Zimbabwe December 25, 2016

Some sparks, mostly gloom

Their results showed that there is still talent within Zimbabwe's ranks, but how can cricket flourish while the country grapples with larger problems?

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Zimbabwe's player of the year: Craig Ervine

To have lived in Zimbabwe in 2016 was to deal daily with loss: of small dignities, major rights, the desiccated remains of a dysfunctional economy, and much more besides. Zimbabweans have been learning to live with austerity in a make-a-plan culture for as long as many can remember, and the cricketers are not immune to these daily erosions. Many sportspeople occupy a bubble in their society, floating securely to the top, safeguarded from the quotidian struggles of the masses. Not so for Zimbabwe's cricketers. They have to deal with these problems the same as anyone else. They live under the same Zimbabwean stars, the same unforgiving sun. They too have to make a plan.

An inability to adapt to such a way of life must surely have played a part in coach Dav Whatmore's frustrations, if not his eventual departure in May, for he was surely pushed. That Zimbabwe ushered in 2016 with a series defeat to Afghanistan could not have helped his case, but his tempestuous departure aside, Whatmore had at least changed the atmosphere around the team for the better, and the win percentages under him were slightly higher than Zimbabwe's all-time record. Batsmen were scoring hundreds. Bowlers were chugging along gamely. But Whatmore was an orthodox coach in an abnormal situation - he never even got the chance to coach Zimbabwe through a Test match - and in the end he must have just pissed off the wrong people. He insisted that his eyes were "open" going into the position, but could he see the Zimbabwean gestalt? Could he make a plan when things went wrong?

Neville Madziva restricted India to five runs in the final over to give Zimbabwe a two-run win in the first T20, in Harare © Associated Press

After their defeat to Afghanistan in Sharjah, Whatmore went with Zimbabwe to the World T20 in March, with a pit stop in Bangladesh that probably gave more hope than was warranted, because they were out of the World T20 before many teams had even arrived. It certainly did not feel like they were at the same competition as their haughty cousins in cricket's top eight, but after narrow wins over Hong Kong and Scotland, and yet another defeat to Afghanistan, perhaps downstairs with the plebs is where they belong.

Their temporary removal from the ICC Test rankings table (for not playing the required eight Tests in the rating period) in May, shortly before Whatmore's sacking, and their ghastly capitulation in the blink-of-an-eye one-day series against India shortly afterwards, seemed to reinforce that notion. Zimbabwe were going the way of Kenya, Whatmore warned. Was it really that bad? At the time, I certainly thought so.

But Zimbabwe, and their cricket team, have a way of letting a little light in just when you think that darkness has descended with finality. There's always a plan to be made. No coach? Have an interim step in. Why not Makhaya Nitini? And so it was that, days after the third in a trifecta of ever more demeaning ODI humiliations at the hands of India, Zimbabwe rose to deny the same team, and MS Dhoni no less, in the opening T20. The set-up was familiar but the denouement a singular rarity: Dhoni on strike, four to win, one ball remaining. An honest medium-pacer at the end of his run. And then Neville Madziva bowled the perfect ball to match his asymmetric, off-side field and better the Great Finisher. Zimbabwe couldn't rise to the same levels in the T20s that followed, but they had done enough to show that there were still grounds for hope.

Graeme Cremer scored his first Test hundred this year and shaped into a forward-looking captain of the side © Associated Press

Circumstances then dealt Zimbabwe their first Test match in 619 days, against New Zealand at the end of July. They were as green as one might expect, and adding to the melodrama, the countrywide #thisflag protests then spilled into the sporting arena, and in the 36th over of the second Test (symbolically signifying the 36 years of Robert Mugabe's rule), the crowd stood to sing the national anthem. A few arrests were made, and by the end of the year, police were taking flags off people entering Queens Sports Club, a truly bizarre state of affairs for an international sporting event.

Yet one feels that it probably shocked new coach Heath Streak less than it would have Whatmore. A dyed-in-the-wool Zimbo, fluent isiNdebele speaker and Matabeleland stalwart, Streak is inevitably more in tune with Zimbabwe's topsy-turvy way of life. Despite coming into the job just weeks before the Tests against Sri Lanka, he managed to stoke a fresh buzz out of his charges, resting on the truism that one "doesn't need talent to fight". Next to him, Graeme Cremer began to come of age as a leader, striking his first Test hundred and very nearly saving a match for Zimbabwe. Streak and Cremer seem to make a good combination, plan-makers both, while Ntini and Lance Klusener add further quality to the coaching department, and the second coming of Tatenda Taibu, as convenor of selectors, brings a fresh perspective.

