If cricket was fashion, India would be its black, where uber-glamorous celebrities are patrons of the cricket and every ball plays out with all the drama of a Bollywood blockbuster. And Zimbabwe? It would be the boring beige that few want to be seen in. In the shadows of its bigger and better older brother, South Africa, Zimbabwe appears entirely unfashionable. But for 10 days a year the beige becomes the canvas for splashes of colour - the kind big-hitters like Chris Gayle and fiery bowlers like Shaun Tait can produce.
Gayle and Tait are two of 20 foreign players taking part in Zimbabwe's domestic 20-over tournament, the highlight of the country's cricketing calendar and the yardstick for Zimbabwe's progress. Since it kicked off three years ago, the event has grown in stature, generated interest and money, and attracted influential overseas names. This year it is expected to attract a record number of viewers and to come close to breaking even, raising the profile of the game in the country and helping bring in the funds to make it bigger next year.
Though similar in theory to the likes of the IPL or the Big Bash, the Stanbic Bank 20 operates on a smaller scale: Fourteen matches are played over 10 days, with five double-headers. The quaint Harare Sports Club plays host to the entire event. It's a squeeze but it keeps travel costs and hotel bills to a minimum.
To some extent, finances have dictated the format of the competition, but far from having a negative effect Zimbabwe Cricket has been able to secure foreign players relatively cheaply. The tournament's icon players - Gayle in particular - command much more money elsewhere. Gayle is rumoured to earn more for a single IPL game than he will for the full event in Zimbabwe. One thing is clear: he did not sign up for the money.
"I had nothing to do in Jamaica and wanted to get some practice in before the Big Bash, so I thought I could go to Zimbabwe," he said. "I thought it would be a nice opportunity to share my experience and thought maybe I could pick up a few things as well."
"We are asking overseas players to spend just over a week here. It's not a drawn-out thing," Alistair Campbell, chairman of the cricket committee, said, pointing out an advantage they had in getting players for less money than they would earn in similar tournaments elsewhere.
His ongoing battle with the WICB has meant Gayle is unable to represent his country and match practice is in short supply. In the peaceful outpost of Zimbabwe, he can go about his business relatively undisturbed. "It's very laidback here, nothing rough, nothing fast-paced," he said. "It might be nice to go on a safari and see a bit of the wild side."
It's not just for personal gains that Gayle is here, though. "I wanted to go to a country that was developing in cricket so I can help them improve," he said. He has been to Zimbabwe twice before, in 2003 and 2005. The white-player walkout of 2004 was sandwiched in between his visits. Zimbabwe withdrew from Test cricket after that, as they underwent a major overhaul of their structures. Their main aim was to reach out to the majority black African population and create an inclusive, representative national team. With the number of black players and spectators involved in the game on the up, to have someone like Gayle in Zimbabwe is special for the country. "I can see that they look up to me. There are so many more black people playing the game and it's nice that they can relate to me," he said.
Gayle has noticed a considerable improvement in the standard of Zimbabwe cricket, calling it "more competitive" than before. Former England wicketkeeper Phil Mustard agrees. "There is some immense talent in Zimbabwe. They love their cricket, they all want to learn and get better," he said.
"To some extent, finances have dictated the format of the competition, but far from having a negative effect Zimbabwe Cricket has been able to secure foreign players relatively cheaply"
Mustard is one of six English players in the tournament, a fairly significant number, considering the fractured relationship between the UK and Zimbabwe. Although the England team have not toured Zimbabwe since 2004 and the ECB severed all ties with ZC in 2008, Mustard and his countrymen did not need special permission to travel to Zimbabwe, and he says they will take back a positive message to their home board.
"The ECB sometimes make their decisions on security risks but we can still choose to come here as individuals," he said. "And we are really enjoying it. We walked downtown for dinner a few nights ago, everyone is so friendly and there are no problems at all."
Like Gayle, Mustard has his eye pinned on playing in other T20 competitions around the world and wants to use this event as a stepping stone. He also said he would "like to get a few of the Zimbabwe players to England next season".
Dutch international Ryan ten Doeschate has returned to play in the event for a second year. Roped in by former Essex team-mate Grant Flower, ten Doeschate played in last year's tournament, where he made 66 runs in six matches, with a top score of 26, a showing that was, by his own admission, disastrous. "I want to make right for last year," he said. "Especially since this competition is as good as any that I have played in around the world."
As a journeyman cricketer, having his passport stamped in Zimbabwe is ten Doeschate's way of making the most of his opportunities to play top-level cricket. "For Associate players, the only way to travel and play in different countries lies in T20 cricket," he said. "There's a definite charm to being in Zimbabwe, especially to see how they are overcoming their problems. They are a special bunch of people and wherever the rest of us can help, we should."
For one of the visiting players, his involvement is an act of taking rather than giving. Alex Obanda, the top-order batsman from Kenya, is the only player from his country to participate in the tournament. He has stars in his eyes as he enjoys his first foreign event. "I just want to become a better player," he said. "One of my heroes growing up was Andy Flower, so to be in the same country as he was from is nice."
Zimbabwe's franchise competition is one up on the structures in Kenya, where cricket is at an earlier stage of development. "I hope we can get better sponsors, like Zimbabwe have, and some international players, and build a team that can represent our country well." Obanda says he gets a bit more money to play in Zimbabwe than he does at home.
For Zimbabwe to stand as an example for smaller countries is a massive step for them. It is the vote of confidence they need to tell them that their rebuilding process is working. This year, Obanda's words will have a special significance: Zimbabwe can be proud after having made their Test comeback in August. They won their comeback Test, against Bangladesh, and won the ODI series that followed. They then crashed to a series of 12 international defeats across three series before finally notching up a win in a record chase against New Zealand. The Test match that followed - a tense encounter that Zimbabwe lost by 34 runs - was one of the best adverts for the longer version of the game we have seen in a year that has had a few of those.
The road ahead will be filled with challenges, including overseas tours and major ICC tournaments, where Zimbabwe will only to succeed if they have a solid base at home. If the T20 tournament is to be believed, they do.