Zimbabweans have a lot to gain

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THERE was a time when the Zimbabweans were starved of international cricket. Now, they hardly get time to stay at home. Most of the problems in Zimbabwean cricket are related to this hectic scheduling of international matches. The Zimbabweans, for all their sincere efforts, do not seem to be equipped to handle with distinction the pressures and demands of international cricket.

What would you say of a team which depends on one batsman and one bowler to make a match of it? Andy Flower and Heath Streak have consistently carried the team on their shoulders with support in phases coming from the likes of Grant Flower and Alistair Campbell but essentially it has been a story of struggle for the Zimbabweans because they fail to click as a team.

The struggle is on all fronts. No money, no recognition of their efforts and the growing distance between the players and the administrators has pushed Zimbabwe back every time the team has looked like making it. The vexed issue of including black cricketers in the national team has also confronted the Zimbabwe Cricket Union for quite some time now. No solution, however, has been found despite some positive thinking from both the camps.

Coach and former captain David Houghton had some strong views on the subject of handling the senior players. He advocated severe action against those involved in indiscipline, like the threats of strike before a match. Players refusing to play or captains stepping down from the post on the morning of the match have not contributed one bit towards improving the state of cricket affairs in Zimbabwe.

The players have their point in this matter but not always right. Most of the seniors were justified in demanding a hike in playing fee and contract money. "Why should we beg for what we deserve?" one of the seniors had asked when India toured Zimbabwe last. There was a crisis on the morning of a one-day match when Streak quit captaincy. It was his way of showing solidarity with the rest on the issue of selection.

Incidentally, the revolt was said to have been initiated by one of the former captains, who could not digest the inclusion of Tatenda Taibu as wicketkeeper ahead of his younger brother. The said player later made some racist remark and was suspended, only to return for this visit to India.

The white-dominated sport has attracted a few blacks but racial problems have only grown over the years, with the political situation in the country contributing immensely towards this disharmony and distrust among the players when dealing with the ZCU. The non-whites have always had a grudge against the administrators for not giving due consideration to their performances when it came to recognition for international matches. It may be true in a few cases but the ZCU has always dismissed such claims and it was a mistake they rued later. Treating the players with disdain has not helped ZCU's cause at all and it shows in Alistair Campbell's return to the team.

Campbell, who has not really done justice to his potential, is said to be a man marked by the ZCU. His return could mean a compromise of sorts after the former skipper was shown the door for the tours to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Loss of form was given as the reason that cost Campbell a place in the side but his stand against the selection policies, especially when picking the black cricketers, only aggravated the situation.

Confronted with problems off the field, it has been a grind on the field too for Zimbabwe. It continues to be a side which rarely gives the impression of being capable of winning, even though it has two Test victories at home against India. Of course, the last visit to India was a memorable one for the team which lost only one of the two Tests. It may have enhanced Zimbabwe's reputation as a side capable of holding its own in a Test match too but things have been hard for Zimbabwe of late and the decline in Sri Lanka was quite a big disappointment.

Zimbabwe, after beating Bangladesh in the Test series, lost all the three Tests in Sri Lanka and all by heavy margins. It was like old times when it would step on to the field with just one thing in mind - save the Test at all cost. A draw was considered a victory but in Sri Lanka the Zimbabweans hit their worst form. Not one batsman compiled a century and the most shattering moment came in the tri-series when Zimbabwe was skittled out for 38 by Sri Lanka, in the first one-dayer.

It was a tour which tested the mental toughness of the Zimbabwean cricketers and sadly the team failed as a whole. Andy Flower hit a bad patch and aggregated just 80 runs in six innings. For a batsman of Andy's calibre, it was a shockingly poor show but then he too was due for a loss of form after having served Zimbabwe so brilliantly in the last 10 years. Grant Flower totalled 130 runs in six innings and this double blow hit Zimbabwe hard. With Craig Wishart too going through a lean patch - 85 runs in six innings - it was tough on skipper Stuart Carlisle, who was forced to accept the responsibility following the injury to Brian Murphy.

