The rise and fall of Zimbabwe cricket

The rise and fall of Zimbabwe cricket

Photo credit: AFP

On July 19, 2019, the International Cricket Council (ICC) suspended Zimbabwe Cricket because of government interference in their cricketing affairs. Funding to Zimbabwe Cricket has been frozen and they are barred from taking part in any upcoming ICC events, putting their participation in the Women's T20 World Cup Qualifier in August and the Men's T20 World Cup Qualifier in October in great jeopardy. 

The ban possibly closed one of cricket's glorious chapters, on in which a team rose through the ranks to emerge as a force to reckon with and make their mark in the map of world cricket. In an age where many other disciplines are giving the 'Gentleman's Game' stiff competition in the race for survival, the decline of a major power of yesteryear is a blow to the game, it's game, and the romantics of this sport. 

Formative years

Earlier known as Rhodesia, the country used to play in the South African domestic cricket tournament, the Currie Cup, till they gained independence on April 18, 1980, and on July 21,  1981, they became an associate member of the ICC. 

It was in the 1983 World Cup (then Prudential Cup) that Zimbabwe flirted with a grand tournament of ICC for the first time and rubbed shoulders with the heavyweights of the arena. They lost five out of six matches in that campaign but managed to defeat Australia by 13 runs to announce their arrival. 

In the 1987 World Cup though, they lost all their six group stage matches, despite running New Zealand agonisingly close and losing by three runs. They did better in the 1992 World Cup, only slightly. Zimbabwe lost seven of the eight round-robin stage matches, with their only win coming against England, which is still considered as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the game. Batting first, Zimbabwe scampered to 134, and then Eddo Brandes' spell of 4 for 21 helped them to bundle out England at 125, giving the newcomers a nine-run win against one of the traditional powerhouses of cricket. 

In July 1992, Zimbabwe Cricket was elevated to new heights as ICC granted them Test status, thus become the ninth nation to receive the honour. They experienced a horrid run in the first thirty Tests. They won just one Test, against Pakistan at home, a match where Grant Flower scored a mammoth unbeaten 201 and Heath Streak took nine wickets in two innings for 105 runs, including a six-wicket haul in Pakistan's first innings. Henry Olonga, the first black cricketer to play for Zimbabwe, made his debut in this match.

Rise to prominence

The five years, from 1997 to 2002, is widely described as the most productive phase for Zimbabwe Cricket, a phase where they finally emerged as a team ready to challenge the big boys. The team was blessed with some of the most talented cricketers of that time, with wicketkeeper-batsman Andy Flower and his brother Grant Flower, explosive all-rounders like Heath Streak and Andy Blignaut, talented batsmen like Murray Goodwin, David Houghton, spinners Paul Strang and Brandes, pacers Neil Johnson and Henry Olonga forming a squad that was destined for excellence. 

And they began to conquer new frontiers. Zimbabwe bagged a 1-0 Test series (three-match series) win against Pakistan in 1998, that too in the latter's home. In the same year, they also defeated India in a one-off Test in Harare by 61 runs. 

Their best performance came in the 1999 World Cup, where they finished at fifth in the Super Sixes. They defeated India by three runs in the group stage, and in the next match, they faced the eventual runners-up South Africa. Batting first, Zimbabwe scored 233 before reducing South Africa 48 runs adrift of the target. It was Zimbabwe's first win against their neighbours, more decorated in cricket. 

During this period, Zimbabwe defeated all Test-playing nations except Australia, clinched series victories against New Zealand both home and away in 2000–2001. The team also reached the finals of many multi-national one day tournaments.

Beginning of the end

From 2003 onwards, Zimbabwe cricket went downhill because of prevalent racial discrimination in the country and the governments' repeated attempts to control the Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU). In the 2003 World Cup that Zimbabwe and South Africa jointly hosted, Andy Flower and Olonga wore black armbands to mourn the 'death of democracy'. They were immediately expelled from the team, an incident that caused tremendous embarrassment for the host nations. 

In 2004, the then captain of Zimbabwe, Streak was sacked by the ZCU. In protest, 14 other players walked out of the team to protest against the government's increasing influence in cricket administration. In 2005, the infamous Operation Murambatsvina (Move the Rubbish) took place that disrupted not only cricket but the entire social condition of the country. It was a large-scale campaign conducted by the Zimbabwean government to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. According to United Nations estimates, this affected at least 700,000 people directly through the loss of their homes or livelihood and thus could have indirectly affected around 2.4 million people. Robert Mugabe and other government officials termed it as a crackdown against illegal housing and commercial activities, which in turn will reduce the risk of the spread of infectious disease. 

The slump continued, as the cricketers of Zimbabwe and the government were locked in a tussle where neither sides were willing to budge. In 2006, the Logan Cup, Zimbabwe's first-class competition was suspended. Zimbabwe's economic collapse and players not receiving their salaries for long periods only worsened the situation. 

The final nail in the Coffin

After an exile of six years, Zimbabwe returned to the fold of Test cricket on August 4, 2011, and it was announced by Zimbabwe Cricket that they had signed a US$1 million deal with Reebok to sponsor the domestic competitions and manufacture the kits of the national team for three years. Things went fine till 2014 when the slump began again. It started with a first-round exit in the 2014 World T20.

Success came sporadically and they won an ODI series 3-2 against Sri Lanka in the latter's home in 2017. But the cricket infrastructure of the country continued to be in a disarray, and the miserable run culminated with the failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup.

In the meantime, the intervention of the government grew and this forced the ICC to suspend Zimbabwe from international cricket. 

The swansong

"How one decision has made a team, strangers

How one decision has made so many people unemployed 

How one decision affects so many families 

How one decision has ended so many careers 

Certainly not how I wanted to say goodbye to international cricket."

Sikandar Raza's poured his heart out in the twitter after ICC announced the decision. Grief shared by every other cricket fan, and now all that is left is nostalgia, and the memories of once-dominant force in world cricket. 

The flag with seven horizontal strips and a golden bird in a red star will no longer flutter in a cricket stadium. On July 19, 2019, cricket lost its sheen, a bit.