The coaching-captaincy combination certainly deserves kudos for their tactically bold decisions during the tri-series in November, such as opening the bowling with Tendai Chisoro and Sikandar Raza in the win over West Indies. Debuting Tarisai Musakanda in the final was another such move, and these are the sort of left-field plans Zimbabwe have to continue making if they are going to keep up with a constantly evolving game, with do-or-die qualification for the 2019 World Cup looming.

Zimbabwe's fans turned out to support their side and also make a political statement, during the second Test against New Zealand in Bulawayo © AFP

The tri-series ended Zimbabwe's international year. The start of the domestic season in December was first delayed because of logistical reasons, and then a match was interrupted in Bulawayo after players went on strike to protest not having been paid. Zimbabwe Cricket assured them that the outstanding payments would be made, but will the domestic cricketers be paid in the new, make-believe "bond note" currency, or in real money? Who knows? What could possibly come next, and how do we make a plan around it? So it goes, life in Zimbabwe.

High point
Zimbabwe's bowlers will be pleased with what they learned in the two last-over heists they pulled off in 2016. The first, in one of the T20s against India, had a whiff of déjà vu about it, coming almost exactly a year since Zimbabwe's last T20 win over India, in similar circumstances. The second, the the tied match against West Indies, is perhaps a little more special for the rarity and romance of such a finish in cricket. With just three runs to defend, Donald Tiripano used his homespun slower ball to set up three wickets. The magic even engulfed wicketkeeper Peter Moor, who, after all his fumbles behind the stumps, ended the match with an ice-cold, pinpoint throw under massive pressure.

Low point
When Zimbabwe are bad, they are truly awful. Such was the case in the three mid-year ODIs against India. Zimbabwe lost 29 wickets in the pursuit of a measly 417 runs, while India needed to expend just three wickets to chase down the same, in 35 fewer overs. The normally amicable fans held up handwritten signs expressing their dismay, with some going so far as suggesting the cricketers should be arrested for treason. This was a depth not plumbed for years.

Twenty-five-year old batsman-keeper Peter Moor scored two half-centuries in Tests and one in ODIs this year © AFP

New kid on the block
The fresh faces in Zimbabwe's squad all brought something new and exciting with them, but it was Peter Moor's batting that perhaps gave the most grounds for optimism. Only Hamilton Masakadza, with 28, hit more sixes than him this year (21 in 22 innings across all formats), and Moor made an impression in both long- and short-format cricket. His glovework left much to be desired but he is as attacking on the field as he is amicable off it, and it's a healthy-looking XI with his name in it.

Fading stars
Churchill High School in Harare has impressive cricketing alumni, many of whom have formed the core of the national side for years, but in 2016 the returns from Churchill's "golden years" team began to fall away. Elton Chigumbura's one innings of note, a half-century that included seven monstrous sixes and helped set up Zimbabwe's T20 win over India, left one yearning for more, but in eight ODI innings he scored just 67 runs at an average of 8.37, with two ducks.

Hamilton Masakadza's form deserted him in the second half of the year, and by November he was no longer assured of a place in the side. On the bowling front, Zimbabwe missed Tinashe Panyangara's experience and wiles as injuries plagued him. All three have more to give, but time is running out.

What 2017 holds
For starters, Zimbabwe will have the longest domestic season in their history to plow through.

If there's one thing that matches Zimbabweans' ability to "make a plan", it's their propensity for propagating rumours. By the end of the year, there were whispers about the possible resumption of cricketing ties between England and Zimbabwe. There had been speculation that England might send a representative women's side to Zimbabwe in 2016, and though nothing came of that, it appears "talks" have continued. In November, Catriona Laing, the British ambassador, met with Zimbabwe's sports minister, Makhosini Hlongwane, and perhaps something will come of that in 2017. There is certainly plenty of space in Zimbabwe's cricketing calendar. As they won't be taking part in the Associates T20 tournament in January, their next scheduled games are away, in Sri Lanka, in June. Beyond that, one should pay attention to whoever is in spots seven, eight and nine in the ICC's ODI rankings for clues as to who might come looking for some cricket in 2017. With the cut-off for automatic qualification for the next World Cup looming in September, Zimbabwe might not be the only team needing to make a plan next year.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town