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Feature

Cricket might not love Zimbabwe, but the game would be poorer without them

It's hard not to be moved by the scenes and feelings that followed Zimbabwe's epic defeat of Pakistan - but don't forget, they were so close to the brink themselves not long ago

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
28-Oct-2022
Luke Jongwe and Brad Evans celebrate after the famous win, Pakistan vs Zimbabwe, T20 World Cup, Perth, October 27, 2022

Zimbabwe: putting the joy firmly back in cricket  •  Getty Images

Imagine liking cricket, and experiencing anything but pure exhilaration at what transpired in Perth last night.
Imagine watching Brad Evans, prone on the ground, his team-mates enveloping him in a suffocating embrace, a scene likely replicated everywhere from Borrowdale to Bulawayo, Mount Pleasant to Mutare, and be too emotionally jaded to feel the delight.
Imagine listening to Pommie Mbangwa calling that final ball, allowing himself to be vulnerable both in his stress and his joy, and failing to grasp the magnitude of what had just happened.
Imagine watching that contingent of Zimbabwean fans, a travelling Castle Corner across Australia, let loose their emotions and not welling up.
Perhaps it was harsh on Pakistan that they ended up being Zimbabwe's most consequential victims on a global stage in 15 years. Pakistan are, after all, one of few Full Members that continue to fulfil their FTP obligations to Zimbabwe even when there's little money to be made from those tours. Pakistan play Zimbabwe so often, in fact, that their players' records have often required those numbers to be filtered out for a more accurate understanding of their abilities.
But if there's one team that could easily have found itself filtered out of the game altogether, the little landlocked country in southern Africa was a prime contender. Kenya is little more than a cricketing footnote now, and Zimbabwe looked perilously close to following them there till some time ago.
They have been to these kinds of dinner parties and annual general meetings much too often not to cotton on to what was happening. There's a big table where they had a seat in a corner, only for no one to talk to them. Their Full-Member privileges were used to move them around like pawns in voting battles, the carrot of a lucrative series dangled in front of them in exchange for their consent.
The big members ignored them. England last played Zimbabwe in any format anywhere in 2007. Australia have played only one Test in Zimbabwe to date, in 1999. Zimbabwe's last tour to India was in 2002, and the last Test anywhere between the two was in 2005. When the World Test Championship started, Zimbabwe were relegated to the second tier alongside Afghanistan and Ireland, sides they had preceded in obtaining Test status by a quarter of a century.
Just four days ago, it felt as if Zimbabwe had to risk their fast bowlers in lashing rain in Hobart, simply to get a game against South Africa in. It didn't come to that, but the Zimbabwe camp was furious, and felt that if the positions had been reversed, and South Africa had to bowl in the rain, it would have been called off sooner. They bowled three overs. Dave Houghton, their coach, said Zimbabwe "shouldn't have bowled even one ball".

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Think of Evans, whose only memory of watching his father play is from when he was five, lying in bed with his mother, as Craig Evans played his final game for Zimbabwe in Perth. The same city where Brad has now made his career's most telling contribution. He hadn't played all tournament but found himself bowling the final over. Four years ago, he hadn't even played a first-class game, and found himself in Wales, hoping to stay in the UK long enough to get a British passport. He didn't even start out bowling fast, and played as an opening batter until well into his teenage years. By the end of his career, he would like to transition into a batting allrounder rather than the other way. With Zimbabwe's World Cup on the line and a pittance to defend, he's an unlikely candidate to be entrusted to do the job. But then, you could say that about Zimbabwe's entire team.
Think of Sikandar Raza, as his voice quivers and his face creases with emotion after Evans has done what ESPNcricinfo's win predictor gave him a 3% chance of pulling off with four balls to go. Raza has just won yet another Player-of-the-Match Award, this time just about knocking his country of birth out of the tournament. As a teenager, he followed his parents to Zimbabwe not to play cricket, but simply because he wanted to spend time with his father, whose work meant he lived a peripatetic life. And he would stumble into a cricketing structure that, if not carefully harnessed, might have ceased to exist in a generation or so.
Think of Blessing Muzarabani, who everyone wants a piece of now. Less than a decade ago, he used to turn up at Harare Sports Club without proper shoes to bowl in. He didn't even know if there was a game on when he showed up because, you see, he couldn't afford a mobile phone to check in advance. Against a team that considers itself the spiritual home of fast bowling, this lanky, lovable, gentle giant has outshone them all. He's broken the game open by cleaning up his PSL captain Mohammad Rizwan, the boy from Murewa outwitting the most consistent T20 batter in the world.
Think of Houghton, and the difference he has made in four months, of how keen he is to downplay it and deflect all the praise to his players. He was there when it all started, when Zimbabwe beat Australia in 1983 in their first taste of a global cricket tournament. He would captain his side in their first ever Test match nine years later, scoring 121 against India. Seven years later, there he was again, coach of a Zimbabwe side that beat South Africa and India to qualify for the ODI World Cup Super Sixes. Zimbabwe would finish fifth then, and 23 years later, he is in charge as they are in the mix to go one better.

