Where are Zimbabwe going? It looks like a path, is shaped like one – but then again it doesn’t, and isn’t. They are a Test nation who played no Tests in 2015. They are a Full Member but will need to qualify for global tournaments in the future. Zimbabwe continue to tread the liminal space between cricket’s haves and have-nots, neither here nor there, betwixt and between, part of cricket’s society but never fully integrated anywhere.
It’s an odd space to be in, and national coach Dav Whatmore – who began his tenure at the beginning of January – soon struck upon one of its symptoms when he suggested that Zimbabwe have the hardware to succeed but their software needs upgrading. That phrase quickly became a sort of mantra of his, and through it Whatmore continued to suggest that it is the mental side of the game that Zimbabwe most need to work on.
Symptomatically, Zimbabwe were able to put themselves in winning positions in nearly every series they played, but struggled to land the killer blow. They bossed sessions of play throughout their World Cup campaign but slipped onto the wrong sides of marginal calls, such as Chris Gayle’s first-ball lbw shout before his monumental 215 in Canberra, or John Mooney’s opinion-dividing boundary catch in Hobart. They also struggled horribly at the death with both bat and ball, coming away with just one win, over UAE. They also lost their best batsman of the last decade after the tournament, Brendan Taylor signing off with two sparkling hundreds against Ireland and India before leaving Zimbabwe for the security of a county contract with Nottinghamshire. Taylor’s talent was priceless and irreplaceable for Zimbabwe, and his departure reverberated through the rest of the year.
Without Taylor, Zimbabwe won hearts and minds on their historic tour of Pakistan in May, but no matches, despite their plucky dedication. The worthy successes against India, New Zealand and Pakistan at home were counterbalanced by the almosts and what-ifs from those same series. Pleasingly for the home fans, Zimbabwe held their grip on a couple of close games against Ireland in October, but they could not find it within themselves to match Afghanistan’s blossoming self-belief, conceding both the one-day and T20 series to the visitors.
There has been a real sense through 2015 that the era that began after the apocalyptic “rebel” saga is now at an end. The core of Zimbabwe’s squad has been in a state of flux since Taylor left in March, and for varying reasons, Zimbabwe shed senior players of the calibre of Vusi Sibanda, Prosper Utseya, Tendai Chatara and Hamilton Masakadza this year. Chatara will be back once his left leg, fractured in two places in April, heals, and Masakadza may yet plot a route back to the national side, but once he gets there he will find the dynamic much changed. Luke Jongwe, Wellington Masakadza, Tendai Chisoro, Brian Chari and Neville Madziva offer a vision of Zimbabwe’s future, and the new crop is likely to be joined soon by the likes of Peter Moor and Ryan Burl as well.
Neither Zimbabwe’s new faces nor their seasoned veterans did awfully well in Bangladesh at the end of the year, and that tour confirmed just how far Zimbabwe have been outstripped by competitors they used to see as equals. Somewhat remarkably, Zimbabwe actually won the final T20 to break a 13-match losing streak against Bangladesh, Madziva’s miraculous last-over conversion doing the trick, snatching a win from the jaws of defeat. Perhaps that software upgrade so desired by Whatmore is finally coming to pass. Yet if Zimbabwe are slowly finding the gumption to leap over hurdles on the field, they still face trials off it.
The ugliness of Mark Vermeulen’s racist outburst on Facebook, which resulted in his being banned from all cricket in October, the virtual collapse of the dysfunctional player association, and Utseya’s accusations of racism against Alistair Campbell in his letter to the Zimbabwe Cricket board in May suggest that the seeds of crisis are not buried so deep that they might not sprout up once more in 2016. The ousting of chairman Wilson Manase in August, and Campbell’s frustrated resignation in October lent an unsettled feel to the administration, capping a year of change.
It was also a busy year. Zimbabwe played almost twice as many internationals this year as they did in 2014, with 40 matches to last year’s 23, but even with more games, life on cricket’s margins will get no easier. Though the incoming crop of players have brought with them a renewed freshness and hunger to succeed, this year showed more often than not that the jump from Zimbabwean domestic cricket to the international arena remains a huge one.
