COVID-19 challenge could make or break cricket in Zimbabwe


2003 World Cup Campaign aftermath and race-related issues

For avid cricket fans, Zimbabwe could be best recognized as a very competitive cricketing nation in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they boasted of names like Andy Flower, Heath Streak, Alastair Campbell, Neil Johnson and many others. However, it won’t be an understatement to say that the impact of Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s brave decision to protest against the former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe during the 2003 World Cup is still felt now.

The incident caused a lot of upheavals as several players retired and this resulted in poor performances leading to Zimbabwe’s self-exile as a cricketing nation. Off the field, Zimbabwe have always batted a lost cause as the nation has perpetually struggled with economic issues. Right from the 1999 World Cup campaign, Zimbabwe have also had to battle black-white racial issues.

Some instances of this long-standing problem have been Heath Streak and his fellow white team-mates going on a strike in 2004, the battle between Zimbabwe Cricket Chairman Givemore Makoni and Heath Streak over the selection of Mark Vermeulan over a black player Stuart Matsikenyeri, Makoni’s feud with the former Head Coach Alan Butcher and batting coach Grant Flower during the 2012 T20 World Cup due to the decision to drop Prosper Utseya and many other such stories.

Brendan Taylor’s infamous exit after the 2015 World Cup

This has been aggravated by some poor administrational work by Zimbabwe Cricket over the years. Rather infamously, cricket fans around the world felt sad during the 2015 Cricket World Cup when Brendan Taylor retired from international cricket to sign a Kolpak contract with English county Nottinghamshire.

While Kolpak contracts have been common when it comes to cricketers from Zimbabwe and more particularly South Africa, the bigger issue was the fact that Brendan Taylor and his Zimbabwe team-mates earned AUD $250 for their entire World Cup efforts. In comparison, the World Cup-winning Australian cricketers earned $5,600 per match while county cricketers earn around $95,000-190,000 per year. This indicated the ginormous gap in terms of pay for the lesser established cricketing nations as opposed to players representing wealthier boards. If this isn’t enough, the Zimbabwe cricketers have been constantly affected by pay-cuts and delayed salaries which have even extended over a whole year and beyond.

A couple years prior to the Cricket World Cup too, Zimbabwe cricket went through a major financial crisis with players threatening to strike and sit out international games. Infact, Brendan Taylor himself skipped the first Test against Pakistan due to his lack of belief in the administrators.

Even though it would be apt to say that Zimbabwean cricketers have always lived under a treacherous house, one also has to agree to the fact that the last 24 months or so have been the most testing. It all began to fall after a forgettable home World Cup Qualifying campaign.

The 2018 World Cup Qualifiers Debacle and resultant turmoil

It was March 25th, 2018. The day when Sikandar Raza managed to pour his emotions out after receiving the ‘Man of the Tournament’ award for the 50-over World Cup qualifiers. Just three days ago, Zimbabwe lost a crucial match against United Arab Emirates and saw their 2019 World Cup dream disappear. Raza openly expressed his displeasure at the decision to make the future World Cups a 10-team event and also apologized to the passionate Zimbabwe fans. This is what he had to say during that post-match presentation ceremony in front of the then ICC CEO, Dave Richardson.

Certainly not happy at all. This trophy is a painful reminder of the dreams that we had, of the 15 million dreams we crushed. When I started playing cricket, I thought it was to unite the country, players of different backgrounds, everyone who comes together to play this beautiful sport. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Raza said.

This trophy will also serve as a reminder for Peter Borren and the Dutch players, for Coetzer and his Scottish players, for Mustafa and his UAE players, and all the countries who couldn’t make it to the World Cup,” he said.

Just before the Qualifiers began, there was an unusual sense of optimism and positive energy around the Zimbabwean team. The all-rounder Sikandar Raza famously termed the squad as a ‘band of brothers’. He was also excited and happy with how Zimbabwe Cricket as a whole had become more professional under Chairman Tavengwa Mukhulani, Head Coach Heath Streak and Chief Selector Tatenda Taibu.

This optimism wasn’t misplaced because Zimbabwe began to do well on and off the field. The team won an away ODI series beating Sri Lanka by a 3-2 margin and then went onto nearly win the one-off Test in that same tour. Although Zimbabwe endured some disappointing results during the tour of South Africa later that year, the tri-series in early 2018 saw them get the better of Sri Lanka once again.

