It was another rather dismal week for Zimbabwe cricket, with two more losses against England. The team did at least put up a slightly better fight, but they are still playing at nowhere near their best.
Zimbabwe only did better in the third one-day international thanks to a truly great fighting innings by Andy Flower, whose 142 not out remarkably equalled the highest individual innings for Zimbabwe in such matches already held jointly by Dave Houghton and Grant Flower. Flower was perhaps driven by anger as much as anything, at the feeble performances of the others at the top of the order. Once again he had to carry the main burden alone, although Heath Streak later gave him fine support - only to pull a hamstring and put himself out of the rest of the series. With so little support from most of his team-mates, Andy's innings was not surprisingly not enough to bring victory over a team where a larger proportion of its members are contributing.
In Bulawayo, Andy failed, but we did see some better efforts from other specialist batsmen. The bowlers took nine English wickets for the first time, but still only three of them returned presentable figures. There are still too many weak links; even one weak link in a bowling attack can prove fatal. When Grant Flower and Craig Wishart were together, victory was still a possibility; once they were parted, the middle order had nothing left to offer.
Top players and administrators need to get together and work out just why it is that our players are doing so badly. Burnout could well be part of the problem, as they have had few real breaks from the game in the last three years. The players may well be reluctant to admit to too much cricket as they get paid for appearances.
It looks as is a sporting psychologist is a real need. Australia use them at times, and with the brash self-confidence that is inbred in that society it might be argued that they are the last team to need one. Confidence is encouraged in Australia, while it tends to be discouraged in Zimbabwe. It needs rather to be guided wisely, but we cannot change society. We need to find some way to change our players. Andy Flower has found it; it seems inexplicable that nobody else in the team seems capable of following his example and developing the mental strength necessary for consistent success at the top level.
Along with our regular columns this week, we interviewed Henry Olonga on his return to international cricket. He began well in Harare, faded a bit and then bowled disastrously in Bulawayo. He feels he is not match-fit; he has had injury problems but the selectors have been reluctant to pick him, probably at least partly because of that, even when he is fit.
Playing Test series in isolation does not help players like Henry, either. In most other countries, top players get the chance to warm up for international cricket in their domestic competitions, and reserve players brought into the side are kept in form in this way. But our squad players have no such advantages for most of the year, and at present do not even have the chance to play 50-over club cricket, poor preparation though it may be.
It's either international cricket or nothing most of the time, and if a player is struggling in the international game he has no opportunity to find his form at a slightly lower level. And if the selectors suddenly realized the talents of Pommie Mbangwa, ignored for a year now, what chance would he have of producing his best form when he has been unable to play seriously for the past six months?
Every team representing Zimbabwe now seems to contain five or six youngsters in their first year of international cricket; what chance do they have? The news that Mluleki Nkala is to return to the Academy next year is pertinent here. He missed most of the Academy year as he was on the international circuit; promising though he has always been, he was plunged into international cricket without any provincial cricket and with very little club cricket behind him. A whole section of his cricketing education has been missed, and now belatedly he is having to try to catch up.
We are suffering worse beatings now than we did at the start of our full international career nine years ago, when we had less talent and less experience and were often struggling to put together a national side at all. If our players and administrators realize that they have to get to the bottom of it all, then our present run of abysmal form will not be in vain.