Harare used to be the most spoilt city in the world as far as international cricket was concerned. For example, in the 2001 alone the Harare Sports Club ground hosted four Test matches and nine one-day internationals.
Then Zimbabwe Cricket fell into shadow, as Tolkien might have said. Then board culled opponents and shut out players and administrators; Zimbabwe, from being a credible Test nation, lost their Test status and became no-hopers against senior Test-playing countries in the one-day arena. Harare no longer hosts Test matches and only occasionally ODIs.
But, on the face of it, the Zimbabwe team has finally taken a turn for the better. First they beat Australia in the ICC World Twenty20, and then they defeated West Indies in the first ODI on Friday. Granted, both opponents were disgracefully complacent, but it must be conceded that this raw, young Zimbabwean team, with few players older than 25, played well above itself. Much of the credit has rightly been given to new coach Robin Brown.
Last Friday's victory, in particular, seems to have revived interest in cricket in the country. Today's match saw by far the largest crowd at a Zimbabwean ground since the player rebellion, with probably at least 4000 people present. The averages of late have been in three figures, and even those paltry numbers have been artificially boosted by schoolchildren specially bussed in. It was almost like old times.
Harare crowds nowadays have more than a touch of the Caribbean about them. Zimbabweans are notoriously bad timekeepers, so at the start of play the stands were mostly empty, but they soon filled. Probably over 95% of spectators were black, mostly well-to-do people - if you have money, you can still live in comfort despite the shortages. Throughout the day, many of them moved around much more freely than is possible on most of the world's Test grounds or filled the stands with groups chanting, singing, clapping, dancing and blowing the occasional horn.
The atmosphere was both relaxed and festive. Spectators kept their eyes on the cricket, as could be deduced from the cheers and applause that greeted anything good by the home side, or any lapse by the visitors. Anybody momentarily distracted, though, might have missed a Zimbabwean wicket -- the only change in the normal babble of noise was a mild groan or a gasp. And there was not a great deal of audible appreciation of achievements by the opposition. As Zimbabwe slid slowly towards defeat some left, but the majority stayed until the bitter end and did not let the result discourage them too much. After all, international cricket is a rare form of escapism from the appalling realities of everyday life.
Most Zimbabweans are very placid, forgiving people, which accounts for the illusion of normality and the genuinely peaceful state of the county. But many blacks resent the present maladministration in Zimbabwe cricket which led to the departure of most of their best players: "It has weakened our team too much," one said. But the general philosophy of the country appears to be, "What cannot be cured must be endured," and Zimbabweans have become experts at enduring. The political regime and its offshoots, such as the present ZC administration, are too firmly entrenched to be ousted, so most people shrug their shoulders, endure some more and don't even try.
One black former first-class cricketer, once on the verge of the national side, has retired from cricket in his mid-twenties. "It's not worth it," he said, though he was at today's match to support his erstwhile team-mates. Why not? "The administration."
Even whites, whose cricketing expertise has been largely extinguished by the board, are on the whole forgiving enough still to support the national side. Many took great pleasure in the team's recent victories and were happy to support them in person today. One said, "We just hope things are going to improve from here."
It is this sort of perhaps hopelessly unrealistic optimism that gives some hope for the future as well as enabling people to get through the day.