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In 2019, citing government interference in cricket administration, the ICC suspended Zimbabwe and put them out in the cold, the first time they had done so to a Full Member. They were locked out of the chance to qualify for the 2021 T20 World Cup, of the opportunity to access ICC development funds they so desperately needed to prevent many of their cricketers slipping below the poverty line, and into anonymity.
Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) wasn't an innocent party in this, even if its players most certainly were. The necessity for the government to be involved in the first place, the parachute payments that disappeared over the years never to be seen again, the players who played without contracts, deferring payments to a future that held only uncertainty, meant Zimbabwe always felt inexorably on a path to that calamity.
In 2014, the Zimbabwe Professional Cricketers' Association had to beseech ZC to set aside 25% of its revenue from the T20 World Cup that year to ensure player salaries were paid on time. If it is baffling that the request needed to be made at all, consider that, at the time, it was initially rejected out of hand.
It was a time when Tinashe Panyangara was sent home from a tour for apparently sharing a WhatsApp video of Mitchell Johnson bowling bouncers. Not much later, Ryan Burl was pleading for the players to be given decent shoes so they wouldn't have to glue them together. And those unpaid salaries kept piling up.
What the ICC sanction did was to push a member with an established, organic cricketing structure nearly out of existence. It punished a group of trailblazing Zimbabwe women, on their way to participating in a Global Development Squad in England, by barring them from travelling as part of a complete ban on any Zimbabwean participation in ICC-affiliated events.
It came at a time when Zimbabwe's Sports and Recreation Committee, led by former Olympic gold medallist Kirsty Coventry, looked like it was on the cusp of meaningful, structural change, to ensure the incompetence and corruption of the past would not be repeated. She told ESPNcricinfo that there had been no governmental interference at ZC, and pointedly questioned why, in a sport where such interference isn't unique to Zimbabwe, they had been dealt with so harshly. "I'd love to get an answer to [why we were treated differently]," she had said at the time.
And, in full view of the cricketing world, Zimbabwe were made to fall in line, forced to undo every change Coventry's committee had tried to make.
But Zimbabwe is not a country that lets someone else script its destiny.
It is a country that survived the most crippling sanctions during Robert Mugabe's regime. It is a country that went through an economic turmoil so egregious they were forced to print 100-trillion-dollar notes, the highest monetary denomination in world history. It is a country that has been punched in the gut much too often, just as often by internal forces as external ones.
But even when Zimbabwe laments, it does so on its own terms.
This, after all, is the country of the percipient prose of Dambudzo Marechera, an examiner of the Zimbabwean condition before that was even his homeland's name. It is the country of the sonorous, melancholy tones of Oliver Mtukudzi, whose music and relentless, crusading social commentary made him not just an icon in the country, but an African hero.

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You know what happened against Pakistan, and that final over that might yet take Zimbabwe to heights they have never reached in a World Cup before. But, even as you savour the cricket you saw on that magical evening, don't forget how close we came to the whole thing not taking place at all. A small nation that had much to give and little to lose threw its lot into a sport that sometimes doesn't quite seem to love it back enough, and showed what cricket could be with a lot more joy and a little less avarice.
Even when the memory of this World Cup fortnight fades, never forget how Zimbabwe made you feel on Thursday night. And never forget that what might be a fun night of sport for us is a life's work for Sean Williams and Craig Ervine and Wessly Madhevere, for Raza and, of course, Houghton.
Imagine, indeed, thinking that cricket, rich sport that it might be, isn't infinitely richer for having Zimbabwe in it.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000