Off the field, former ICC Chief Financial Officer Faisal Hasnain took over as Managing Director to provide a lot of confidence around ZC’s administration. The duo of Heath Streak and Tatenda Taibu also managed to get two crucial players in the form of Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis into the national team fold again after they saw out their county contracts with Nottinghamshire and Lancashire respectively.

Seeing all this unfold, Zimbabwe cricket fans started to rally around the team for the World Cup qualifiers. The stands at the famous Harare Sports Club ground which used to be empty were filled with fans dancing around while the team repaid their trust by topping Group B. Apart from a tied match against Scotland, it was a flawless beginning for Zimbabwe as they beat Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Nepal. Even at the Super Sixes stage, the team started off superbly with a 107-run win against Ireland but a 4-wicket loss against the West Indies followed by the infamous failure against United Arab Emirates saw the ‘Chevrons’ miss out on the 2019 World Cup by one point.

The aftermath of that result and the campaign as a whole was stunning in a negative way. The entire coaching staff was sacked and even the skipper Graeme Cremer wasn’t spared. The hard-work off the previous 12 months or so were all gone in a flash. One could wonder why this is being brought up now. But when one looks at the bigger picture around Zimbabwe cricket’s current health, this episode garners a lot of importance. Not only did Zimbabwe miss out on representing the country at the World Cup, their cricket board also lost crucial funds that would have come in the form of participation prize. Eventually this saw Graeme Cremer leaving cricket as a whole in order to join his wife in the UAE as the Chevrons started to crumble bit by bit.

While Faisal Hasnain resigned as the Managing Director following Zimbabwe’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, the players threatened to boycott the 2018 T20I Tri-series which included Pakistan and Australia as they were not paid salary for two months and also match fees from the Sri Lankan tour that was played out 12 months ago. The likes of Brendan Taylor, Sean Williams skipped the series while Sikandar Raza went onto play the Global T20 League in Canada.

ICC’s suspension and further financial repurcussions

If these problems weren’t enough, Zimbabwe Cricket fell into further turmoil when ICC suspended the cricket board for government interference in July 2019. This was a consequence of the Sports and Recreation Commission’s decision to suspend Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC). The SRC said that the officials at ZC were subject of an investigation into fraud and the misuse of money, which also included money received from the International Cricket Council.

As an aftermath, the ICC suspended not just the full-member funding but also stopped the various cricket teams from participating in ICC competitions. This decision from the ICC was not only surprising because full-members were rarely dealt with such harsh measures (Only South Africa were suspended in 1970 due to apartheid) but also the fact that USA and Nepal were allowed to participate in ICC events even when their respective boards were suspended due to government interference.

The repeated mismanagement from Zimbabwe Cricket officials might have frustrated the ICC but the impact it had on the cricketers was clear and saddening for everyone. The likes of Kyle Jarvis and Brendan Taylor tweeted their anguish at ICC’s decision to bar the team from playing in ICC competitions while Solomon Mire decided to retire from international cricket. While Zimbabwe did tour Bangladesh and Singapore for T20I Tri-series’, they were left with no cricket for the rest of the year. It was only after the Zimbabwe Cricket Board was re-instated by the SRC that ICC overturned their ban in October 2019.

Cancellation of tours and how it could affect Zimbabwe in the short-run

In a puzzling way, the BCCI also replaced Zimbabwe with Sri Lanka for a three-match T20I series in January, 2020 even though the African nation were allowed to play bilateral cricket during the period of suspension too.

When Zimbabwe’s visit to India was cancelled, no one would have anticipated that decision from the BCCI would be the start of bad things to happen for Zimbabwe Cricket yet again as a rare year which was filled with loads of cricket was put in the dumps due to the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic. Zimbabwe were supposed to play India, Ireland, Afghanistan, Australia and the Netherlands but most of those tours have now been cancelled.

English county sides Durham and Derbyshire were also set to have an extensive pre-season camp and play a number of matches in Zimbabwe. This arrangement came as a huge breakthrough as English sides were prohibited from travelling to Zimbabwe for a long time due to the aforementioned unrest under the Robert Mugabe regime.