A team full of former captains, Zimbabwe has had an identity crisis for quite some time. It has an unconvincing record as a Test team and the reliance on a few individuals has meant a struggle in one-day internationals too. The Sri Lankan tour showed the team in very poor light. Zimbabwe's decline was steady and as the series progressed, it must have been embarrassing for the team, having experienced better times as a Test side. Being bowled out for 79 in the last innings of the tour reflected the state of mind of the players, who were keen to get over the tour and leave for home.

The return of Alistair Campbell is being seen as a boost for a side which would be depending a lot on the experienced members to match the Indians, who have been playing cricket much below their potential. Some prominent names are missing from the squad for the Indian tour but it also means that the ZCU is looking ahead.

Issues related to selection of the team continue to rock Zimbabwean cricket. "Improper selection has remained the bane of cricket in Zimbabwe," a former player had remarked in Harare even as the home team inflicted a Test defeat on India, thanks to an aggressive spell by Andy Blignaut. Along with Henry Olonga, the most conspicuous name missing from the Zimbabwean tour party is Blignaut.

A recent ugly incident in Zimbabwe also does not speak well for the game in the country. A first-class match was brought to a stop by a batsman who refused to leave the crease on being given out. The batsman, Gift Makoni, was ruled out by umpire Alan Walsh in the match at Mutare but reportedly stayed on. He left the field only after roundly abusing the umpire and knocking the stumps down with his bat. The cricketing fraternity in Zimbabwe has reacted sharply to the incident even as the ZCU drags its feet on the action to be taken against the player concerned. The incident probably reflects the frustration among certain cricketers and also the growing gap between the players and the officials.

The strength of Zimbabwe cricket has been the desire to learn and make a place for the team. The players, under-paid and deprived of competitions in the past, have a job to perform, a challenge to bring in consistency in their performances. The talent flow may have been slow but there is no doubt that the efforts of people like Houghton and the Flower brothers would bring the results.

The success of Tatenda Taibu from the time he made his debut against India last year is quite an encouraging factor for the ZCU. The young black wicketkeeper, an icon among his community, has made rapid strides in the past few months and his show at the recent under-19 World Cup was just the kind of motivation the black cricketers in Zimbabwe could have asked for.

Taibu was adjudged the player of the tournament as Zimbabwe won the Plate Championship. It was a step in the right direction as ZCU has been making an earnest attempt to take the game to the masses. The National Academy, under the guidance of Houghton, is a glowing proof of Zimbabwe's efforts to improve its cricket structure. It also is a symbol of Zimbabwe's commitment to improve.

The series in India would mean a lot for Zimbabwe, especially Andy Flower who enjoyed his last visit when he compiled a double century at Nagpur to save the Test. He has been the toughest batsman to dismiss as far as the Indian bowlers are concerned and Andy Flower shall remain the prime target in this series too for Javagal Srinath and company. Andy's career has been a fascinating story of hard work and dedication, just the incentive for the younger generation to emulate.

In Zimbabwe, cricket may not be a way of life as in India but the game offers a chance to script a good life. Cricket, for a youngster like Taibu, is the escape route from all the hardships of life, a way to make the world recognise his worth to the game and the nation. There could be many like him waiting to be discovered. The series in India might well project a new star for Zimbabwe cricket. In the absence of regulars like Guy Whittall, Olonga, Blignaut and Murphy, the team would be under pressure to deliver but Zimbabwe has placed a lot of faith in young talent like Dion Ebrahim, Travis Friend and Taibu.

It is a pity that Zimbabwe has been given such poor Test centres as Delhi and Nagpur. On its last visit, Zimbabwe had played at the same venue and it goes to show in what light the Board of Control for Cricket in India views the opposition. It is now for Andy Flower and the rest to embarrass the host with a glittering performance based on a collective charge. The recent showings do not encourage such a happening though but being the underdog will help Zimbabwe. It has nothing to lose but a lot to gain from the two Tests and five one-dayers against an Indian team which has just completed a not so successful home series against England.