Home team remains the perfect host

Stephen Fleming with the trophy after New Zealand won the two-match series.-AP

ZIMBABWE has lost six of the eight Tests that it played in since April 2004 — two each to Sri Lanka, South Africa and recently New Zealand. And in what was dubbed as the `battle of the lightweights' last season, the African nation presented Bangladesh with its first-ever series victory, when it lost the first Test by a whopping 226 runs before managing to draw the next.

For nearly the whole of last year, Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) could blame the players' strike as the cause for its insipid performances. But in the opening Test at Harare, which it lost in two days, the host was fielding its strongest team since March 2004.

Such was Zimbabwe's performance, that the newspaper Herald said, "Maybe the umpires and the match referee should have ordered the teams to get the second Test underway. And it would have been finishing anytime from tomorrow.

"If what was on display at Harare Sports Club is to be reviewed at the highest level then Zimbabwe should not be playing Test matches in the interests of the world's Test match standards."

New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming was equally concerned, "I'm not sure if it's good for the game."

As things turned out, Zimbabwe lost the second Test in three days. This meant that the country has conceded a two-Test series inside five days for the second time in succession!

Clearly, the country's socio-political situation has pushed back the development of the team. The political unrest saw the emigration of players who took the game seriously, while only a few years earlier talented ones like Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson opted for the financial security Shield and county cricket offered — an indicator that playing international cricket for Zimbabwe wasn't sufficiently rewarding.

It is indeed a worrying trend that two countries have fielded second-string sides for one reason or the other. In Zimbabwe's case it was partly political, but West Indies played a two-Test series and a tri-series in Sri Lanka without eight of its regular players owing to a contract dispute.

In doing so, the West Indies was clearly devaluing Test cricket. The first Test happened to be Sri Lanka's 150th, and all skipper Marvan Atapattu could do was lament that it would have been appropriate had the Caribbean outfit been in full strength. It was a surprise that the International Cricket Council did not respond to the situation.

The ICC needs to address the issue of Zimbabwe, which is on the decline. Not that the country was ever a serious opposition in the longer version of the game. Since gaining Test status in 1992-93, Zimbabwe has just eight wins to show from 81 Tests, apart from 26 draws and 47 defeats. Four of those victories came against Bangladesh and two each against India and Pakistan.

Comparatively, Bangladesh is on a better footing. Unlike Zimbabwe where the game was the preserve of the white for many years, cricket is the number one sport in Bangladesh.

Come to think of it, Bangladesh's cricket has been on the ascend since December 2004 when it defeated India for the first time in ODI, and subsequently beat Zimbabwe in a Test series. Recently it scored an upset victory over world champion Australia in the NatWest limited-overs competition in England.

Bangladesh has the required resources — patronage of the public and government, infrastructure and funding — not to forget the growing talent bank — Md. Ashraful has been quite a revelation — which cannot be said of the current Zimbabwean crop. Cricket remains a minority sport in Zimbabwe, and the country, as such, is less than a tenth of the size of Bangladesh.

It is unlikely that the ICC would ever take the extreme step. As New Zealand all-rounder Chris Cairns put it, "The political side of things will mean that it will retain its Test status. I believe it's difficult to argue against that because you want the game to live in all corners of the world. But when you're getting performance like this, it sort of devalues it (Test cricket) a little bit."

Cairns was, nevertheless, dismissive of Zimbabwe's performance. "There's no point in trying to up-play the Zimbabwean effort. I thought they were dreadful, to be honest," he told a radio channel. "I thought their application was non-existent and I'm not quite sure what sort of state they're in," said Cairns, who joined the National side for the one-day tri-series.

However, it is important that the ICC takes control to save both Zimbabwe cricket as well as guard Test cricket.

The 10-year Test programme can be a burden on a side like Zimbabwe, and incessant defeats would surely have a negative impact. The ICC possibly needs to re-think before involving Zimbabwe again in such a programme. Lesser exposure to big sides, low-key tours and special funding might help.

In the first Test at Harare, Brendon McCullum and Daniel Vettori scored centuries and Fleming 73 as New Zealand ran up 452 for nine declared. Zimbabwe was shot out for 59 and 99.

The hosts put up a better show in the second Test, with skipper Tatenda Taibu making 76. Kiwi paceman Shane Bond took his maiden 10-wicket haul in Test cricket. The 30-year-old Christchurch cricketer was returning to Test cricket after a 28-month injury lay off. With this performance, he became the quickest New Zealander to reach the 50-wicket mark in Tests.

Nathan Astle notched up a hundred, while Lou Vincent missed his by eight runs. It was Bond's spells that made the difference. Fleming admitted that Bond's presence had made a huge difference to their attack. "We've gone through some series and kept our mouth shut, knowing we were missing possibly one of the greatest bowlers to play for New Zealand. He's worked very hard and come back well," said the skipper. Fleming himself had a good series with the bat, scoring two half-centuries. His 65 in the second Test took him past the 6000-run mark, making him the first Kiwi to achieve the feat.

Zimbabwe replaced Phil Simmons, the former West Indian all-rounder, with Kevin Curran, a former Zimbabwe player, as the national coach after the series loss. — A Special Correspondent

The scores

Second Test, Bulawayo, Aug. 15, 16 & 17, New Zealand won by an innings and 46 runs.

