Stuart Carlisle, enjoying a three-week break at home before the national side takes off for India, is not downhearted at the struggles Zimbabwe cricket is going through, but he is concerned. He talks to CricInfo about the recent tour to Sri Lanka.
This was my first visit to Sri Lanka. I had always heard it was going to be hard, and I believe it's one of the hardest countries to tour. We hadn't won a game there until we beat the West Indies. It's very difficult mainly because of the pitches, which suit Muralitharan.
At the end of the series it was very simple - Muttiah Muralitharan took 30 wickets and he had us in all sorts of trouble. Only one or two of us seemed to play him reasonably well, but at the end of the day, if you took him out of the team, there's no doubt that it would be a different series altogether.
The heat was very similar to here (in Zimbabwe), so it wasn't a problem at all for us. We did have patches of rain, including one huge storm on the second evening of the First Test. The whole field was flooded to a depth of about a foot, but we started on time the following morning. It was quite incredible.
Otherwise the grounds were relatively good; there are some scenic grounds as well, such as in Kandy. It was a good experience for me and a lot of the guys who hadn't toured there before. It was quite tough on myself, and also Brian Murphy, to captain the team on our first visits there, because we didn't really know what was going on.
Brian took on the captaincy when we went to Sharjah. There was a bit of a mix-up in the story after that because I had been asked first, and I asked the selectors to give me some time to think it over, and I would let them know at the end of the Sharjah trip; in the meantime I told them I would be vice-captain and support Brian Murphy. But after two or three days in Sharjah they decided they would not appoint a vice-captain after all, and the story given was that I had refused the captaincy from the first day. I had not refused the captaincy; I felt it was right to have some time to consider the matter because it's a serious position. It's obviously a great honour to be captain but there were a lot of things I needed to consult people on.
The main thing was my personal performance. I've been on the up, if you look at the stats, in one-dayers and Tests. I've also got my own personal goals, and I've been getting my recent averages into the thirties. Nobody has yet contacted me at all about what the position regarding the captaincy in India will be; after being back here for ten days, I still don't know what is going on. I'll have to speak to Dave Ellman-Brown and find out.
Some of the players still have very clear memories of our last tour to Sri Lanka, where we should have won the Second Test but for the umpiring. It was quite funny when we met Bruce Yardley, the off-spinner, who was commentating throughout that series, but doesn't have much to do with Sri Lanka. He was coaching during that Test match where the team was robbed, in a sense, by very poor umpiring. Bruce Yardley mentioned on this last tour that he had had no doubt that there was something going on and we certainly should have won that Test match.
On this tour, again one of the reasons why it was so hard was that we had a Sri Lankan umpire throughout the three Tests, while we had a Pakistani umpire for the First Test, an Indian umpire in the Second Test and then David Shepherd for the Third Test. In the First Test, which was obviously the most vital of the series, we counted six very unlucky opportunities, near chances that could have gone our way but didn't, and with television coverage there were probably about 15 throughout the series where we had very near chances, decisions that could have gone our way and didn't.
The first Test match is obviously very important, and with those five or six opportunities we could have had, it would certainly have changed things. We won the toss and fielded first. We had been told, by the locals as well, that from ten o'clock until about eleven the ball would swing and seam around a bit, and also that there would be a bit of bounce. We did get some seamage and we had our opportunities. We decided to go in with four seamers because we didn't have a spinner.
The whole team was behind fielding first, and we thought that if we could take a few wickets early on and get them 50 or 60 for three we could put some pressure on them. We hadn't been getting good starts with our batting and that was one of our weaknesses, so we decided to begin the First Test like that.
We could have had Jayasuriya out early, and he made 92 eventually, and with two or three early decisions they could have been 40 or 50 for three. We had to field a long time, and they had guys like Jayawardene and Sangakkara who batted really well. We understand that umpires make mistakes, but sadly it doesn't seem to be going that well for us at the moment. We just need a change of luck.
We didn't have a specialist spinner throughout that series, and I can't go too deeply into that. It was an absolute travesty. We were unlucky in that sense as well because the Board were pushing for Brian Murphy to go on tour. I'm not sure if Brian felt he was 100% ready, and then he got injured a second time.
Paul Strang came out to Bangladesh but he didn't bowl well at all and we could see he was struggling again. The coach and I asked for Paul to return home and play for Zimbabwe A in Kenya, so he could get some more bowling behind him and come to Sri Lanka, but when he arrived back he was told he wasn't going to play in Kenya. The other option was Raymond Price; we asked for him but they didn't send him. They wanted Brian to come, but I don't think he was fit enough or bowling well enough - and Brian I'm sure would tell you that.
There's no doubt it made a huge difference, because if you don't have a genuine spinner in Sri Lanka you are asking for trouble. We had part-time spinners trying to take wickets and it just didn't work. It puts a lot of pressure on guys like Doug Marillier who is a part-time off-spinner, and he really got hit around. We should have had at least two specialist spinners and we didn't even have one.
If you have two spinners, at least you have the option. Throughout the tour we had a badly balanced team; we always had one extra seamer or one extra batsman we had to play, because we didn't have spinners. Looking forward to the coming tour of India, we have to have two spinners. If we don't, it's going to be very hard for us to try to win games. At least, if we do have spinners there and still don't win games, we can then say we've tried our best or it's our own fault or we have to work on something.
