class player, and A team and Under-19 coach. Within months it was abundantly clear he was out of his depth, and he found his job was being advertised on the ZC website. A replacement had not been found at the time of writing.

The rumblings of discontent among the players continued. Brendan Taylor fell out with the board and opted to head to England and then Australia; former captain Terry Duffin did likewise, and other fringe players sought contracts in South Africa. Tatenda Taibu, who in 2005 walked out after claiming threats had been made against his family with the knowledge of the board, ended the year again in dispute - and in court - after an alleged altercation with a ZC official.

Domestic tournaments did take place, but the veneer that the game still had a national hold was brushed aside when it emerged that provincial sides were being bolstered by players bussed in from Harare. Even then, the quality of matches was poor. Representative sides did gain vital experience in South Africa's second-tier domestic competitions, but that lifeline was withdrawn when Cricket South Africa's president, Norman Arendse, cut ties for political rather than cricketing reasons.

The mess inside the country meant more and more grounds became unusable, victims of hyperinflation that made obtaining parts and fuel for machinery all but impossible. The collapse of the water-supply companies earlier this month just made an already wretched existence even worse.

Peter Chingoka: increasingly invisible but still influential © AFP

New kid on the block
Despite being a young side, Zimbabwe blooded only two new faces in 2008, a reflection on the lack of alternatives rather than a sign that they had settled on their best squad. The best hope seems to be wicketkeeper-batsman Regis Chakabva, who scored 41 in his only ODI, but who might feature more if Taibu's relationship with the board continues to deteriorate.

Fading star
Chingoka was last year's nominee, but he has held on so far by the skin of his teeth. His EU-wide ban was a blow to a man with interests in the UK, and after his ICC climb-down he became increasingly invisible. He still has friends in high places in the ICC, but that will not be enough to save him if Robert Mugabe is toppled.

High point
The best moments came in the third, fourth and fifth ODIs against Sri Lanka. After two thumping losses, Zimbabwe put themselves in good positions to win the last three matches, only to choke in the final furlong. Their lack of experience was largely to blame, but at least it showed they could come close.

Low point
Aside from withdrawing from the ICC World Twenty20, Zimbabwe's remarkable collapse in the first ODI against Sri Lanka was car-crash viewing for the faithful inside the Harare Sports Club. Cruising at 124 for 3, they managed to lose seven wickets for three runs in four overs. Numbers 6 to 11 all made ducks.

What 2009 holds
This is outside the control of ZC or the ICC. If Mugabe's 28-year rule ends, the board can start rebuilding, and the ICC's help will rarely have been more vital. While there can be no overnight solution, a number of former players and coaches are likely to be tempted back, and overseas investment will follow. Chingoka and his sidekicks will depart in the aftershocks of any regime change, paving the way for a less political and more focussed executive. If Mugabe survives, then by the end of 2009 it is possible that cricket in Zimbabwe will be limited to a handful of grounds and a few dozen diehard players. It really has got to that stage.

Steven Price is a freelance journalist based in Harare