Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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Among the myriad myths attached to Zimbabwe, those that concern money stand out most.
In the 1800s, explorers who came across the Great Zimbabwe ruins believed they had found the city of Ophir, home to King Soloman's Mines. Only the absence of gold would have told them they had not. More than two hundred years later, wheelbarrows filled with cash could create the impression of wealth. In reality all they could buy was a loaf of bread. Similarly cricket in Zimbabwe operates under various states of illusions about its financial viability, which will be in the spotlight over the next month as it hosts South Africa and Australia.
Less than two weeks ago, there were fears Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) was headed for monetary meltdown. Again. Peter Chingoka's stepping down as chairman after a more than two-decade reign, the culling of a domestic franchise and the restructuring of some parts of the administration all aroused suspicions of a looming financial crisis.
The casual observer would know nothing of those concerns because at first glance nothing seems amiss at Harare Sports Club. The outfield is a lush green, as though it had been kissed with summer rainfall for months. The last cloudburst in Zimbabwe's capital was experienced in May, which tells you how much work the groundstaff has been doing.
Just beyond the boundary, a trench is being dug in which a fibre-optic cable will be planted in the next 24 hours, providing Harare Sports Club with a high-speed connection to the outside world. The clubhouse itself is having a small refurbishment on one side while its restaurant, these days called the Centurion, will have a relaunch party in a week's time. One of Zimbabwe's most prominent musicians, Oliver Mtukudzi, an artist who does not come cheaply, is the headline act for the event.
All this is in fact a mirage through which a struggling ZC may be able to portray that not much is wrong. Harare Sports Club and the Centurion are not ZC entities but the administration is looking to use them to boost its own image and, possibly, its coffers over the next month.
ZC will charge spectators the usual US$1 or US$2 if they want to occupy a seat anywhere in the ground for the Test but are considering hiking up entry fees for the tri-series which will also include Australia. Tickets for those ODIS which usually cost US$5 could be put up to US$7.
All the gate-takings belong to ZC, including those for the Centurion, which the establishment has always handed over. However, insiders have indicated management could resist the US$7 fee because it considers it unreasonable and does not want to be used by ZC in an attempt to boost revenue. The Centurion has threatened to close its doors if ZC does not relent and allow fans in for the usual US$5 fee. ZC may get around that by erecting a temporary stand in front of the pub, effectively blocking patrons from seeing the match but allowing more spectators in to do the same.
All this may seem like a big fuss over very little because crowd figures are generally low, but that may not be the case this time. The Test kicks off as school holidays begin and will be played over a weekend and two public holidays, which should attract many spectators. Similarly, the tri-series will take place with children on vacation, and both South Africa and Australia are expected to be major draw-cards. Add to that that Zimbabwe will not host cricket for another year and you can see why ZC wants to cash in while the opportunity presents itself.
According to a proposed FTP, of which ESPNcricinfo has a copy, after this tour Zimbabweans will only see more international cricket next July, when they are scheduled to play India for three ODIs and a T20, and New Zealand for the same number of matches. The India visit will be the next money-making exercise for ZC at home and will likely tide the board over for a few months, as it did when India visited for five ODIs last year.
Before that, ZC will receive money from next year's World Cup, which is expected to provide the cushion for it to finance the game for a while. But in between ICC events and India visits, ZC's only other opportunity to make money, like most cricket countries, is when Australia or England tour. Because the latter have political reasons for not being able to visit Zimbabwe, Australia is their only other cash cow, with South Africa being a break-even tour. Now that the cow is turning up, albeit only to play in a fifty-over tri-series which will last little over two weeks, ZC wants to milk it for all it is worth while it has the chance.