Zimbabwe January 7, 2018

The see-saw men

Zimbabwe beat Sri Lanka away, and by year-end were obliterated by South Africa

It was that sort of year for Zimbabwe captain Graeme Cremer © AFP

Nothing much seems to faze Zimbabweans. In November, Logan Cup cricket was played through a military coup, or "definitely not a coup" as the country had been told by a man in military fatigues on the state broadcaster that morning. Men in whites played cricket at a ground literally across the road from State House, Robert Mugabe's official residence, as it all went down. Two months earlier some of the same players had been in Kabul (yes, that Kabul) as T20 freelancers, collecting happy snaps on social media and meeting President Ashraf Ghani for breakfast amid runs, wickets, and the odd bomb blast. It was a hell of a year, and this remains a mad, wonderful and challenging country in which to play cricket.

The domestic cricket season was eventually suspended against the backdrop of the old, familiar "cash flow problems". ZC's financial situation is hardly a secret, and the board's employees were on half their monthly salaries by the end of the year. With grounds to renovate for a World Cup Qualifier in just over three months, the postponement of the domestic season allows ZC to focus resources until the disbursement of monies from the next ICC funding cycle begins in January. And it's not just that the board is deep in the red and running on fumes until then, it's that even the money in the country, known as "bond notes", isn't real money. A kind of banknote rather than an actual currency, it is allegedly pegged to the value of the US dollar, but in reality it is part of a system moving towards different values for cash, electronic money, and various other currencies, and can only be used in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe remain a side able to make history at either end of the spectrum. The grisly scene of the second day in Port Elizabeth, when they lost 16 wickets for 159, offered proof, as did the day in June when they became the first team ever to successfully chase over 300 in an ODI in Sri Lanka, then going on to win a historic first series in that country. That one-day triumph and the dynamic performance in the Test that followed were achievements well worth celebrating. The same Zimbabwe then closed out the year by crumbling for 68 against South Africa: the lowest innings score in Tests across the world this year, Zimbabwe's fifth lowest ever, and one of the shortest completed Tests in history.

Elsewhere, they lost 2-3 to Afghanistan, whitewashed Canada, eased past Netherlands 2-1, shared the spoils in a two-match series with Scotland, and held West Indies to a draw in the second Test in Bulawayo, which aren't bad returns and are indicative of Zimbabwe's niche position between the Full Members and the Associates.

Three batsmen scored Test hundreds, two made ODI centuries, and captain Graeme Cremer topped the bowling charts, with 40 wickets in a Zimbabwe shirt, including List A games. New talent was unearthed without affecting continuity in selection, and Zimbabwe won six of the 12 ODIs they played. Mire and Masakadza have the makings of a potent opening pair, while reliable players are now vying for every position in the XI, none more so than Sikandar Razaaveraged 48.66 with the bat in internationals this year and also contributed 15 handy wickets, including a maiden Test five-for. While Brendan Taylor's return didn't bring immediate rewards, coach Heath Streak wasn't exaggerating when he said that Zimbabwe remain a team that "in short-format cricket can compete with any country".

Zimbabwean cricketers also got around a bit, playing in the aforementioned Shpageeza Cricket League in Afghanistan, and several also made it to the BPL. Some secured winter contracts playing club cricket in England. Even at the lower end of cricket's top table, players are becoming globetrotters. Overseas contracts helped to supplement salaries that were generally paid with some regularity, at least until the end of the year.

Can returning coach Heath Streak make a difference in 2018? © AFP

Off the field, with a reshuffle and some new faces, Zimbabwe's administrators had a decent year, all things considered, showing prudence, effective communication and clear strategy, which feels like an odd sentence to write, given recent history. Former ICC Chief Financial Officer Faisal Hasnain, who officially took over as ZC managing director from Wilfred Mukondiwa in June, joined chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani, convenor of selectors Tatenda Taibu, and the coach, Streak, in making up the backbone of ZC's administration.