In the triangular tournament we won't forget our `freak day' when we were all out for 38, and I call it a freak day because it was just incredible how we all lost our wickets. That was obviously a record that goes against us and it's not a nice day to remember at all. Chaminda Vaas in all seriousness swung the ball about a foot; he got it to go the other way and really had the guys in trouble. He bowled brilliantly; I would never take any credit away from him. I for instance had 16 and we were four down already, so I thought maybe I could hit him to reverse the pressure. But it didn't work for me, so I got out, and everything we tried to do went wrong.
And some of the inexperienced guys up the front there had no idea how to face the in-swinging ball at all. We did take a relatively inexperienced side over, and I'm sure some of the young guys have really learned a lot on these long tours. We're broadening our squad, but there's no doubt we should have had one or two more experienced players to balance the side. We're all for taking youngsters, but when you take six or seven at one go, especially to Sri Lanka, it's hell of a tough for them all.
In saying all that, to come back the next day and beat the West Indies showed fantastic character. I told the guys it was great that they should bounce back and win a game. We then lost the next two games, but Sri Lanka are playing fantastic cricket at the moment, especially in their own country - we didn't do too poorly, we competed, but we just didn't make big enough scores. It was up and down, and we needed a greater consistency level.
Jayawardene is rated very highly in Sri Lanka and he looks like being a great prospect. Sangakkara is also relatively new as a keeper-batsman, and to have one of his quality is really good. I say this, and I said it to the reporters in Sri Lanka, that the pitches are relatively good batting pitches once you get in - provided you don't have to face Muralitharan! We didn't have a lot of problems in the Test matches with their seamers or any of their other bowlers. The only other bowler that gave us a few problems was on that big turning wicket in the last Test, where Jayasuriya got a few wickets and he managed to get the ball skidding and gripping.
None of the other bowlers really hassled us a lot on those pitches, so to me that says we could have got 450 or 500 if Muralitharan wasn't in their team. He's a really big asset to them. They can say they made big scores with their batting, but they didn't have to face a guy like Muralitharan! He can bowl you six different balls in one over; he's quite incredible.
I think Trevor Gripper played him very well, and I don't know how to say this, but I thought I also played him relatively well. I felt comfortable against him, and `Grips' and I tried to be really patient with him. In the Third Test especially it worked. Grant Flower played him very well in the Second Test, and Gavin Rennie also played him well there. Gavin Rennie swept a lot as a left-hander, which was good, while Grant played a patient innings. Murali beats the bat every so often and you have to expect that.
He put it very simply himself; he said, "I just put it in the area and the batsmen get themselves out." It's quite true, because as soon as we started playing sweep shots we got ourselves in trouble. Scoring off him is very hard.
Heath Streak didn't take many wickets, but I think he is actually on the way up. He took seven wickets and bowled at a very good economy rate, and it's very difficult for a seam bowler there because of the pitches.
Andy Flower is a different kettle of fish. It's the first tour where he really failed. He tried a couple of things but it didn't go his way. He is in bad form at the moment, but he's a class player. If I'm still the captain I'm not fussed at all by the fact that Andrew is out of form at the moment, because I know he will come back and he has a very strong mind and a great temperament. He took the brunt of Muralitharan, who is the number one bowler in the world. Muralitharan got the better of him, and that's one of those things.
The relationships between the teams was pretty good to start with, but as the series went on it got a big lively. Finally Cammie Smith, the match referee, had to step in once or twice. It came from both sides, not really aggressive sledging but more friendly and humorous. But it started getting a bit too noisy from both sides and we were quietened down after a while.
I can't say any of our players had a really good tour, but if anyone I'd say Trevor Gripper. I was quite happy with the way Trevor played as an opening batsman. I think he showed a lot of maturity and confidence out in the middle. He got several twenties and thirties, and then that big 80, and he learned quite a lot in Sri Lanka.
For Hamilton Masakadza and Tatenda Taibu, it was definitely a big learning curve. I think cricket has got the better of them at the moment, but I think it's a good thing for the future. Sadly they get back here and are called teenage sensations, but there's no doubt they have lots of talent. At the end of the day there are thousands of other youngsters like them trying to make it in world cricket, and I hope they both realize - especially `Taibs', who had a rough time in the one-dayers - it's very tough at international level and it happens to all of us. Cricket will eventually bring you down, and if they work hard they will be better for it.
The opening partnership in both the Tests and the one-dayers has been a bit of a problem. Obviously the Alistair Campbell affair is over and it's good to see him making runs again - he probably is our opener in one-day cricket. But for the last Test Geoff Marsh came to me and wanted me to open the batting. He felt I was batting well and had the confidence, and also one of the better techniques. So he thought I should go in with Trevor Gripper and try to put up a good stand, and it worked out well for us.
I may be opening in India, and I'm quite happy to do it, if that's the case. I still prefer number three, but if it's better for the team or it means a better balance for me to go up front, then so be it.
I think Geoff Marsh has been very good as coach. He is obviously a great guy to have on board and he has a fantastic CV on him, with his years of experience. He's very professional and I think many of the guys have lost several kilograms of weight, training very hard on the physical side. We're definitely a much sharper side than we were a couple of months ago. But he needs to be given the respect his opinions deserve when it comes to selection.
I think the management team is now very good. We have Kevin Curran as assistant coach - I think he has fantastic energy, maybe too much energy at times. He's been really good for the bowlers. We have Malcolm Jarvis, who has been very good with the statistical side, and the physical as well. And Babu Meman has been a good manager. We just need to sort out the captaincy issues and get the right balance for the tours coming up. We don't have too long before the World Cup now.
We now have three weeks until India and we haven't been told when we're choosing the squad. I hope they select the best balanced side for India, because it's important for Zimbabwe cricket. I know there are several problems happening off the field, but we need to iron that out and start concentrating on our cricket.