Jason Mennell: Zimbabwe recovers from its ‘Munich moment’

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 the team is hugely enlightening. As I mentioned in the first part of this Talking Cricket article, ‘Zimbabwe’s place deserved’, not since the West Indies in the 1950s has there been a side with such racial diversity.

And that in itself provides a powerfully-poignant indicator of the progression from what was an exclusively all-white bastion of a privileged minority. Indeed, before Henry Olonga broke rank in 1995, no black player had ever been extended an invitation to don the flannels for the Zimbabwean national side.

Fast forward 15 years, and the Zimbabwean squad consists of such a culturally-balanced mix that it defies all preconceptions of a state stricken by Robert Mugabe’s relentless quest to fuel racial tensions.

Pretending that the transition was conducted harmoniously – and without significant sacrifices being made – would be to view the eventual fruition of equality through rose-tinted glasses.

But nonetheless, regardless of the unsettling processes that ultimately led to a venerable outcome, it should be absolutely imperative that the cricketing world’s model of ethnic diversity be showcased at the game’s biggest arena – the Cricket World Cup.

Without exception, every other Test-playing nation should be humbled by Zimbabwe’s example of racial solidarity and of the Associates it is only the Canadians who can hold their heads high.

Initially it was Zimbabwe Cricket’s chief executive Ozias Bvute’s hard-nosed drive at ‘indigenisation’ that so nearly consigned the sport in the African country to the history books.

In a humiliated knee-jerk reaction to the Andy Flower and Olonga black-armband protest, Bvute formulated a misguided dossier that constituted some draconian racial policies which promptly led to the exodus of 15 white senior players and the Red Lions rebel tour of 2004. It instantaneously remedied a long-overdue colour imbalance, but the ruthless severity came at a high price.

“It could be compared to Manchester United’s plane crash at Munich in 1958,” said David Coltart, secretary of state for sport and education in Zimbabwe and founding member of the Movement for Democratic Change.

“A large majority of the team was wiped out in an instant and suddenly there was a very young core of inexperienced players thrown in at the deep end. The effects are still reverberating within the squad today and I think you could argue that although our players have a strong physical presence and great ability, mentally, they are just not up to the task.

“I feel that a lot of mental strength comes from mixing old and new and a lot of the younger players were deprived of that opportunity in the moment that all those experienced players found themselves ostracised.”

Invariably, with the team and structures considerably weakened, cricket in Zimbabwe rapidly spiralled to its lowest ebb. Having surrendered their Test status in 2006, they then went on to deliver their second-worst World Cup performance in 2007 with arguably the weakest-ever Zimbabwean squad. A single point in a tied match with Ireland was the best they could muster.

But despite the apparent capitulation, there were some inadvertent but encouraging developments emerging. It was much like a bushfire that devastates an entire woodland; a murky undergrowth was also destroyed in the flames which presented opportunity for innovations.

Recognising the potential for prosperity, Bvute started saying and doing the right things on the international stage. Even Olonga, who absolutely berates Bvute in his autobiography, Blood Sweat and Treason, has softened his stance on the chief executive’s administration in light of their recent attitude. “At last, Zimbabwe Cricket has finally come to its senses and stopped killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” he recently told me.

Indeed it has. The redevelopment of the first-class structure through a provincial franchising system is showing signs of real promise and has lured previously isolated talent back into the country. But it would never have materialised without a reported cash injection from the ICC.

And, as always when it comes to hand-outs, an ugly shade of envious green coloured some animosity within the global cricketing community. But there is nothing extraordinary about governing bodies sinking money into the development of the game and, all being well, the ICC will soon recover the fiscal outlay through television rights from Zimbabwe’s return to Test cricket.

More significantly, however, many are too quick to ignore Zimbabwe’s history and contributions to date in the World Cup. They may have always been relative minnows in the competition, like Ireland, but they too have had their giant-killing moments and they stem right the way back to Trent Bridge in 1983 where they beat Australia by 13 runs in their first-ever appearance at the World Cup.

Just nine days later, moreover, Zimbabwe were involved in another remarkable match, against India at the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells. Having chosen to bat, India were reeling at 17 for five before Kapil Dev’s astonishing innings of 175 helped India post 266 on the board. As it transpired, it was 31 runs too many for Zimbabwe, but it was a spirited performance nonetheless against a side that went on win that World Cup.

Duncan Fletcher, the man widely accredited for rejuvenating England’s flagging fortunes when he took over as coach in 1999, was Zimbabwe’s captain at the time. He has now been trusted to take charge of India’s most holy of grails.

In the 1992 World Cup, Zimbabwe managed a nine-run win against England in Australia and then in 1999 they beat both India and South Africa. Andy Flower played in both those World Cups, making significant contributions for his native Zimbabwe, and in 2002 was named Wisden’s cricketer of the year. His current tenure as the England coach needs no elaboration as the statistics do all the embellishing necessary.

Not that previous successes or contributions should grant any country automatic qualification to future tournaments, but they do provide some historical context and should temper those who too readily cast aspersions on Zimbabwe’s apparent fortune. For it is a country that has become ingrained into the fabric of the game and, as such, should not be dismissed with the utter contempt that is all too often prevalent.

And while no one can unequivocally endorse the ICC’s initial decision to exclude all the Associates without considering alternative qualifying procedures, it has to be, at the very least, conceivable that Zimbabwe deserve their place in Australia in 2015 – regardless of the resolution that eventually prevails at the ICC’s meeting in June.

The last 24 months have seen a revolution occur in Zimbabwean cricket. Although their performance in the recent World Cup did not amount to much, it was too early to be reaping the rewards of recent investments. What is certain, though, is should Zimbabwe continue on their upward spiral it seems implausible they will be a lowly 11th in the ICC ODI rankings in four years’ time.

And if the path towards a successful transformation is to remain unfettered, the rug must not be pulled from under Zimbabwe Cricket’s feet any time soon. To do so would be to rock violently the precariously-poised future of the sport in the country and undermine a lot of virtuous work.

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