Jason Mennell: Zimbabwe’s place deserved

It has become fashionable, seemingly obligatory even, to castigate the powerful worldwide governing bodies which oversee the administrative functions of their respective sports. The ICC found itself in the firing line, for instance, as it endured a tirade of criticism following the announcement that the Associates would be excluded from the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

At the very forefront of the most popular strand of dissent was the argument that the promising green shoots of Irish cricket had been steamrollered by the unsympathetic might of the ICC board members. In light of the rebellion, Sharad Pawar, the board’s president, has responded by announcing that he will be urging his colleagues to review their decision in their annual conference scheduled for June in what is, no doubt, a bid to ease the burden of condemnation.

Indeed, the Irish had otherwise been cast out into the abyss without so much of a sideways acknowledgement of an enormously spirited showing on cricket’s grandest stage. Many felt they had been left to flounder unceremoniously on the peripherals of the cricketing fraternity having been deprived of the most fundamental of underpinnings in sporting competition: the right to compete based on performance alone.

Zimbabwe, by stark contrast, had appeared to have been granted a golden ticket to the antipodes in four years’ time. To dismiss the notion that there are political agendas at play would be naïve. After all, Zimbabwe’s performance was hapless and uninspired. Despite convincingly beating the two weakest sides in the tournament, they were positively ordinary against the big guns and lacked any of the giant-killing instincts of the Irish.

But like it or not sport is, by its very nature, inherently political and the ICC as a governing body is invariably a political machine. And if a political component panders to everyone’s demands without ever causing controversy then it is, quite frankly, a toothless organisation that cannot be doing its job. Because it is the role of such bodies to take charge and make the decisions that will inevitably be deeply unpopular with some of the factions that it oversees.

Not that this should absolve any argument for a fair and level playing field. Or prevent the powers that be from being held to account. On the face of it, a gross injustice seemed to have been inflicted upon the Irish as the ICC appeared to have meted out all-available places for the next World Cup. But, as is so often the case, the smokescreen of media hysteria surrounding topical issues can engulf all reasonable objectivity as people find themselves jumping onto the bandwagon that sweeps them along with the tide of popular consensus; in this instance, baying for the blood of the administrators. And the frustrations are palpable. But there needs to be a little bit of context if one is to make sense of the current furore.

For a start, the plethora of disparaging grumblings about Zimbabwe’s good fortune is unnecessarily cruel. It is not Zimbabwe that decided that Ireland should be excluded. It was the ICC. And while it is understandable that their initial decision – which may stand yet – would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many, it was not entirely unjustified. You see, Mr Pawar and his colleagues have rightly adjudged that the recent Cricket World Cup was simply too drawn out and there were too many mismatches. On those points, there is general agreement. And although this can be remedied in ways other than simply excluding the Associate nations, such as the alternative reforms that may now be re-considered, the ICC’s primary decision was not all bad.

Confining the competition to the Test-playing nations, although ruthless, is a straightforward, simple and practical solution. Ireland is not a Test-playing nation and by their own admission feel they are not ready to become one. As Trent Johnson, veteran member of the Irish squad, is reported to have said: “We are not quite ready to play Test cricket and there are a number of structures that need to be set up before we can progress to that level.”

Zimbabwe, however, will presently regain their Test status having voluntarily relinquished it in 2006. Whether or not they are really qualified to re-join the ranks of the Test-playing elite is questionable and if nothing else, a little premature. But that is what Zimbabwe Cricket wants and that is what the ICC wants. Therefore, that Zimbabwe would have to step aside for an Associate team in the next World Cup would be to make a mockery of their Test status and the system generally.

Hardly surprising, then, that neither governing body would be keen for such a farcical development to occur. Because, although the move to eradicate Ireland’s opportunity in favour of ensuring Zimbabwe will be present had been treated with such disdain, to have done otherwise would have been hypocritical. And being hypocritical and undermining your own structures is a sure fire way of turning the gun on yourself and inviting the trigger to be pulled.

At a more practical level, though, Zimbabwe has a much bigger following within the cricketing fraternity, has a greater depth of interest and breadth of players. It has also recently established a new, improved first-class structure. And although still a little rudimentary, these structures are beginning to show enviable signs of promise having lured previously-ostracised players into coaching and administrative roles.

As David Coltart – senator, founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change and secretary of state for sport and education in Zimbabwe – recently explained to me: “What you have got to understand is that although there is very little money at our disposal for sport in this country, our cricketing infrastructure is minimal compared to those in the western world and, consequently, so are our expenses.

“We also have an enormous wealth of untapped talent in Zimbabwe and the scope for an unprecedented level of development is unequivocal. The current Zimbabwean team is comprised of players who have come from a mere three or four schools in the country. If we can facilitate the development of the game in just a few more schools, something which we have already embarked on, we could effectively be doubling the pool of talent overnight. But more significantly, a broader grassroots programme has been earmarked, and just imagine the opportunities that will create.”

Although Coltart is a politician – and consequently not immune to painting over the cracks with a glossy brush – to question his integrity is unfathomable and his comments certainly provide some indication of the possibilities that the future holds. And with a population of just four and a half million, it may be the case that cricket in Ireland has just peaked – or is very close to fulfilling its potential at least.

Furthermore, and all too easily forgotten, is that cricket in Zimbabwe has made tremendous strides since 2006, which given the political strife and turmoil faced by the beleaguered nation is nothing short of a miracle. C.L.R James persuasively illustrated in Beyond a Boundary that the style of cricket played by a team often reflects the mood of the country. Zimbabwe has been no exception to this notion in recent years. It has suffered some heavy loses and the metaphorical blood spilt on the pitch draws parallels with the actual bloodshed on the streets.

Yet casting one’s eyes over the current composition of team is hugely enlightening. Not since the West Indies in the 1950s, has there been a team with such racial diversity.

*Part Two of Jason Mennell’s look at his native Zimbabwe’s case for a place at world cricket’s top table will form his next column in Talking Cricket.

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2 Responses to Jason Mennell: Zimbabwe’s place deserved

  1. Jonah says:

    A few points to pick on here.

    1) For Zimbabwe a test playing nation get priority at a 50 over world cup, does not makes sense, tests are no indication of ODI strength, Zimbabwe are ranked 11 in ODI’s Ireland are 10th in the ICC’s own official rankings and have done for most of the last 4 years!

    2) no Money for sports in Zimbabwe? Where then is all the money paid to Zimbabwe cricket by the ICC going?

    3) The 2 biggest defeats and most one sided matches in the last world cup were played between 2 test playing nations, yet I am not suggesting that Bangladesh should be denied a place at the next world cup based on that. Conversly records for the highest run chase in world cup history, the 3rd highest run chase in world cup history, the fastest century in world cup history and the youngest player to score a world cup century were all set by associates and their players in the last world cup.

    4) Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were all promoted to the test playing ‘elite’ based in a large part on their showings at past world cups, why then should other associates be denied their chance to shine?

    5) Zimbabwe are no more ready to resume tests than Ireland are to play them but cynically to do so will guarantee Zimbabwe more opportunities to play stronger nations in ODI series between now and the yet to be decided qualification process for the 2019 cwc gaining yet more of an unfair advantage over the leading associates who have to beg for quality opposition to play them.

    6) Lets face it nobody, myself included, is saying Ireland, Afghanistan, Holland or any other associate should be handed a gilt edged ticket to compete in the next world cup, just the right to be allowed to try and qualify to get there!

  2. Tommy says:

    An interesting piece. You say that Zimbabwe has a greater following within the cricketing fraternity than the associate nations, which is absolutely true. But surely the only way nations like Ireland and Netherlands can progress to that level, is if they’re given the platform to develop their game on the biggest stage?