Zimbabwe: Once a rising star, now pariahs of international cricket

How Zimbabwe, the one-time rising stars of the cricket world, became its pariahs

In this football season, with tournaments such as the Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario dominating the headlines, watching the India-Zimbabwe ODI series can be boring. Its result was quite a predictable one for every cricket fan in India and across the world. Indeed, it turned out to be a one-sided affair as Zimbabwe’s batting collapses and lacklustre bowling ensured India won the series while losing only three wickets in as many matches. As an Indian fan, I am happy at my team’s performance. However, I feel sad for the sorry state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

The 'Chevrons' — the nickname bestowed upon the team — have not always been a weak, underperforming and uncompetitive unit as they are at present. The team has seen far better days – of occasional glory and individual brilliance. At the dawn of the 21st century, Zimbabwe boasted of the likes of Flower brothers, Heath Streak and Alistair Campbell. It was a fighting unit, capable of defeating worthy opponents on its day.

My earliest memories of watching international cricket involve the Flower brothers — Andy and his younger brother Grant. I was eight-years old when I watched the visiting Zimbabwean team play India. Back then, my knowledge of cricket was limited but I loved the elder Flower’s consistent run making. It is no secret that he had a special liking for the Indian bowling line-up, scoring over 1,000 runs in both Tests and ODIs.

Heath Streak Zimbabwe 1999 World Cup AFP listicle

Heath Streak led one of the most promising Zimbabwean sides of all time. However that is a distant memory now. AFP

Another Zimbabwean cricketer I remember well is former skipper Heath Streak who was a fine bowling all-rounder. He may not have been in the same ranks as Imran Khan, Kapil Dev or Ian Botham, yet he led his team from the front, making it a fighting unit, if not a world-conquering one. Zimbabwe usually had a fine run against Asian sides. Notably, the team’s first Test match victory – in which Grant Flower scored his only double century — as well as away series win, both came against the formidable Pakistan side.

Zimbabwe was particularly successful in ODIs, where quite often players other than the Flower brothers contributed for the team’s victory. From the mid-90s until the 2003 World Cup which was jointly hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, it defeated every Test-playing nation barring Australia. The shock defeat of the Proteas at the 1999 World Cup — courtesy an all-round performance by Neil Johnson — can be compared to David triumphing over Goliath.

Just compare the early days of another minnow — now a potent team — Bangladesh with that of Zimbabwe, and the latter seems a far better team. Also the fact that Bangladesh won its first Test against a weakened Zimbabwe team speaks for itself.

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 has been the leader of Zimbabwe 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”.

However, instead of helping them, the cricketing situation only worsened. Andy Flower and another team mate Henry Olonga, who is also the first native to represent Zimbabwe, protested against the politicisation of cricket and were booted out of the country. Heath Streak was forced to resign from captaincy after he refused to listen to the political masters and induct black players in his team. Several even left the country for good.

With political interference and reduced funding for the game, the quality of cricket only deteriorated post-2003. There came a time when the Zimbabwean team had to abandon Test cricket for a long time.

Brendan Taylor Zimbabwe India 2015 World Cup AFP listicle

The likes of Brendon Taylor gave Zimbabwean cricket a glimmer of hope, but that's where it ended. AFP

During this period, no doubt some spark of talents was seen. Tatenda Taibu, Brendan Taylor, Charles Coventry and Elton Chigumbura were some of the best players who represented Zimbabwe in the era of racial turmoil.

Unfortunately, global condemnation and boycott of the Mugabe regime crippled their cricketing careers. Taibu, once a promising wicketkeeper-batsman, is now a Christian preacher. He retired at a relatively tender age of 29. Out of the four names mentioned above, only Chigumbura continues to be the mainstay of the team.

The last of the prominent ones to have left in search of greener pastures was Brendan Taylor. He now plays as an overseas player in the English county circuit. Remarkably, he bowed out of international cricket after enjoying a brilliant 2015 World Cup, where he scored a ton in his farewell match. This leaves us with Coventry. After his then world-record innings of 194 not out, he disappeared completely from the international scene.

Zimbabwean cricket is still in limbo. The board is in shambles with very little revenue. Salary payment is a major issue that once threatened to derail a Pakistan-Zimbabwe series. A 2013 Indian Express report stated that the Board had no money to pay for player’s meals. Can anything get worse than this?

India Zimbabwe 2016 2nd ODI AFP listicle

From beating India in the 1999 World Cup, to losing embarrassingly to them in 2016, Zimbabwean cricket's fall has been steep. AFP

That India sent a second-rung team and still managed to beat the host comprehensively, highlights the precarious situation the team is in. The lack of support system within the board has made even a champion player like Makhaya Ntini to threaten suicide. Isn’t this sad? As for fans, they are obviously frustrated over the team’s string of poor performances.

If only Mugabe had not existed, we could have seen Andy Flower breaking many more records, on route becoming a “great” player and not just a “good” player. Alas! A politician’s greed for power destroyed his promising career, along with many others’.

Recently, I was travelling in a cab with a friend. While we were discussing about the first India-Zimbabwe match, the driver interrupted us and said something which I found was quite relevant, “Sahab, jab bhi khel mey yeh rajneta aa jaate hai, tabhi samjho ki woh game barbad ho gayi” (Sir, once politicians enter sports, its often goes on a decline) . Sadly, this is exactly what has happened to Zimbabwean cricket.

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