It was November 2001 when Zimbabwe last won a Test match away from home before their victory over Bangladesh in Sylhet this week. That 2001 team included the likes of Andy Flower, Grant Flower, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga. That was the middle of the 'golden era' of Zimbabwean cricket. It was a side that did not just compete but regularly won matches in both Tests and ODIs. A lot has changed since then.
The black armband protest against the Robert Mugabe government from Flower and Olonga during the 2003 World Cup was perhaps the moment the world became truly aware that things were not all sunshine and roses for the country’s cricket team. It ended both the cricketers' international careers, with neither man appearing for Zimbabwe after that tournament.
From there, things went further downhill. Financial issues, allegations of political interference and players leaving their homeland for more stability playing county cricket, all contributed to on-field struggles.
Streak was fired as captain in 2004 when he confronted the authorities with a list of the players’ grievances. Several others followed their captain out the door. Zimbabwe stepped away from Test cricket for six months with it being clear there was no hope of them competing.
When they did return to the international fold things were pretty ugly. They toured South Africa in early 2005 and lost the three ODIs by 165 runs, 131 runs and five wickets. They lost both Tests by an innings, the first inside two days. Zimbabwe were bowled out for 54 in the first innings before South Africa raced to 340/3 off 50 overs before they declared. The whole game lasted 156.4 overs.
A further withdrawal from Test cricket from late 2005 to 2011 gave few, who were paying close attention, not even little hope that things would improve, but when they did play a Test after that lengthy gap they actually beat Bangladesh in the one-off match in Harare. Eight consecutive defeats followed before another unlikely win against Pakistan in September 2013. A solitary draw against the West Indies in November 2017 has been the closest Zimbabwe have got to a positive result since then. Until Sylhet.
Combined with the failure in Tests, there is also the huge disappointment of Zimbabwe missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1983, a setback that still haunts this team. After the win in Sylhet, Sikandar Raza told ESPNCricinfo that it isn’t far from his thoughts.
“The nightmares of not qualifying for the World Cup are still fresh in our memories, and also in our fans. A bit of the pain probably will go away. But all of it won't go away. I know that I will be playing with that pain for the rest of my career.
"The magnitude of what we lost and how well we were playing, that pain will always be there for me. But I was picked for this tour along with other senior cricketers so that we can help Zimbabwe win more games. The pain will definitely fade away as we win more matches at home and away.”
With the World Cup gone and these two matches against Bangladesh the only Tests Zimbabwe will play in 2018, there is little cricket to look forward to, but that will make this win all the sweeter.
It is a win that has been a while in the making and hasn’t come out of nowhere. They played well in the World Cup qualifier that took place in March, winning four of their group games and securing a tie against Scotland. They beat eventual qualifiers Afghanistan and pushed the other team to make it through to the World Cup, Windies, before losing by four wickets. The 138 Brendon Taylor made in that match against the Windies was good enough to win any match. If other results, and some umpiring decisions, had gone in a different direction they would have been heading to play cricket in England for the first time in 14 years.
Those players that walked away from the national team have started to return. Brendan Taylor left Nottinghamshire to return to the fold, Kyle Jarvis left Lancashire, Raza returned after a spell on the sidelines. As ever, any team that can get their best players on the park are more likely to win matches.
This is a well-rounded team with a decent amount of bench strength. There are some strong top-order batsmen, some attacking middle-order options, some decent seam bowlers and serviceable spinners. While you can’t see Zimbabwe starting to take the world by storm — it is unlikely that they are going to start claiming really big scalps — if they can keep this group together in an atmosphere that has some stability things can improve.
The 21st century history of Zimbabwean cricket means this seems unlikely, but results like the win against Bangladesh are a welcome boost to cricket fans from the country. Here's hoping.
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