The ICC's decision to suspend Zimbabwe from world cricket seems unprecedented. Although, the death knells had been sounding for long as Zimbabwe cricket would plunge into a crisis, pick itself up, only to fall harder. Expectations weighed on an ageing lot of players, some of whom like Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis, had given up lucrative contracts with English Counties to return home and play for something bigger than themselves. They’d curse their lot when their efforts were undone by the lot making decisions from above.
For the Cricket World Cup this year, Zimbabwe were forced to participate in the qualifiers owing to the ICC’s decision to limit the marquee event to 10 teams. Their campaign got off to a flying start until they stumbled at the last hurdle. The realisation kicked in, like a bad omen they’d been trying to stave off, loud and clear when one of their more celebrated all-rounders Sikandar Raza collected his ‘Player of the Tournament’ award. He went on to elaborate on how the sport had failed him and his country, a sport which he felt “was meant to bring players of different nations, together.”
“Unfortunately, that won’t be happening in the World Cup,” he added as he was brought to tears for witnessing the last gasp of the sport in a nation with a rich cricket pedigree. It felt like the nail in the coffin for cricket in the country. It should have been. Zimbabwe’s cricket administration, starved off finances in a country where the economy was crutching along not knowing if it would make it past the day, had been dealt a body blow. That Zimbabwe hadn’t qualified for the World Cup meant that their Board would lose out on some significant funding reserved for the World Cup playing nations.
Their next step remained uncertain and the departure of their incumbent captain Graeme Cremer, from his country and the sport at large, suggested that a player exodus was on the cards. The Zimbabwean cricketers had known all too well what their en masse departure would mean for the sport in the country and pledged to fight it out, perhaps pinning their hopes on the 2020 T20 World Cup Qualifiers which could restore a semblance of normalcy if they qualify.
The 2019 tour of Bangladesh, eight months on from a lingering heartbreak, saw the team record its first away Test win in 17 years. That win surprised the overseers of world cricket for a team starved off regular fixtures had pulled off a dramatic upset with a fine margin of 151 runs. All of that in a format which had betrayed their common sense for Zimbabwe cricket considered the limited-overs format best suited for the fortunes of their team with limited capabilities. Instead, Test cricket became the healer for a team coming off the ignominy of a loss to the UAE in an all-important ODI clash at the qualifiers. Many celebrated it, heralding the moment as a marker of better things to come.
Those expectations came to nought. That Test win in Bangladesh will be remembered as one of the countless false dawns for the Zimbabwe team, which will perpetually remain beaten for it is caught in the cross-fire of things it has no control over. There’s the inefficient cricket administration, on a short fuse for it goes on a firing spree with one bad result coming its way. There’s the ICC, its sole source of the scant funding it receives, which has, in recent years, gone about expediently limiting its involvement in the country’s cricket affairs.
The lack of an overseer in the ICC had given free rein to those in the Zimbabwe government who may have been looking to appropriate the ICC’s funds meant for the development of cricket in the country, for their good. That made matters easier for the world body. Moved by the ostensible compulsion of keeping cricket free of corruption, the ICC has suspended Zimbabwe cricket until it gets its house in order. The script reads a lot like entrapment, giving someone the license to kill and then, out of nowhere, swooping in to punish them. The same was echoed in the statements made by Zimbabwean cricketers, Sikandar Raza and Brendan Taylor, highlighting the loss of livelihoods for those whose only motive was to deliver on the field.
Raza questioned the ICC’s decision to not send a representative who could monitor the elections for Zimbabwe’s cricket body if it was suspecting corruption in the same. Zimbabwe’s cricket body was suspended by the country’s Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) for violating its constitution and not conducting elections transparently. If the ICC had overseen those elections, a quick antidote to the problem wouldn’t have been too much to ask. Instead, the world body had allowed the problem to fester until it morphed into an excuse to suspend a full-member nation.
The nitty-gritty of the decision made by the ICC might have seemed just, only if it had done more for cricket in the country. Instead, its tacit strategy of leaving the cricket body to its own devices lays bare. It’s not something which has been done overnight though. Zimbabwe’s failing economy is also to blame. However, more at fault is the elitism which has permeated cricket’s world body and its functioning over the past decade or so.
The sport has been reduced to a clique of sorts, the proven heavyweights of world cricket playing amongst themselves, while those on the fringe suffer from the lack of fixtures. Even as the World Cup went on, Zimbabwe played, away from the media glare, away from home, against the Netherlands and Ireland, in front of half-empty stadiums, not knowing what lies ahead. If such teams have ceased to be competitive, it is partially, the doing of the ICC which has failed to prop up the domestic cricket structures in these countries. The pool of talent, like boiling water, rises to the top only to cluster at the brim and leak off the periphery of the pot. Case in point being Zimbabwe itself, where the Logan Cup, the premier domestic First-Class Cricket competition, had only four sides competing in limited fixtures in 2018. Scheduling remains erratic owing to the internal strife in the country.
There have been many instances where the Zimbabwe cricket crisis came to a head. However, little was done about it constructively then, which makes one wonder if there’s any hope left for Zimbabwe or the other 'underdogs' of the sport. Teams ogling from the fringe at the top-flight of world cricket. Will they ever gain an in? They might pull off an upset, rip off the ‘underdog’ tag for one fortuitous night and revel in the ecstasy.
In the long run, though, they will remain beaten and agonised, forced to keep to their haunches while those with the deep pockets sprint past. Many have been allured by sports for it gives one hope of an equal playing field where on any given day, an underdog can rise to the occasion, bury the stigma of being pummelled by their ‘Goliath’ in the past, to emerge the victor, pure grit being their sole weapon. All of that seems plain talk now. What rings true is the business side of things. The unfairness of it all. A bunch of cricketers and their countless fans in a country, where any good news is gold robbed of their livelihood for someone else’s depravity. Is there room for hope here?