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No more smoke and mirrors

When the ICC sent a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe in 2006, critics of Peter Chingoka and Zimbabwe Cricket accused the board of only showing Percy Sonn and Malcolm Speed cherry-picked facilities so that they went away with a far rosier picture of the state of the game than was the case.
Two years on and another ICC group, headed by Julian Hunte, the head of the West Indies board, is in town. Their remit is to see when Zimbabwe might be ready to resume Test cricket. After the performance of the national side on Thursday and today, no amount of smoke and mirrors from Chingoka and his colleagues will be able to hide the reality. The current Zimbabwe side is not so much one in transition as one in complete meltdown. Forget about Test cricket. Are they even good enough to play the one-day version?

Although he has only been in the job three and a bit months, Walter Chawaguta, the Zimbabwe coach, has shown an admirable ability to stick his head in the sand. Defeats by Canada and Kenya in October were, he implied, of little consequence given Zimbabwe beat Ireland. Today, rather than admit to what we had all seen, he laid into his batsmen.

"Our approach is not as good as we would like it to be because we are losing a lot of wickets to the seamers," he said. "We end up facing the spinners under a lot of pressure because of the wickets going to the seamers. We do not have enough cover in our middle order to face the quality of their two spinners."

Zimbabwe were bowled out for 67, which in itself is an improvement on the 35 they managed against Sri Lanka in Harare in 2004. On that occasion a senior member of the board stormed into the media centre and accused the groundsman of preparing a pitch with the sole aim of humiliating his side. In all-too-familiar rhetoric, the (white) groundsman was bizarrely accused of racism in his preparation. The official was silenced when several independent journalists (they were still allowed to report on games in those distant times) pointed out that the pitch appeared to have markedly improved when Sri Lanka batted.

Showing more acceptance today was Prosper Utseya, Zimbabwe's captain, who issued an apology to the fans. "It's always disappointing to lose in such a manner because we had come [here] to put up a competitive performance today," he said. "We still have three more matches before the end of this series and I hope by then we can make it up to the fans and still win the series."

Utseya, clearly emotional, defended his decision to bat first on a flat track after winning the toss. "I still stand by my decision to bat first due to the fact that the wicket looked nice and shiny," he said, "and if we had got a good score of 200 it was going to be defendable."

You can't but help feel for the players. Their commitment cannot be faulted but they have been let down by their board and the country's politics. Facilities are poor and most coaches have left the country. With respect to Chawaguta, it is absurd he is the coach of a team that is in theory still representing a Test-playing country. But the decline is remorseless and it is increasingly hard to see how it can be stopped and where the next generation of cricketers will come from.

But, for now, Hunte and his associates will soon be heading home to write their report for the next ICC meeting. Unlike Kofi Annan, the former head of the UN, and former US president Jimmy Carter, at least they were allowed in to see things for themselves. As the spectators headed home soon after lunch, Chingoka must have wished that the ICC delegation had also been barred by Robert Mugabe.