Zimbabwe — 1st innings: D. Ebrahim lbw b Bond 0, B. Taylor c McCullum b Bond 37, S. Carlisle lbw b Bond 1, H. Masakadza c Martin b Bond 0, C. Wishart c Astle b Franklin 30, T. Taibu c Vettori b Bond 76, H. Streak c McCullum b Bond 0, K. Dabengwa b Martin 17, N. Mahwire c Astle b Vettori 42, A. Cremer (not out) 7, C. Mpofu c J. Marshall b Vettori 7; Extras (lb-4, nb-10) 14. Total 231.

Fall of wickets: 1-0, 2-3, 3-7, 4-65, 5-74, 6-74, 7-123, 8-211, 9-217.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 17-4-51-6, Franklin 12-3-43-1, Martin 13-4-42-1, Styris 4-2-9-0, Vettori 27-9-56-2, Astle 6-2-26-0.

New Zealand — 1st innings: J. Marshall c Carlisle b Streak 10, L. Vincent b Streak 92, H. Marshall (run out) 13, S. Fleming c Taibu b Mahwire 65, N. Astle b Streak 128, S. Styris c Taibu b Mahwire 45, B. McCullum c Taylor b Dabengwa 24, D. Vettori c Taibu b Dabengwa 48, J. Franklin lbw b Streak 19, S. Bond b Mahwire 8, C. Martin (not out) 0; Extras (b-6, lb-6, w-2, nb-18) 32. Total 484.

Fall of wickets: 1-34, 2-48, 3-185, 4-205, 5-292, 6-346, 7-439, 8-475, 9-484.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 22-6-73-4, Mahwire 25.1-2-121-3, Mpofu 15-1-80-0, Cremer 24-1-111-0, Dabengwa 25-2-87- 2.

Zimbabwe — 2nd innings: Ebrahim c Styris b Bond 2, Taylor c Vettori b Bond 77, Carlisle (run out) 10, Masakadza b Vettori 28, Wishart (run out) 0, Taibu lbw b Vettori 25, Streak c McCullum b Bond 2, Dabengwa c McCullum b Bond 4, Mahwire (not out) 50, Cremer lbw b Vettori 1, Mpofu (run out) 3; Extras (lb-2, nb-3) 5. Total 207.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-19, 3-69, 4-69, 5-146, 6-146, 7-153, 8-164, 9-173.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 14-1-48-4, Franklin 10-3-24-0, Martin 12-2-47-0, Vettori 22.1-8-66-3, Styris 3-0-20-0.

The scores

First Test, Harare, Aug. 7 & 8, New Zealand won by an innings and 294 runs.

New Zealand — 1st innings: J. Marshall c Taibu b Mahwire 5, L. Vincent c Carlisle b Mahwire 13, H. Marshall lbw b Mpofu 20, S. Fleming c Carlisle b Mpofu 73, N. Astle c Taylor b Streak 23, S. Styris (run out) 7, B. McCullum c Cremer b Mahwire 111, D. Vettori b Streak 127, J. Franklin b Cremer 13, S. Bond (not out) 41, C. Martin (not out) 4; Extras (b-1, lb-7, w-2, nb-5) 15. Total (for nine wkts decl) 452.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-24, 3-63, 4-104, 5-113, 6-233, 7-309, 8-369, 9-432.

Zimbabwe bowling: Streak 23.4-5-102-2, Mahwire 26-4-115-3, Mpofu 16.2-1-100-2, Cremer 22-0-113-1, Taylor 1-0-14-0.

Zimbabwe — 1st innings: N. Ferreira c McCullum b Franklin 5, B. Taylor (run out) 10, D. Ebrahim lbw b Franklin 0, H. Masakadza lbw b Franklin 0, C. Wishart b Bond 0, S. Carlisle (not out) 20, T. Taibu lbw b Martin 5, H. Streak c McCullum b Martin 0, N. Mahwire lbw b Martin 4, A. Cremer c Martin b Vettori 1, C. Mpofu st McCullum b Vettori 0; Extras (lb-6, w-1, nb-7) 14. Total 59.

Fall of wickets: 1-9, 2-9, 3-10, 4-11, 5-28, 6-46, 7-46, 8-51, 9-53.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 5-1-11-1, Franklin 5-0-11-3, Martin 10-1-21-3, Styris 7-4-9-0, Vettori 2.4-2-1-2.

Zimbabwe — 2nd innings: Ferreira c Fleming b Franklin 16, Taylor c Vettori b Franklin 0, Ebrahim b Martin 8, Masakadza c & b Vettori 42, Wishart c Fleming b Bond 5, Carlisle c Fleming b Bond 0, Taibu c Fleming b Martin 4, Streak lbw b Vettori 3, Mahwire (not out) 4, Cremer c J. Marshall b Vettori 3, Mpofu st. McCullum b Vettori 0; Extras (lb-8, nb-6) 14. Total 99.

Fall of wickets: 1-5, 2-14, 3-53, 4-76, 5-80, 6-84, 7-90, 8-90, 9-99.

New Zealand bowling: Bond 11-8-10-2, Franklin 10-2-19-2, Styris 2-0-3-0, Martin 8-5-16-2, Vettori 13.5-4-28-4, Astle 5-0-15-0.