Zimbabwe's cricket is starting to show signs of life again. Players and coaches are returning and the team is finding a competitive streak. Even though the recent victories against Pakistan and Australia were in warm-up matches, they are always notable opposition to turn over. There is still a long way to go, but for a game that had appeared to have gone beyond repair in a once powerful African nation, any progress is a success.
They also have a new man at the helm, but two little stories that Alan Butcher told while sat in the wooden stands at Everest Cricket Club in Georgetown showed quite clearly the challenge he has taken on board by becoming Zimbabwe coach.
"The other day while we were playing against Pakistan, the Indian side arrived and everyone's jaws dropped at the size of their bats and how many they had," he told Cricinfo. "Some of our guys' bats look as though they've been digging the garden. For them being able to afford top-quality bats and having access to them hasn't been easy. That's something that we need to address and is also a result of a cricket culture that has withered for a while."
Butcher has also already had to deal with some organisational issues of the sort that will no doubt come his way in the next few months. A key player didn't join the team for their recent matches in Grenada.
"For some reason that I haven't yet got to the bottom of, Elton Chigumbura didn't board the plane with us and didn't get here until we arrived in Guyana. That was a bit disappointing," Butcher said, but his next comment reflects the growing optimism around the team. "I'm not pointing any fingers because I don't know the reasons yet. Against Australia and Pakistan he struck the ball brilliantly.
"Everyone is excited by the prospects for Zimbabwean cricket, but we are also realistic in terms of what we feel we can achieve in the short term." The short-term includes this World Twenty20 and they may just be good enough to cause Sri Lanka and New Zealand a few problems.
BUTCHER, who played one Test and one ODI for England, was the surprising choice to take on the daunting task of coaching Zimbabwe - a team still in self-imposed exile from Test cricket and currently trying to re-establish their credentials in the longer form by playing the Associates. Butcher's previous full-time coaching role had ended with his departure from Surrey after they were relegated from Division One of the County Championship in 2008 without a victory.
He was virtually headhunted for the role by David Houghton, the former Zimbabwe captain and a long-time friend, and was immediately taken by the enthusiasm shown for the game when he arrived for his interview. "It happened to coincide with their first domestic Twenty20 tournament and there was such a good buzz around the place in terms of the cricket," he explained. "Everyone also seemed positive about the prospects for the nation, the mix of ages, colours and races at the ground watching was really exciting and at the end of it I thought this could be a really exciting place to be in the future. It could be a big adventure.
"I was more eager to try and get an opportunity with an international side than another county team I must say," Butcher added. "I had over the period of time since leaving Surrey come second for three roles, including the West Indies Academy and Kenya, so had been in the frame. I started to think I'd find another way but fortunately this job came up."
Butcher joined the squad in West Indies in March as an observer. Over the last couple of months he has been getting a closer look at the team under his charge and the resources at his disposal. As the story about India's bats shows, they are not showered with every luxury afforded to the other main international teams, but one of the first aspects that struck Butcher was not a lack of the highest-quality equipment.
"My first impressions are that there is plenty of talent," he said. "Quite a lot of it is naïve talent. Even though some of the guys have played a hundred one-day internationals, sometimes their game awareness, when I started, was pretty average.
"I know some nations are worried about there not being any food to eat, but there is plenty. I know there wasn't at one stage but with the US dollar now being the nation's currency, the supermarkets are stocked again. I think that people would enjoy a tour"Butcher on the social conditions in Zimbabwe today
"I think that's partly because the first-class system in Zimbabwe had been allowed to wither away so people have forgotten the basic disciplines and that sort of thing. They started a first-class franchise system last year and it was successful, but it will need improving over a period of time as you start getting a wider base of players, and that's why David Houghton has come over to help me set up a Level 3 coaching course. Hopefully we'll improve the standards lower down and that will drive the standards in the national side."
Alongside Houghton, Butcher is also surrounded by a number of former Zimbabwe internationals. Heath Streak is the bowling coach, Alastair Campbell is chief selector and Grant Flower will take up the position of batting coach after completing his final season for Essex. The return of these former stars has been taken as a sign that conditions, both cricket-wise and in the wider picture, are improving.
"I would say it certainly has," Butcher said. "There are people coming back to Zimbabwe and back to Zimbabwe cricket and I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have done that if they hadn't had thought the country was heading in the right direction. That persuaded me that it would be an exciting place to be."
On the playing side Andy Blignaut, the hard-hitting allrounder, is the most notable returnee so far but Butcher is hopeful more could follow. "I think there will be moves to persuade one or two more to come back, put out feelers and see the reaction.
"I know there are some players, not necessarily household names, who have started to make noises about wanting to come back, which is good news. When I was last in Zimbabwe it was pretty much a whites-only game, now there are so many black Zimbabweans taking up the sport that the playing base long-term will be bigger than ever, providing we can get the coaching and structure to support it."
CURRENTLY Zimbabwe's international ambitions are limited to the one-day and Twenty20 arena - although they were even unable to compete in this corresponding event last year after being refused visas for the UK - but after the ICC's recent meeting in Dubai they talked about a two-year plan for a return to Test cricket. Houghton has sometimes been more positive than that and though Butcher thinks it may take a little longer, he believes the only way anyone will really know is when the team does actually play a Test again.
"Everything is in place for a resurgence of Zimbabwe cricket over a three-to-five-year period," he said. "I would also say that if you aren't playing Test cricket that you will never be ready for it. You can practise against the Associate nations but that won't prepare you for Test cricket. At some stage you have to take the plunge and learn on your feet."
Learning on your feet is much like what Butcher has been doing in his new job, getting to know the players and forming relationships - most importantly with the captain, Prosper Utseya, and the early signs are promising. "We are getting along well and we think along the same lines. There's a mutual trust which is beginning to grow."
The other factor, though, will be to encourage teams back to touring Zimbabwe. England, Australia and New Zealand remain highly reluctant for both political and safety reasons but Butcher has seen at first hand how the physical conditions inside the country have now stabilised.
"The political situation is one thing, but from a safety aspect, in the short time I've spent in Zimbabwe, I've felt perfectly safe," he said. "I know some nations are worried about there not being any food to eat, but there is plenty. I know there wasn't at one stage but with the US dollar now being the nation's currency, the supermarkets are stocked again. I think that people would enjoy a tour."
That day of complete normality returning to Zimbabwe cricket is still some way off, but at least there is now light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo