After 36 years, one month and 10 days, Zimbabwe Cricket appears to have breathed its last. Their suspension from the ICC means more than just an on-field ban which will keep both their men’s and women’s teams out of qualification for the next T20 World Cup, their men’s team grounded from a tour to Bangladesh in September and the Future Tours Programme unfulfilled.
It means the life support of funding has been switched off. In a country with an economy in the state Zimbabwe’s is in, that could mean the end of their cricket.
We cannot consider Zimbabwean cricket without considering it in the context of the country as a whole. This is a country in crisis, where the price of bread could treble from the time it us baked to the time it is sold, where electricity blackouts now have industry operating at half its capacity, and where a crippling drought which could see more than two million people unable to access clean tap water more than once a week. That cricket is collapsing is not surprising because everything in Zimbabwe is collapsing.
Before knee-jerking to the reaction that things were better in the 1980s, when Zimbabwe was still finding its identity out of the ruins of its former name, Rhodesia, or the 1990s, when it was the so-called bread-basket of Africa with what people call the glory days of its cricket, remember that Zimbabwe, too, was colonised, and ruled by a minority. When independence was won, a country with an infrastructure designed to care for the few, had to expand to accommodate all. Very few places can cope with those demands and like South Africa next door, Zimbabwe found itself in a false democracy. The rich stayed rich or got richer and the poor stayed poor or got poorer.
Privilege remained concentrated among a small, and mostly white, elite, leading to a poverty-stricken, increasingly disgruntled and disenfranchised majority. Change had to come and it came violently. In Zimbabwe’s case, it was through lands grabs on farms and aggressive transformation in other areas. The results were hyperinflation, resentment, and now, complete collapse, from which cricket could not escape.
The 2003 black armband protest was the tip of the iceberg. There, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga made the world aware something was brewing but it was only the following year, when Heath Streak was fired as Zimbabwe’s captain and 15 other players staged a walkout in protest that the cracks became clear. Results nosedived, which was understandable. How many teams could remain competitive in the face of an entire squad of players becoming unavailable overnight? How many would deliver results as humiliating as Zimbabwe’s were?
They opted out of Test cricket to save face, and stayed away for seven years. In that time, they managed to beat Australia at the 2007 World T20 but good news was sporadic, both in cricket and in the country.
In the early 2010s, Zimbabwe underwent a brief false dawn. The introduction of the US dollar as the currency of exchange allowed for some recovery. In 2011, Zimbabwe returned to Test cricket, but it soon became clear it was something they could not sustain. On the eve of their comeback, Tatenda Taibu spoke about financial and administrative problems and as Bangladesh, Pakistan and then New Zealand visited, ZC admitted they could not afford to host much more. Still, they had a foreign coach at the helm, some of their best former players, including several from the walkout, back in the fold and there was a veneer of harmony.
For the next few years, Zimbabwe didn’t win much but they were routinely plucky contenders. Their players threatened to go on strike several times, and occasionally domestic cricket was interrupted, the coaching staff changed, there was infighting, allegations of corruption, sometimes a resolution, sometimes just more of the same but all of it was barely worthy of a few hundred words on the inside pages of the newspapers. In 2015, when Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis signed Kolpak deals, there was some consternation but in 2018, they returned to help Zimbabwe qualify for the 2019 World Cup. But they didn’t.
Perhaps it was then that Zimbabwean cricket really start to sag. ICC events provide the participation fees that fuel their operations. Missing out dented them hugely even though they exist on an ICC bail-out package which was provided last year.
The bottom line is that there is no bottom line. ZC does not have the money it needs to run the game in the country, much like many other companies in Zimbabwe. It also suffers from maladministration, much like other institutions, and its own officials have not escaped scrutiny, eventually not even from Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Committee (SRC). The SRC did not permit ZC to elect a new board because it claimed it was unconstitutional and also called for a financial audit. ZC lodged a complaint with the ICC, who viewed the SRC’s actions as government interference and suspended ZC, cutting off funding and preventing its teams from taking part in ICC events. The full extent of this sanction may only be known in the months that follow but the immediate aftermath is deep disappointment and a drain of expertise.
