“We have too many long periods without international cricket, and unfortunately the gap between our domestic cricket and international cricket is massive,” Head Coach Heath Streak said.
As Zimbabwe shimmied towards their latest defeat in the second Test against Sri Lanka, thoughts turned to that age-old question: what are the ingredients for an effective turnaround for Zimbabwe cricket?
A lot has changed over the last 15 months. A new board and a new chairman have taken charge. The backroom staff at the national level have all changed, and there is a new head coach now in Heath Streak. Tatenda Taibu has taken over as the new convenor of selectors, and has the responsibility of setting up a new structure below the national team.
There are some promising new players coming through. What’s more, Streak has infused positivity into a group of players that had for some time seen survival as their only goal.
Further evolution is in the pipeline. Last season’s Logan Cup, the country’s first-class competition, comprised just six rounds, with the national players missing most of them. Although the fixtures of the upcoming season are awaited, the number of matches are expected to double. The four first-class provinces that will contest the Logan Cup will also be supplemented by five Associate provinces who will make up a feeder league.
One might look at all this and wonder what else is to be done to improve a Test team that has now failed to take 20 wickets in a match in eight games, and has conceded more than 500 runs in the first innings of its last five Tests.
An obvious answer is to entice players who have left – such as Brendan Taylor, Kyle Jarvis and Solomon Mire – back into the fold, but that may not happen in the short term.
A less obvious one is to provide better support for the players they’ve got. Streak pointed out that, as a coaching unit, the resources at Zimbabwe’s disposal in an increasingly technological age are miles behind even those of Bangladesh, and said he would be asking Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) for backing in this regard.
Further questions arise. Is it possible for Zimbabwe to move forward whilst ZC remain saddled with an asphyxiating debt that, in truth, calls into question the viability of its domestic plans?
One also wonders whether anything can really improve until there is a turnaround in the country’s economy, and its political landscape stabilises.
In short, there are numerous problems to tackle, but there are some good men doing their best to come up with solutions. The question then is what could happen in the global game that would assist Zimbabwe?
A decade ago, with accusations of corruption swirling around ZC, many observers wanted them to be expelled from the ICC. When that did not happen, the rest of the world quietly forgot about Zimbabwe.
India have been consistent visitors over the past six years – “all-weather friends”, in the local parlance – essentially providing the income for ZC to remain a going concern. New Zealand, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all done their bit, but their tours cost ZC more money than they make. Everyone else has largely given up on Zimbabwe, and the disintegration of the Future Tours Programme has allowed other countries to ignore them.
Since returning to Test cricket in August 2011, Zimbabwe have played just six away Tests, three of them in a single series in Bangladesh. Without more international games, especially Tests, Zimbabwe is unlikely to get far even if they reform themselves in every possible way.
“We have too many long periods without international cricket, and unfortunately the gap between our domestic cricket and international cricket is massive,” Streak said. “Our next scheduled Test series is in June next year. If you’re a specialist Test player like Tino Mawoyo, your next Test is in eight months’ time, and his only cricket in the meantime will be domestic cricket. You can’t expect to go from that to facing Rangana Herath. But I’m telling the players we can’t just expect people to want to come and play us. We’ve got to earn the right.”
The next few years will be crucial for the game here, and Zimbabwe’s future is likely to be tied to what happens at the ICC.
If nothing comes of attempts to add context and structure to bilateral cricket, and Zimbabwe fail to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, then it’s difficult not to see former coach Dav Whatmore’s prophecy coming to pass and Zimbabwe going Kenya’s way. But if the ICC’s Members can agree on a new format for bilateral cricket, there is reason to be hopeful.
The two-tier system discussed by the ICC in September would have solved the lack of cricket, but ZC opposed it. “I mean that was like doing this,” said a former Zimbabwe international this week, cocking his right hand into the shape of a gun before pretending to blow his brains out through the roof of his head.
In July, ZC chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani said the opposition to the proposal was because, “whatever restructuring of international cricket is done must be aimed at ensuring that it improves cricket, and our belief is that you can only improve when you play against the best.”
The fact that only one of Zimbabwe’s Test opponents since August 2011 have been ranked in the top four at the time that the two teams played – South Africa visited for one Test in 2014 – confirms they are not playing against the best as things stand. “We have to earn the right to step up, and the only way you’re going to do that is by playing regularly,” said Streak. “I’m very keen for us to play even non-official Tests against Ireland and Afghanistan, because you’re going to be better off for it than playing Mountaineers versus Tuskers.”
By opposing the two-tier system, ZC have effectively gambled on the ICC Members agreeing on a better proposal soon. The ICC is not known for moving quickly with small decisions, let alone big ones. Should it all come together, though, there are other changes on the horizon that would benefit Zimbabwe.
An ODI league would bring quantity and quality, guaranteeing games against everyone and even encouraging England to resume ties. The new structures look set to make all of these fixtures financially viable, rather than adding to ZC’s debt burden.
Furthermore, if India come on board with the DRS and the ICC secure a global sponsor for the system, it would become readily available in Zimbabwe.
The last two series have shown how badly it is needed.
And if ZC can pool their television rights with other boards, they should secure more money that could result in their games being broadcast to a wider audience. Their last two series have been aired in just a handful of countries, and Zimbabweans have been vulnerable to the whims of the state broadcaster, ZBC.
There is much to be hopeful about then, but the stakes are high. The ICC’s drive to change bilateral cricket was largely borne out of a desire for context in games among middle-ranking nations. But failure to transform the landscape could easily see its most embattled Full Member go quietly into the night. – espncricinfo.com