While the BCCI informed Zimbabwe Cricket that they wouldn’t be able to tour the country due to the pandemic, Cricket Australia weirdly released a home season schedule which had Zimbabwe penciled in for a three-match ODI series only for Head Coach Justin Langer to come out and say that his team might tour England during the same time-frame. Visits from India, in particular, are the most profitable for all cricketing nations as the money received from television rights grows multifold while a rare tour to Australia would also helped the Zimbabwe cricketers get some game-time after a long gap.

It has to be accepted that Zimbabwe cricket haven’t helped themselves with mismanagement for several years but these sort of twisted statements and opportunistic jumps from the wealthier cricket boards doesn’t give out a good signal to the developing cricket nations even after taking into account that teams will try to prioritize money-making tours in the current situation. This void in Zimbabwe’s cricket calendar comes at a time when the players have had to take pay-cuts from their already meagre salaries. Even before Covid-19 brought cricket to a halt, Zimbabwe were struggling financially with a few Logan Cup matches being disrupted in January.

A ray of hope for Zimbabwean Cricket

The only positive news for Zimbabwe during this period of doom and gloom is the fact that the cricket board cleared off a long-standing $27 million debt which also included the $3 million loan taken from ICC ($1 million is still yet to be cleared to local creditors). The situation was pretty grave and hence Zimbabwe Cricket would be a bit relieved now.

“All the member countries on the ICC board gave us a chance. In 2015 Zimbabwe was destined to lose its Full Membership and its Test status mainly because of our financial status. We did not meet the membership criteria for the ICC. We are grateful to all the members who sit on the board who gave us a chance. They gave us conditions which we met, we proved to be able to work with a certain budget and here we are, we have fulfilled what we needed to do,” said Zimbabwe Cricket Chairman Tavengwa Mukuhlani.

Although it was more of Zimbabwe Cricket taking advantage of paying USD debts in local currency, one cannot deny the positive impact that it can have on the field if everything goes well. The cricket board would have much more money to spend on the players and also for conducting bilateral series instead of tending towards the huge debt.

While cricket might not be attracting a lot of revenue streams locally especially due to a brittle national economic state, Zimbabwe Cricket should still try their best to find stable sponsors within Zimbabwe. This would help the sport while the major revenue from ICC plays the most crucial role. Zimbabwe Cricket currently get $94 million annually.

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If Zimbabwe start paying the players well, it could very well help in curbing early retirements especially with the route of Kolpak contracts not being an option anymore (Due to Brexit). Zimbabwe might have lost out on several talented cricketers like Gary Ballance, Curran brothers, Colin de Grandhomme but this can be avoided from now on. Recently, a Zimbabwe-born prodigy Tawanda Muyeye, who was named as a reserve for the 2018 U-19 World Cup squad, won the prestigious ‘Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year’ award reflecting that Zimbabweans around the world can succeed. Unfortunately, Muyeye could represent Sussex pretty soon with the eventual aim of representing the English national team but Zimbabwe have enough home-grown talent to nurture.

While the likes of Brendan Taylor, Craig Ervine and Sean Williams might not continue for many years from now, Zimbabwe seem to have a pretty good talent pool to form a stable senior team. Apart from players like Ryan Burl, Ryan Murray, Tinashe Kamunhukamwe who are already there, youngsters like Wesley Madhevere, Milton Shumba, Blessing Muzarabani, Brandon Mavuta provide hope for the long-term success of Zimbabwe.

The Rising Stars Academy team which was founded by Tatenda Taibu produced the aforementioned players like Muzarabani, Mavuta, Kamunhukamwe, Burl, Shumba, Murray apart from others like Tarisai Musakanda, Richard Ngarava and also Somerset’s Eddie Byrom. Unfortunately, due to the financial difficulties experienced during 2018, the team had to be shut down. Zimbabwe Cricket would do well to revive that team since extra funds will be available now.

Although this seems to give a spin-off to Zimbabwean cricket, the real status can only be judged in a couple of years or so. Unfortunately, even under positive scenarios, it becomes necessary to take everything with a pinch of salt given Zimbabwe’s administrational notoriety over the past two decades.

In the meantime, Zimbabwe and other financially dependent nations will be hoping for competitions like the ODI League to go ahead so that they can look forward to some cricket against the top teams. Coronavirus seems to be a massive challenge for the developing cricket nations but Zimbabwe Cricket have faced far tougher ones in the past. That is the only way the likes of ZC Chairman Tavengwa Mukhulani and Director of Cricket Hamilton Masakadza can choose to approach if a Kenya-like scenario has to be avoided.