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Match Analysis

A glimmer of light amid Zimbabwe's existential gloom

They lost a piece of their future when they failed, agonisingly, to qualify for the World Cup. With their performance in Sylhet, they have gained a little piece back

Liam Brickhill
Liam Brickhill
The Zimbabwe fielders lift Sean Williams in celebration  •  AFP

The Zimbabwe fielders lift Sean Williams in celebration  •  AFP

Zimbabwe last won an away Test almost exactly 17 years ago, with a team formed around the Flowers, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga: men quite literally old enough to have fathered many of the current Test side.
Brandon Mavuta was a four-year-old pre-schooler the last time Zimbabwe won a Test anywhere apart from Harare. Wellington Masakadza was in grade three at Mbizi Primary School in Highfields. Hamilton, his older brother, was writing his A levels, or else he might have been Zimbabwe's final remaining link to that last victorious touring team, having famously made a teenage debut hundred against West Indies in July 2001, five months before the win in Chattogram (then still known by the anglicized 'Chittagong').
The elder Masakadza is approaching the end of his career now, and virtually an entire generation had passed without Zimbabwe savouring an away win before their victory in Sylhet. And while they have won Tests in Harare in the meantime - four of them, to be exact - they have also watched as administrative hassles, political sideshows and a financial meltdown enveloped the game in their country. They have watched as many teams turned their backs on Zimbabwe, who became outcasts on the world stage, and they have fought their way back onto the Test table, overcoming a six-year hiatus to return to the game's top tier in 2011.
Alas, once they got there they found a landscape much changed from the one upon which their cricketing forefathers had earned such a sturdy reputation at the turn of the millennium. Andy Flower played 63 Tests in a career spanning ten years, including games against every other Test team. Hamilton Masakadza has played 37 Tests over 17 years. He has never played a Test against England or Australia and he likely never will: Zimbabwe have no Test fixtures against either side in the current cycle of the Future Tours Programme, and the possibility of a bilateral Test series being organised outside of the FTP schedule is slim.
Over the next five years, Zimbabwe have 18 scheduled Test matches to look forward to (by way of comparison, England have 49 over the same period, and neighbours South Africa 36) and seven of those will be against Afghanistan and Ireland. Those games will undoubtedly produce engaging cricket, as meetings between closely matched teams usually do, as this game between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh did, but without regular fixtures against the world's best teams as well, Zimbabwe will never be able to take that next step.
After all, that's how Flower, Streak et al got to where they did in the cricket world. They played everyone, as often as possible. Flower played 14 Tests against Pakistan, 13 against Sri Lanka, 11 against New Zealand and nine against India - all above Zimbabwe in the pecking order, all demanding that Zimbabwe raise their game to compete, all providing invaluable experience for the next tough session or tight finish. A handful of Tests a year won't allow the current generation that vital stepping stone in development.
For those who doubt they're capable, remember this was the team that beat Pakistan to a earn a 1-1 series result as an un-ranked Test side in 2013. They might have beaten Sri Lanka in Colombo last year too, were it not for some fifth-day heroics from Niroshan Dickwella and Asela Gunaratne.
Remember, also, that after the win against Pakistan, Zimbabwe didn't play another Test for 11 months. In the 16 months since their near-miss against Sri Lanka, they had played just three Tests before this one in Sylhet. And yet they have managed to beat Bangladesh in their own backyard, something sides like Australia and England have struggled to do in recent times.
It's bad enough that Zimbabwe don't play as many Tests as they could. It's possibly even worse that their space in the ODI game is now shrinking too. Many thousands of words in columns and think-pieces have been dedicated to the why-the-hells and how-could-theys of the 10-team World Cup, but if you want a first-person account of the devastation wrought by Zimbabwe's absence, look no further than Sikandar Raza, who told ESPNcricinfo: "I know that I would be playing with that pain for the rest of my career."
The finality of Raza's words, spoken in the midst of post-Test celebrations, suggest Zimbabwe have reached the fifth stage of grief since their cataclysmic defeat to UAE: acceptance. He added that the historic Test win would help to numb that pain, and there was much to provide hope for the future during the 151-run victory.
Mavuta and the youngest Masakadza, children when Zimbabwe last tasted a victory of this sort, played a vital role, and as debutants they are not scarred in the way their seniors have been by years in the wilderness or the failure at the World Cup Qualifier. Zimbabwe lost a piece of their future on that fateful, rainy day in Harare in March. With the performances of their rookies against Bangladesh, they have gained a little piece back.
"Teams around the world will know that Zimbabwe is getting back to the team they were earlier," coach Lalchand Rajput said after the latest win. "If you look at Zimbabwean cricket in the 90s, they had a fantastic team. This win will definitely revive that.
"It's a huge win for us, psychologically, mentally. We have started believing that we can't only win at home, we can win abroad as well. This is the first step and we need to kick on from here."
If they are able to do that, it needn't be another generation before Zimbabwe are toasting a Test victory again, on the road, in some far-flung corner of the cricketing world.

Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town