Zimbabwe’s batting clicked in spectacular fashion in the opening ODI against New Zealand at the beginning of August, but the zenith of their energy as a team had come two weeks earlier with their 10-run win in the second T20 against India. Second-string side or not, India’s standing in world cricket is so far removed from Zimbabwe’s as to be in a different universe. Given India’s vast IPL experience, even a solitary T20 victory over them seemed unthinkable. Zimbabwe had won just two of their previous nine games, and that too against non-Test teams, and worse still, news had broken overnight of Utseya’s letter to the board, and a background of racial tension might easily have knocked them even further off their game. This was Zimbabwe’s line in the sand.
Chamu Chibhabha’s career-best 67 held Zimbabwe’s 145 for 7 together, but the most remarkable aspect of this game didn’t come from an individual performance. What was most eye-catching about it was the transformation of the Zimbabweans from a rag-tag bunch of individual cricketers into a formidable unit greater than the sum of its parts. This was all the more unexpected given that they were without their captain, Elton Chigumbura, who had picked up an injury in the previous match. The enthusiasm of Sikandar Raza, who stepped into a temporary leadership position, clearly played a part, but this was the very definition of a team effort.
Tears were shed when Afghanistan made history by becoming the first Associate team to better a Full Member in an ODI series in October, but they were the joyous tears of the victors. The Zimbabweans seemed more shell-shocked than distraught, having been humbled by Afghanistan’s absolute self-belief. The final match of a series, then tied at 2-2, was played in front of a boisterous crowd that expected more. Zimbabwe’s bowlers kept Afghanistan to what was more or less a par score, but the home batsmen wilted under sustained pressure and Dawlat Zadran’s pace and movement brought him four cheap wickets. The only batsman to offer any resistance was Sean Williams, but his joyless expression at reaching a maiden ODI hundred spoke volumes of the depths to which Zimbabwe had sunk.
New kid on the block
Family ties have long been a feature of Zimbabwe’s cricket, where the player base is tiny. The Streaks, Flowers, Whittalls, Rennies, Strangs and Ervines have provided familiar names both across and within generations, and now the Masakadzas are doing the same. Hamilton was the pioneer, and Shingi followed. Their younger sibling, Wellington, is the latest addition to a Zimbabwe XI, and debuted against Ireland in October. He provides accurate left-arm spin that has brought him 14 wickets at 22.42 in his first eight ODIs, as well as some obdurate stickability down the order and a safe pair of hands at backward point. But his debut came in the same series in which Hamilton was dropped, and in fact Wellington took his big brother’s locker space in the Zimbabwe changing room.
Hamilton Masakadza’s year began on a celebratory note when he was, for the first time in a career that started in 2001, included in a Zimbabwe World Cup squad. He started strongly in the tournament, with a bolshie 80 against South Africa , and registered two more fifties against New Zealand when they visited Zimbabwe, but eventually paid the price for inconsistency when he was dropped from the side in October. Masakadza didn’t fall too far, settling into the A side, and there could yet be a route back for him – particularly for the World T20, given he is the only Zimbabwean batsman to have scored more than 1000 runs in the format.
What 2016 holds
Zimbabwe should be assured of plenty of game time in 2016, with a limited-overs tour of Bangladesh, followed by the World T20 and home series against India, New Zealand and Sri Lanka to look forward to. But Test cricket clearly is no longer the primary focus, and their share of the ICC’s Test Match Fund will far more likely be used to underwrite loss-making limited-overs tours, which have become the new norm.
For years global tournaments such as the World Cup and World T20 have helped Zimbabwe eke a way through even the most desiccating of financial droughts. They must now face up to a future where, in effect, their participation at these events is no longer assured. They have already missed out on a place at the Champions Trophy, and if they are not ranked in the top eight of the ICC ODI rankings by the end of next year, they will face qualification for the next World Cup.