The Bizarre Conundrum of Zimbabwe Cricket: What went wrong and how?
The African nation of Zimbabwe finds itself languishing at the bottom of the ICC rankings in all three formats. From a team that was once touted to enjoy major success in their future, Zimbabwe cricket’s steady decline ever since the 2000s has been a cause for concern for enthusiasts across Zimbabwe. A sporting team responsible for some of Zimbabwe's most unifying moments has become just another victim of the government's destructive politics. From the national set-up down to the schoolboy competitions, cricket in Zimbabwe has struggled to survive for a generation. But what exactly went wrong for the gentleman's game in the country?
Good beginnings and the golden era
Zimbabwe became an affiliate member of the ICC in 1981, only a year after gaining independence. Although test status wasn’t granted to Zimbabwe Cricket until 1992, the team got acquainted with limited overs cricket quickly; they were allowed to play in the 1983 World Cup. Zimbabwe shocked big guns Australia in the group stage after Duncan Fletcher’s all-round heroics, providing one of the biggest upsets in cricket at the time.
The team waited until the 1992 World Cup for their next win at the biggest stage after beating England in a low-scoring thriller, despite having already being eliminated from the tournament. Consistency aside, Zimbabwe’s limited overs side showed signs that acquiring test cricket status would bring about positive changes in the coming years.
The next few years came to be known as Zimbabwe’s golden era as the team won on a more consistent basis against quality opposition. They won against both India and Pakistan in tests and ODIs in 1998, which included a test series win against Pakistan. This was a followed by a brilliant showing at the 1999 World Cup where they narrowly missed out on a semifinals spot because of their low net run rate. In their group stage run, they beat India and South Africa, sending out a strong statement to international competitors. Although the political situation in the country was deteriorating, Zimbabwe enjoyed a successful cricketing period until 2002, in which they had beaten every test-playing nation except Australia.
The downhill slide
By 2003, when it seemed that Zimbabwe had finally arrived in international cricket — atleast in the limited overs format — the downfall began. Neither cricketers nor the administrators were responsible for the mounting troubles. It was just one man — Zimbabwe’s “all-knowing” de-facto dictator Robert Mugabe. Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe for a painstakingly long period ever since it was granted independence in 1980. To strengthen his hold over the country, he began introducing pro-black and anti-white legislations. The anti-white bias also spilled over to the cricket field. In 2000-01, the Board introduced a quota system to “promote black players”.
The 2003 World Cup marked a turning point in Zimbabwe’s short cricketing history: Andy Flower and Henry Olonga sported black armbands during their games to mark the death of democracy in Zimbabwe. The protest was met with fierce backlash from the public; both players were subsequently expelled from the team. Many players ended their careers prematurely as they felt that the cricket was becoming inescapably politicized. Captain Heath Streak was sacked in 2004 by the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, a move which prompted 14 other players to leave the squad.
This severely affected the team because it was now composed of young, inexperienced players who had never been exposed to quality opposition. Poor performances against Australia and Sri Lanka prompted the ZCU to reconsider its position on playing test cricket. In 2005, Streak returned to the team but the damage had already been done. ICC suspended the Zimbabwe Cricket’s test status temporarily for the year; but even after being reinstated, the team continued its dismal performances after recording losses against South Africa, New Zealand and India.
The team was suspended once again, but this time they had to wait until 2011 to be reinstated to test cricket. Due to the worsening political and economic situation in the country, contract negotiations between the board and players failed, and on many occasions, players did not receive their salaries on time either.
Taibu: A Glimmer of Hope
Tatenda Taibu, the former Zimbabwe captain, was 29 when he retired from international cricket in 2012 to pursue a religious calling. He landed in Liverpool, a destination that carried with it a degree of fate in itself; his father had supported the famous football team in the 1980s, captivated by the artistry of John Barnes and proud simply of the presence of compatriot Bruce Grobbelaar in a world-class line-up. Since arriving in the city, Taibu's family has become friendly with the family of another Liverpool icon, Jamie Carragher, and his two sons are enrolled to attend the prestigious private school St Marys College.
A stellar career as a player notwithstanding, Taibu's history with ZC is complex; as diminutive as he may be – standing 164cm tall – he is a man of strong principles. Thrust into leadership as a 22-year-old following the Heath Streak debacle, he soon warned of strike action over the incompetence of the board, and subsequently received threats that forced he and his family into hiding. Towards the end of his time at the elite level, the straight-talking wicketkeeper-batsman again clashed with the board over funding, player contracts and poor professional structures.
The takeover of the cricket board by the Sports and Recreation Commission meant that many White and Asian-origin players and officials were now discouraged from playing for the country, which resulted in a mass exodus of talented players to county cricket in England. Year on end, a promising Zimbabwean side which was destined for the world stage slowly had its soul removed by corrupt political forces.
Zimbabwe is ranked no.10 in tests on the ICC rankings despite having played for over 25 years. In contrast, Bangladesh are no longer minnows in test cricket, having beaten big guns like Australia and England in recent years. Zimbabwe has dropped to no.11 in ODIs and no.12 in T20Is after the rise of associate teams such as Afghanistan and Ireland.
Having never progressed beyond rank 8 in any format of the game, strong questions have been asked of the team’s stagnancy in international cricket. With Afghanistan and Ireland both acquiring test status in 2017, there is a strong possibility that Zimbabwe will drop beyond no.10 even in test cricket.
However, in 2017, the team showed a glimmer of hope when they put up strong performances on their tour of Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe won the ODI series 3-2, their first series win away from home against a major test side in 16 years. It was also the first time that Zimbabwe defeated Sri Lanka in any format in their own backyard. Although Sri Lanka won the only test in the series, they were made to fight really hard to prevent an upset.
Zimbabwe’s arrival in international cricket has been full of highs and lows. From shocking world class opposition in the World Cup to losing to Afghanistan in recent years, it has been a roller-coaster ride for the African nation on the global stage. In the process, the country has produced world-class talent like the Flower brothers, Heath Streak, Tatenda Taibu and Brendan Taylor.
The rise of new nations such as Afghanistan and Ireland have also jeopardized the country’s standing in international cricket. While the win against Sri Lanka is being treated as a watershed moment, followers of Zimbabwean cricket know that expectations should always be kept to a minimum. Uncertain times lie ahead for the Zimbabwean national side, as they continue the balancing act of solidifying their position in international cricket while keeping dirty politics out of cricket. The country remains severely hamstrung by one of the world's most unstable economies. Cricket is not immune, and as such, many of the top players continue to pursue greener pastures. Only time will tell as to what lies in store for the Chevrons.