Andy Flower talks to John Ward about the recent Zimbabwe trip to South Africa for the triangular tournament also involving England.
The roller-coaster ride of the Zimbabwe cricket team continued on the recent tour to South Africa, with its usual share of disappointments but also with some very creditable achievements. Best of all was the victory over South Africa in the opposition's back yard, in Durban, but even that was only marginally better than the victory over England in Cape Town, when Henry Olonga took six wickets for only 19 runs.
On the other hand, there were some rather pitiful batting collapses which led to unnecessarily embarrassing defeats, and it was quite impossible to predict how the team would play on any particular day. In the end, Zimbabwe missed the final only on run-rate to England, a highly frustrating state of affairs since the 'semi-final' was destroyed by rain. So what does captain Andy Flower make of all that?
"Obviously I wasn't happy with our failure to get through to the final when we put ourselves in a good position to do so," he says, obviously still frustrated at not having had the chance to play that final match. "But generally I thought the way we were playing cricket, the way we were putting innings together, the way we were bowling and fielding, made me happy with the progress that we're making, and the graph is moving upwards."
One of the key figures in the Zimbabwe team is pace bowler Heath Streak, who had not played since the visit of the Australians in October due to the recurrent problem with his knee injury. The Zimbabwe public was naturally concerned that he would stay fit, and even if he did, whether he would be able to perform to his usual standard.
"Streaky was excellent," Andy confirms. "He's not at full pace, but his control was excellent. He's a guy you can rely on under pressure, and his contributions are part of the reason why we are doing better."
Andy also mentions other players with honour. "Henry Olonga put in a match-winning performance again," he says. "And you can't say that of many players, that they can win matches single-handedly. Obviously there was a team contribution there as well, but his was a superb performance in Cape Town.
"I thought Guy Whittall played some really good cricket down there - bowled some nice tight spells and batted nicely lower down the order, and I think we're going to miss him until he comes back from his injury. And it was nice to see Gary Brent come up with some really good spells of medium-pace bowling in the middle periods. I thought he did really well.
"Obviously Neil Johnson had a couple of good batting performances, but still I think there are bigger things to come from him. He was a bit inconsistent with his bowling, but he took some important wickets for us. Carl Rackemann is arriving in the country in a couple of weeks' time, and I think Carl will do some really good work with Johnno."
There has been one consistent but puzzling feature of almost all of Neil Johnson's big one-day innings for Zimbabwe: he often starts off like a train, but often around the fifty mark he suddenly slows down and goes through a long, quiet period when runs come more slowly, and this often happens at a time when the run rate actually needs to be accelerated. I asked Andy his views on this phenomenon.
"I've played those innings before, and often in a long innings you come to a period at some stage where you somehow stop hitting the ball in the middle of the bat, or mishitting quite often, hitting the field, and you do go through that quiet period. It can happen in some long innings in one-day cricket, but we have noticed that with Johnno, and he is aware of it. But I think the telling factor is whether you're good enough to see that through and push on to get the big score, or, because you're having that little bad period, give it away. I think he's mentally strong enough not to give it away."
There were naturally some disappointments as well. "I thought on the whole the bowling was okay - in patches very good and accurate," Andy says. "The fielding generally was excellent, but the batting was a bit inconsistent. I think our top-order batsmen have to get in and make big scores. There are not enough batsmen doing it, and that's a very simple fact. There are a couple of technical flaws, I think, that have to be ironed out, and then you obviously have to be mentally tough enough not to accept those twenties or thirties as being okay, and then relax, but to carry it through to seventy or eighty, which will see us through to scores of 250."
Andy himself clearly leads the way with regard to mental toughness and the building of major innings. It is understandable why, as wicket-keeper, he bats as low as number five in Test matches, but many feel that he should bat higher up the order in one-day cricket; the Australians are adamant in their view that he should open the innings.
"We talked about that," Andy confirms. "But there is also the school of thought that it is quite a difficult position to bat, at five or six, in one-day cricket. It's quite a specialist position and I was handling that okay, so we decided to leave me there. But that might change, if our top order is not pushing through and getting scores of 70 or 80 in one-day cricket then we might have to change it."
In our interview with Andy Flower before he left on the South African tour, he mentioned that he was hoping to improve the relationships between the Zimbabweans and the South Africans off the field, so I asked him if he had succeeded in doing so at all.
"I thought the relationships between the two sides was a little better, actually," he says. "Maybe not noticeably so to anyone looking from the outside, but I thought even though we had a couple of run-ins with them on the field, I thought that off the field things between us were fairly amicable. It could still be improved a lot. There are time constraints in these one-day tournaments, though, and you don't really see the opposition all that much. Which is unfortunate, but that's the way these tournaments are. Travelling here, there and everywhere - people are tired, so they go to their rooms and don't socialise much. I chatted with Hansie Cronje, and I always find him interesting and pleasant to talk to."
And the English team? "We're getting on okay," Andy confirms. "I wouldn't say the two sides get on like a house on fire, but there are no problems." It is, though, no doubt a sore point with England that at the time of the interview Zimbabwe still had a 6-3 lead over England in one-day matches!
Three years ago the Zimbabwe cricket team managed to establish a very positive rapport with the South African crowds, and Andy is happy that this remains the case. There was much goodwill among the spectators for Zimbabwe, especially when they were playing England. It remains a pity, then, that the South African players themselves tend to remain very aloof, although these accusations come from others rather than Andy himself, who is committed to bridge-building.
Andy is already looking forward to the next World Cup, which is being hosted mainly by South Africa, but with the agreement that all of Zimbabwe's first-round matches will be played at home. "If we can play that sort of cricket in the World Cup, maybe we can get through to the next round again," he says, "and do something special."