Taylor called the news “heartbreaking", while Solomon Mire, who is based in Australia and is passionate about designing shoes, has retired from international cricket. Kyle Jarvis, who said he is “gutted,” indicated that he is “not too far behind,” doing the same. Sikandar Raza, who has a software engineering qualification and plays in various T20 leagues, has been the most vocal player on the situation. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, he asked if players should “burn our kits and apply for jobs.” The former is just drama and the latter - welcome to the real world, Sikandar, where people apply for jobs. It’s possible, even though it may seem improbable now.
Outside support, on the other hand, is conspicuous by its absence. R Ashwin expressed some with this tweet but few others seem to have noticed. Why would they?
Extremely heart breaking news for all Zim cricketers and their fans, reading the tweets of @SRazaB24 just shows the agony of cricketers and how their life’s have been taken away from them. I pray that the lovely cricket nation returns to its glory asap! #ZimbabweCricket— Ashwin Ravichandran (@ashwinravi99) July 19, 2019
The harsh reality is that Zimbabwe may not be missed as much as the die-hards would like to think. The so-called Golden Era was only gold-plated and the numbers are there to prove it.
Between 1983 and 2005, when Streak played his last match and Zimbabwe’s aggressive transformation policy was put in place, Zimbabwe won 8 out of 83 Tests (9.6%) and 70 out of 285 ODIs (24.56%) for a total winning percentage of 21.2%. After that, they won four out of 24 Tests, (16.67%), 68 out of 241 ODIs (28.2%) and 14 out of 66 T20s (21.2%) for a winning percentage of 26%. Even taking into the extra format and the fact that their opposition has expanded to include some weaker teams, it’s much of a muchness. Zimbabwe won about their third of their games in the “good old days,” and about a quarter in the bad ones.
Against the backdrop of their socio-economic situation which lurched through political and economic crisis, that’s not a bad record but in the less fair world of results, Zimbabwe should be seen as a team who cause the occasional upset, but can’t even be labelled middling. The broader question for them should be whether they could reasonably have expected to play normal, competitive sport in an abnormal society, more so because the rate at which other teams are becoming moneyed and therefore elite is staggering.
Gone are the days when a rough-around-the-edges but talented team could routinely compete for the biggest prizes out there. These days it’s about professionalism which requires a solid financial base and we need look no further than this World Cup for a New Zealand, a country with a population of less than five million but a GDP of US$38,500 per capita reached a second successive final, and are also holders of the Rugby and Netball World Cups. Zimbabwe has more than three times that number of people but they survive on 28 times less. Their GDP per capita is a pitiful US$1380 and the ordinary Zimbabwean will tell you they would be lucky if they ever saw that much money. The only way Zimbabwe can hope to revive its cricket is through cash and for that, the country as whole needs drastic change.
Conversely, the questions for the ICC are whether they should have intervened in Zimbabwe sooner and if they are obliged to keep a member, and a Full Member at that, on financial aid for as long, or as a member-led organisation, the ICC may find that they could not have done more for Zimbabwe before ZC itself complained, and maybe now, that other members are more deserving of their money. Afghanistan are one example, in years to come, Nepal may be another.
In all that, it is difficult to see how Zimbabwe Cricket will come out of this quickly and with minimal scarring. The ICC’s next review is in October. By then, the qualifiers for the T20 World Cup would have been held and Zimbabwe would not have been part of them, more retirements could have taken place, and it will be the start of the southern hemisphere summer where there is every likelihood Zimbabwe will not have an active domestic scene. How do you revive a game from that point? And if you can’t, how do you even think of starting again?
Hopefully someone has the answers because if they don’t, this may be one of many obituaries to a team the world only realised were there when there was a surprise or a serious crisis. It’s rare for a story to finish with words that actually mean what they say but this one might for Zimbabwe Cricket. It may really be: