Give them a break

In his 2003-04 annual report, the ICC president Ehsan Mani said the following: "We are conscious that the expansion of the sport must not be to the detriment of standards, particularly at the highest level. The ICC is acutely aware of its role as guardian of Test and one-day international cricket, and in developing the sport, we will always be mindful of this responsibility."

On the evidence of today's performance by Zimbabwe at Cape Town, the ICC's resolve to back words with action will be under the spotlight when it meets in New Delhi on March 17. What was on display at Newlands was Test cricket in name only. The absence of spectators and the general lack of enthusiasm from the South Africans when they took wickets underlined that nobody on the ground was fooled, whatever the marketing men might say.

Even the commentators abandoned any pretence that this was anything other than a one-sided farce. Too much more of this and television executives will start questioning the point of the matches, and once that happens the game is well and truly up.

This kind of mismatch does undermine the integrity of the game, but equally importantly it doesn't help Zimbabwe's progress one bit. Dave Houghton, their former captain, said that Zimbabwe needed a break from constant hammerings if they are to have any chance to develop. He made the point that in most countries it is the norm for players come through improving levels of cricket before they are exposed to international opposition. Many of Zimbabwe's players are playing school or low-level club cricket one day, Tests the next. And even those who have potential - and there have been glimpses of some exciting talent - risk having that extinguished by unremitting setbacks.

Houghton's suggestion is for Zimbabwe's Test schedule to be put in cold storage and for them to arrange games against second-string opposition such as Kenya and Namibia, as well as regular matches against other countries' A teams. If India and Pakistan were able to send A teams to Nairobi in August, then surely visiting Zimbabwe is not an issue? They would also benefit from playing county/state/provincial 2nd XIs and other representative sides.

The danger is that such a move might be seen as being a reaction to last year's dispute between the Zimbabwe board and the rebel players. It has little to do with that, although there is a political element as the gradual weakening of the side in the last five years has not been helped by Zimbabwe's general internal malaise.

But what matters is that cricket in Zimbabwe is not allowed to be crushed by constant and humiliating drubbings. Like a small fire, dumping too much wood on it is the surest way to put it out. Zimbabwe need tender loving care and gentle handling if they are to survive and prosper. The ICC is the only body which can step in and help them.

Martin Williamson is the managing editor of Cricinfo.