Why this poor scheduling?

AS I look at the international cricket calendar, one thing strikes me most, that is the scheduling of the matches. Tough in some cases and lop-sided in some. I know it is not possible to be playing outstanding cricket with outstanding teams all the time, but I would like to know why India plays so frequently with teams like Zimbabwe.

My intention is not to mock at the Zimbabwean cricketers because they have shown they have been making their best efforts to make the best out of what comes their way. I know there was a time when players from Zimbabwe were starved of international cricket but in the last two years or so they have been busy, playing Test and one-day cricket.

Why is it that Australia does not meet Zimbabwe as often as India does? How many times does Pakistan play Zimbabwe, at home or away? Well, looking at the manner in which the recent Test series progressed, I must say that the Indians too had little to offer. If Zimbabwe was struggling, so was India, the 2-0 win in the Test series notwithstanding.

When I last toured Zimbabwe, I was very impressed with the country's cricket structure. Small nation, small pool of cricketers to draw its strength from but very well organised. The facilities at its Test venues were superb and would put to shame some of the established Test venues in India. The lovely grounds at Harare and Bulawayo were of international standards and cricket watching was such a pleasant experience.

I also had an opportunity to see the academy run by former captain Dave Houghton. He is doing his bit and the cricketers have to utilise the facilities to justify the faith he and the national selectors have in Zimbabwe cricket's future. Houghton's contribution to Zimbabwe cricket was enormous when he was playing and now he is looking after the interests of his country, by coaching the up and coming stars.

For a nation rocked by political turmoil, Zimbabwe has managed to keep its focus right as far as cricket is concerned. The other games in Zimbabwe simply do not get this kind of attention and back up from the sponsors even though football is quite a popular sport, as is boxing. But cricket has begun to generate money through television rights and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union is also engaged in some good work when it comes to taking the game to the remote centres of the country.

The recent series showed that the flow of talent continues even though there is an urgent need for the team to come up with a few victories. We know how Zimbabwe has lost a lot of matches from winning positions, but it is time the team matched some of the other teams. A big win would bring about the required change in the attitude and act as a great boost for a team which is just not playing to its potential.

Zimbabwe's problem is that it depends a lot on a few individuals and that cannot be termed a positive development in a team game. The presence of Andy Flower gives the team some comfort and once he gets out cheaply, Zimbabwe invariably suffers.

It is this over-reliance on one individual when batting and one individual, Heath Streak, when bowling that negates all the good work the team has been engaged in.

True, India also relies on a few individuals but then in Zimbabwe's case the problems are multiplied because of the weak bowling strength.

Streak alone cannot be expected to run through the opposition, but I was impressed by the skills of left-arm spinner Ray Price.

I remember Price was set to play against India at Harare but on the morning of the match he discovered that he had been overlooked. Cricket experts in Zimbabwe spoke highly of this left-arm spinner and now I know how right they were. I thought Price was probably the only gain for Zimbabwe in the Test series against India.

Sachin Tendulkar was out thrice in the series and on all three occasions he fell to the guiles of Price. It was a rare happening at the Kotla when Price tied down Tendulkar to the crease. It was top class cricket with the bowler having his say against the best batsman in the world. That decisive spell was easily the most memorable one for Price, who deserved all the credit for his accurate and crafty bowling.

What struck me most about Price was his accuracy. Even in the closing stages of the match, when the conditions were balanced, Price showed remarkable temperament. His tight line was a fine example of attacking bowling and I am sure Price would have learnt a lot from this trip to India.

He is a bowler with a bright future indeed and should be able to build on the confidence he would have acquired from bowling against the Indian batsmen who are known to play spin well.

Zimbabwe has the potential to play much better but then the effort has to come in a collective manner. The failure of Andy Flower was a blow to the team's hopes. Alistair Campbell looked a shadow of himself and that was another factor that prevented Zimbabwe from giving its best. With such pressure on his shoulders, it was always going to be tough on Andy.

There is no doubt about Andy's class and that is why his wicket is always considered big, especially by the Indian bowlers. So, it was very creditable of the Indian bowlers that they managed to get him out cheaply when it mattered. He missed a century at Kotla and then was out without scoring in what I feel could be his last Test innings against India. I believe India is not going to play its next Test series against Zimbabwe for three years and I don't think Andy would be around playing Test cricket in 2005.

As long as he is available, Zimbabwe should utilise his experience to its maximum benefit.