Under their watch, ZC chose pragmatism and resisted the two-tier Test league proposal, managed to send the Rising Stars academy team to England for three months, helped to prepare the Under-19 side ahead of their World Cup in January 2018, and lured Taylor and Kyle Jarvis back into the fold. All while servicing a US$19 million debt in a country facing significant economic and political ferment.

Possibly more challenging for ZC will be the logistics of hosting the ten-team World Cup Qualifiers event - but they will receive $1 million specifically for running the tournament and rejuvenating grounds, and have passed two rigorous ICC inspections.

It was a year in which Zimbabwean cricket lost three elder statesmen from the country's rich history - Ian Robinson, John Hampshire and Alwyn Pichanick - and the country moved on from 37 years of political stagnation under Mugabe, the future seems as uncertain as ever, yet open to opportunity.

High point
Zimbabwe hadn't won an away series against a Full Member for 16 years ahead of their trip to Sri Lanka in June. Their win in that ODI series was perhaps an indictment of Sri Lanka's bowling attack in their annus horribilis, but the tour did showcase the progress Zimbabwe have been making. Their batsmen struck the ball at 96.16, bowling resources were used smartly, and their fielding was outstanding throughout. A historic success in every respect.

Low point
Zimbabwe handed Scotland their first ODI win over a Test nation, at the Grange in June, but their capitulation to South Africa was a far more public humiliation. Zimbabwe are game for anything - they are the team that toured Pakistan two years ago, after all - but they were probably not the best side to include in the four-day, day-night, pink-ball experiment, and their inadequacies were horribly exposed.

Off the field, a Facebook spat between Brendan Taylor and Mark Vermeulen in February marked a significant low in Zimbabwean cricket's social scene. Taylor hit out at armchair critics of the national side, Vermeulen flew off the handle in response, and during a heated tête-à-tête eventually said that the players whose kit and property he destroyed in the CFX Academy fire "got wat they deserved" (sic). The beef eventually made its way to Twitter too.

Zimbabwe didn't quite provide the best advertisement for four-day Test cricket © AFP

New kids on the block
Incredibly, Zimbabwe are not just managing to maintain a national cricket team but are even making new ones. Rising Stars, a team of former U-19s, expats and fringe players, is their newest, the brainchild of Tatenda Taibu, who saw the side as a way of plugging the gap in opportunities for young talent coming out of the U-19 side. The team has nurtured the likes of Ryan Burl and Richard Ngarava, signed up Zimbabwe-born Somerset opener Eddie Byrom, and also produced two-metre-tall fast bowler Blessing Muzarabani. Players such as Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, who scored seven fifties and a hundred during the three-month attachment in England, and Brandon Mavuta, whose offspin brought 54 wickets on that tour, are also worth keeping an eye on. Left-arm wristspinner Rugare Magarira also had a memorable first-class debut, taking 5 for 58 against Mountaineers with front-row seats to the revolution during that mid-coup match.

Rising Stars appear to hint at a potential new model for youth cricket development in Zimbabwe: Streak now also has a cricket academy based in Bulawayo, while Test opener Tino Mawoyo launched the Tino Mawoyo Junior Development Festival, aimed at youth cricket in high-density areas in Mutare in September.

What 2018 holds
Zimbabwe will start the new year with a tri-series in Bangladesh in January, followed by the crucial World Cup Qualifiers in March. The latter will be a litmus test not only for Zimbabwe as a limited-overs team but also for the new administration. It will take skill and effort to host what is in effect a mini World Cup in just over two months' time, but if ZC can pull it off, there will be increased confidence in their ability to find their way out of the economic quagmire and back into the black.

ZC will also be getting to grips with a new government in Zimbabwe, and both the finance and sports ministries, with whom they engage directly, have been reshuffled. ZC had been working with the old administration to restructure their finances and balance debts, and building new relationships will take time.

After the qualifiers, Pakistan and Australia will visit for a triangular one-day series in June, and Pakistan will then stay on for a full tour. Zimbabwe will then travel to South Africa in October for a Test and some ODIs. Streak has said "there is an argument for us throwing more of our resources into short-format cricket", and with the World Cup looming as a clear goal (and existential necessity), Zimbabwe will likely focus more and more on one-day cricket through the year.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town